It’s been a long time since I could actually carry on a clear, fluent conversation in Arabic. That said, I recently watched a video with a woman speaking beautiful, Egyptian Arabic, and my heart ached. It felt so familiar and yet my understanding of what she was saying was minimal, one word in 10, maybe, and tears came to my eyes at the loss. I wonder if that’s what it’s like for my mom to listen to young Koreans speaking today – recognizing her mother tongue while feeling the loss of the language.
When I was growing up, my mom had friends who watched Korean soaps – this was before they were all the rage they are today – this was back when the tapes were VHS and were often rented from the Korean store. My mom never watched them, something that I never questioned. Not that my mom was opposed to soap operas – she watched a whole slew of American soaps. In fact, my mom had it down to to science. She recorded (yes, onto VHS tapes) soap operas from different channels on a regular basis. I mean to say, every day she recorded soaps, but some days she recorded different soaps on different channels. She would record several hours a day. And then watch them after work.
That she could do so never surprised me, because my mom was always such a dynamo, she always could do more in less time than anyone else I knew. It took a while before I understood the trick – maybe even until I was almost out of the house.
I haven’t written too much about my mom here, and the reasons are complicated, but for now I’ll say her soap opera habits were a mystery to me when I was younger mostly because I didn’t really spend too much time around my mom when she was watching them. There was a point at which I recall three TVs being on in the house at once, with one person in front of each TV, pretty much any time the three of us were home. This was back in the day, you understand, before everyone had a TV in their bedroom (or in the palm of their hand). I don’t remember thinking at the time that was sad, just that that’s how we were living.
Anyway, at some point (I think maybe when my dad was away for work) I started to hang around my mom in the evening more, and got to watch the soaps with her. Here’s what she did: she started the tape, she’d let it roll a minute or two, then fast forward to some scene, she’d watch one scene, then fast forward again, watch another two people hashing it out, then skip forward some more, back to the first two people, then to one of the second two people talking to another person, then back to the first person, then on to the next show. Essentially in an hour’s worth of programming, she’d watch 10 minute of the show. All the while, she’d be explaining to me who was with who’s son’s girlfriend’s friend, and why this woman was upset with this man and how this person’s sister slept with her husband. It was amazing. And the next day, all different shows, but played all the same way. I remember being impressed that she could keep all the stories straight.
Fast forward many years. (You know why we calling fast forwarding, right?) After my sister introduced my mother to Roku and streaming media, my mom caught the Korean soap bug. She quickly watched everything available and I hooked her up with a pay service that had some more options. She watches enough streaming TV these days that she sometimes goes over her allotted gigabytes. I’m not even kidding.
Over the years, we have talked about “new” Korean words that she has heard from other Koreans, newer immigrants. It’s not surprising that new Korean (as a living language, it’s obviously always changing and adapting to the world) is filled with words she doesn’t understand. But when we were talking Friday night, she was talking about the closed captioning on one of her new DVDs (bought so she can watch the show over and over without using too many “bytes”). “I like it,” she said, “because this way, I can teach myself Korean.”
Her words struck a chord in me. Arabic, of course, is not my native tongue. And yet I felt the loss sharply when I saw that video. I think of the videos my mom is watching these days, and hope that the pleasure outweighs whatever other feelings they might bring.