The Language of Family by Hemmy So

The Language of Family | Hemmy So

Her opening line is Korean 101: Oraenmanieyo! Miri checks Papago anyway on the bus ride to her cousin’s apartment, making sure the language hasn’t evolved in the past thirty minutes. 

Twenty-five years to bridge with nouns, verbs, markers, endings, and an occasional idiom. Two years spent online with other language learners, saturating herself with grammar and vocabulary, resenting her old-fashioned instructor’s rebukes about late homework, flickering with shame at barely getting by in her Advanced Grammar class, ego buoyed only by the existence of Bradley, a white American thirty-something trying to survive in Seoul. He truly had no talent for languages. 

Miri has fantasized about this reunion since deciding to spend her elusive vacation time in Korea. No more baby words and pantomime. Does her cousin want polite form? Understood. Shall they speak casually? Easy. Whatever the manner, Miri will catch Yaewon up on all that she’s accomplished since her cousin piggy-backed her down a muddy mountainside during monsoon season so many years ago, hauling her debilitated teenaged body to the timeworn, two-room hospital in the Korean countryside. Recent late nights overflowed with vocabulary lists – marketing career, international technology company, husband, software engineer, son and daughter, elementary school, five bedrooms. Yaewon’s firecracker laugh already pops in Miri’s ears, an explosion of surprise that her once semi-mute cousin can now lob comebacks to her big-sister-like teasing.

When Miri exits the bus, Yaewon waves at her from the street corner with wild arms. Layers of ghostly foundation and tattooed eyebrows cannot hide her rapid aging. Yaewon’s voice still booms, and she jokes that Miri still looks the same. They link arms, just like they had during Miri’s last visit twenty-five years ago. 

Fluorescent lights irradiate her cousin’s apartment with an institutional glow, exposing puckering wallpaper seams and grimy caulk. Even with new construction, Koreans can’t seem to get the lighting right. Miri considers how some things in Korea never change. But not Yaewon’s son. Chubby second grader transformed into a mousy man wearing rimless glasses, he greets Miri and pulls a chair for her at the dining table. The earthy scent of Solomon’s Seal tea wafts from a chipped, bubble-round teapot. 

After a couple of beats of awkwardness, during which Miri silently browbeats herself for forgetting the word for “international” despite having practiced her lines last night, Yaewon leaves the table and begins washing dishes. Her son gently reproaches her, but Yaewon shakes her head and scrubs.

While rinsing a stainless-steel bowl, Yaewon recites impressive facts about Miri learned from her uncle. Miri feels deflated, Yaewon usurping her rehearsed lines. She realizes, however, that before reclaiming her heritage language, none of this could have happened, and this epiphany steels her resilience. Yaewon bounces to a new topic, namely that her son dreams of working at a major company like Miri. He nods peevishly, clasping and unclasping his hands. The dishes are almost done. 

I like the salary and benefits, but the hours are long, Miri says. Confirmed, the workplace chapter in her language textbook had been worth her close attention. 

Yaewon nods, drying her hands on a dingy T-shirt reincarnated as a kitchen rag. 

Life here is still hard, she says. Everything is expensive, so you need a good job. Only students from the best schools get good jobs. 

America is the same, Miri says. But you’ve made it, Yaewon says. She gazes too long at her cousin, her breath heavy and wanting. 

Foreboding fogs Miri’s brain so she can’t enjoy the compliment, one she never tires of hearing. She yearns to rediscover her favorite long-lost cousin, but an irritating chorus of cartoon figures from Sejong Korean Conversation I has infiltrated her temporal lobe, chanting the most basic of lines. Hello, I am Miri Park. I am from America. 

Yaewon’s son – did she even catch his name? – stares at her from under hooded eyelids. Miri’s carefully chosen blouse sticks to her armpits. Nothing is going to plan.

We want to be successful like you, Yaewon continues. We’ve got a great business idea. Do you want to hear it?

A listening comprehension exercise she’d rather refuse. But this is the woman who helped save her life. Yaewon launches her pitch. Dogs? Or did she say loans? Renting something or paying three people. Above something. No, sounded more like lonely. Homonyms destroy her. Extra syllables crowd her. Miri wishes she had taken Business Korean. Yaewon thrusts her forklift arms to emphasize a brilliant point. Miri blinks.

My smart cousin who made it in America, share your success with your family, Yaewon says. Lend us money to start our business. Remember how I helped you? Now you can help me. 

Miri’s mouth is dry. Her cousin’s son pours more hot water into her teacup. A deluge of Korean words floods her brain, but she cannot string them into meaningful sentences. Not since she was a child does Miri feel so embarrassed to speak the language that connects her to what she thought was a missing piece of herself. 

Yaewon sits across from Miri and grabs her hand. 

You’ll do this for me, right? 

She squeezes Miri’s palm.

You’ve frightened her, the son says. 

Mother and son bicker, the intonation of their speech undulating with intimacy. But the words have lost their meaning, and Miri hears only the knitting of vowels and consonants, sounds that cause her to ache.

The Language of Family by Hemmy So was selected as the runner-up of the 2023 HoneyBee Prize in Fiction by Roxane Gay. Here’s what Ms. Gay had to say about the piece:

In The Language of Family, the title does interesting work in setting the stage for a woman who is visiting family in Korea after twenty-five years. She has taken language lessons so she can better communicate with the people of whom she is a part only to find that though she knows the language her family speaks, they are using another language entirely to communicate with her. The heart of this story lies in the conflict between these two languages that cannot bridge the distances of time and yearning.

More about the author:

Hemmy So is a Korean American fiction writer from Houston, Texas. Her debut short story appeared this spring in Redivider, and she reads prose for Chestnut Review. In her former lives, she worked as a news reporter and tech and sports attorney. She lives in Alameda, California with her husband, two young sons, and an affectionate terrier. She’s working on her debut novel.