At first, the idea terrified me. But my apprehension convinced me that this would be a good test both of who I was and what I could do. Giving up English would deconstruct not only an integral part of my identity, but also the way in which I daily build it up. And isn’t this deconstruction at the heart of Lent, at the end of which Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the opportunity to begin again?
And so the 40 days began. In lieu of podcasts like The Daily, I would wake up and listen to 10-minute newsreels from Brazil, where I’d spent a gap year after high school. As the frigid New Jersey winter slowly turned to spring, I would listen to stories about Carnaval and vaccination rates in São Paulo. In the evenings, I would make my way through Spanish-language Netflix shows or scour news websites in Korean.
One morning, I wrote in my journal about a dream I’d had about a close friend who I had fallen out with. I forced myself to describe our dream-dialogue in a language he didn’t speak. “This language was never ours,” I wrote, in Portuguese, “but I will try to express what I saw and felt anyway.” Although writing in a language foreign to our relationship impersonalized the hurt, it also doubled the frustration I felt: first at having lost the friendship, and again at being unable to write about it in the cathartically expressive way I needed.
Through processes like these, I was reminded of how English — or rather, the ease with which I could inhabit it and feel as if I didn’t need anything else — was intricately linked to my relationships with my family and my faith. Throughout my childhood, I followed my parents to a Korean Catholic church in Hong Kong, where my inability to fully understand the priest’s Korean-language sermons made it difficult for my faith to grow. To this day, all the prayers I have memorized are in Korean, but reciting them brings less spiritual comfort than it does a familiar ease, in the way a lullaby might.
Outside of church, I faced a similar roadblock when I wanted to have deeper, more honest conversations with my parents. Plagued by the belief that there was a language barrier between us, I would refrain from sharing certain things: like the literature I was reading, what these books taught me about myself, or reflections I had about my changing relationship to religion. How could I explain, in a language I associated with their parenting and my childhood, that my nascent adult identity demanded a different kind of prayer — one that, instead of asking for simple forgiveness, broached topics of misplaced intimacies, difficult decisions and a desire to grow apart from my parents so I could become a person of my own?