Anyone who has spent a fraction of time living and making their home overseas knows what it’s like – the overwhelming, exhausting, inadequacy of language. The learning it, the using it, the not knowing enough of it. And that’s why I love this post by Shannon Malia Heil. Because she takes us to a different place and asks an important question: Can I Speak Love in English? You can read more about Shannon at the end of the post.
The elevator door opens, and an elderly halmeoni (grandmother) brightens up to see me entering with my three small children. “Aigo!” she sings. “Ippeuda!” And I ready myself for the deluge of words that flood over me like drowning waters. Of course, they come, and I struggle to breathe.
My children look up at her wrinkled face and smile. They listen to her dote on them, let her touch their faces, respond to her invitation for hugs. They listen to her question me eagerly, and they see my blank stare and hear the nervous words that tumble out, surely with a laughable accent. “Mollayo. Shil-lae-hamnida.”
I don’t understand. Excuse me.
The elevator door opens–my escape. And we blow kisses to halmeoni as Mommy hustles the crew out and into the busy city of Seoul.
“What did she say, Mommy?” Such innocence. My preschoolers still think their mom knows everything.
In truth, my cheeks are flushed with shame. How can I live here and not speak the language? What must the locals think of this foreigner who chooses their city but not their tongue? What do people back home think of me when I shake my head to their comments: “Oh can you speak Korean?”
Then I stop walking as a thought emerges. My children stand at my feet and look up at my face, waiting.
I worry about what people think, but all I need to remember is being faithful with what God has given me. And a tug on my hand reminds me of those gifts.
You see, when we arrived in Seoul, I carried one crawling infant and one growing inside me. Two pain-encouraged births later, I found myself overwhelmed with mothering three at home in a foreign country. Despite the efforts of tutoring and personal study, I could not grasp more of the language than its basics needed for grocery shopping and trivial conversation. It wasn’t just time; I needed sanity. It’s hard to learn a new language when you can barely finish a sentence in your own.
So I had to let it go. Unlike other overseas workers who must speak in the native tongue to socialize or to function in society, almost everyone with whom we interact speaks English. Our service here is primarily to the international community.
But the guilt clung to my shoulders, slumping them. You can’t speak Korean! it hissed at me, as if that was the test I needed to pass before being deemed cross-cultural or even Christian. You can’t love Koreans if you can’t speak to them! Wait a second. Is that true?
Didn’t my children love that woman in the elevator?
Doesn’t the man at the chun-won store smile every time he sees my family, even passing on the street?
Don’t the cooks at our favorite kimbap place speak with me in a hilarious blend of English and Korean–all of us laughing and apologizing and bowing and…loving?
Can’t I speak love in English?
“Mommy, let’s go!” my four-year-old urges, with a hand tug to emphasize each word. I look down at him and my heart fills. It fills with emotion–with love, with appreciation, with grace–it fills with beautiful things that words cannot contain.
And I feel okay with it all. Maybe my weak motives for learning Korean would have resulted in a prideful heart. Maybe I would have seen myself as the ultimate missionary or the model expat. Maybe God gave me this season of love without words to see–really see–this country, these people, and especially the little ones holding my hands and strapped to my back. Maybe it was by His grace that I was kept from the language.
In His season, I will learn it. But for now, I will speak love in English:
but most of all . . . with humility.
Have you allowed your own insecurities to come between you and the people you should love?
How has God merged you into the culture in which you live–and reflecting on that, how was that His best for your acclimation?
Malia lives in Seoul but her home is with her husband and three children–traveling to and from places and in and out of books. Blending the cultures of her life, she dances hula, eats pancit, says “yalla,” and bows her thanks. She writes more about family, faith, and culture on her blog At Home Abroad.