Back to “mi-guk”

Some reflections:

-National identities are often strongly tied to physical characteristics, especially for countries with homogeneous populations
-there is a social/cultural code for each society, and if you look like you belong, you are expected to follow the code/norms.

an interesting discovery:
I found myself speaking in Spanish with a lot of the Korean youth because it just seemed silly for both of us to try to converse in a language (i.e. Korean) in which we’re both not fluent in. At least in Spanish, one of us is comfortable. (At first though, some people were kind enough to try to speak to me in Korean because they knew that I was not fluent in Spanish– but to be honest, it’s kind of the same for me. For more sophisticated constructions/thoughts, I can express myself better in Spanish because the words are very similar to those in English. But I can express simple thoughts and recount actions/stories and use colloquial language more effectively in Korean. That is, I’m not very good in both languages.) So we would speak in Spanish together, and they would usually ask me the same set of questions, more or less. Where are you from? what are you doing here? what do you study? where in BsAs are you staying, etc. This became so repetitive that I sort of had a memorized set of lines to rabble off in a decent argentine accent whenever thus questioned. But during the interrogation process, one thing I consistently noticed was this:
although we spoke in Spanish together, whenever referring to the EEUU (the US), they always seemed to say “mi-guk” (Korean for “the US”) instead of “los Estados Unidos.”
Now, this may seem like nothing– it could just be that they were slipping into “Konish” (= Korean + Spanish– in English speaking countries, we say “Konglish” = Korean + English), or I suppose “coreañol,” in Spanish– a very common practice among 1.5 and 2nd geners because it’s just easier sometimes to mix the two languages up– especially if you’re not able to effectively articulate yourself in either language, like me with Spanish and Korean.
I daresay it means something more.
Here is my hypothesis:

I few days back, I mentioned a German writer who talked about the association of languages with specific parts of one’s life. That is, languages not only serve to communicate, they hold a memory, a history, a consciousness. For the Sephardic author, Romanian and Spanish were his childhood language– he associates it with playing and growing up in Rutschuk, a tiny village that was once part of the Ottoman empire. German, however, was the secret language that his parents used to communicate to each other, since no one else understood it. It later became his academic language, and so on. Similarly, Korean, for a lot of 1.5 and 2nd geners, is the private and personal language. It is the language of their home, of their religious org (often times), and depending on the strength of their relation to the Korean community, it is also their social language. On the other hand, Spanish is usually their academic, social, and I guess, public language.

To be sure, the divisions aren’t that clear and neat, but these are more or less generalizations. But to get to the point– the significance of using the Korean word for the US (mi-guk) instead of the Spanish word (los Estados Unidos) implies a passed down memory from their parents. It, I think, implies an immigrant and a Korean mentality that is evident in their use of language. A different sort of relation or reference. Their conception of the US reflects their parents’ conception (as immigrants and Koreans) of the US. That is, their generation of Koreans, like the rest of the world, used to behold life in the US as a dream, a goal. And granted that their are a lot of people today who dislike the US (to put it mildly), this idea of the US still exists in the community’s consciousness and is present in their children’s use of the word “mi-guk” instead of “los Estados Unidos,” which I find is a more politically-packed term. When I think of “los EEUU,” I associate it with criticism, controversy, politics, power, etc. Instead, the word “mi-guk,” in the minds of that generation of Korean immigrants, says a lot more about living standards, better education, more opportunities, well-paying jobs, etc.

The Korean immigrant community also have a different relation/conception of the US than Argentines do. It also shows how powerful memories and perceptions are, and how they are even passed down through/evident in language.

So there’s my two cents on the use of the word “mi-guk.”

Here’s an interesting essay by James Baldwin on how language identifies a speaker and holds the consciousness/memory of a people.

I still have lots of photos to edit and upload onto the blog and will later try to get them published, if at all possible. It seems so strange to be back in the States, and I still find myself thanking people or excusing myself in Spanish… :)


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