When I was younger, I used to feel shame at being able to speak multiple languages. Even though I have no noticeable accent, I knew it was a mark of being “other”. Speaking Mandarin was for translating tense phone calls to the utility company, or for ordering food at restaurants with no pictures in the menu. Speaking Mandarin was for being responsible, a little adult, someone my parents can rely on.
In English, I can be so many different things. I can be eloquent, a voracious reader and writer with an ever-growing vocabulary. I can be funny, quick to pick up on wordplay or “whatever the kids are saying these days”. I can be myself, in all the ways my limited Mandarin can never catch up.
But recently, I’ve begun to realize that English cannot encompass all of me, either.
The youngest-ever winner of the CBC Poetry Prize and former resident of Abbotsford, Kyo Lee, said to CBC Books, “I am a different person in each language, or at least that’s how I often feel.”
Her winning poem is a navigation of love, the disconnect between her culture’s understanding of it and her own understanding of it. With allusions to the ongoing impacts of war and colonialism, the poem describes the ways love in the Korean language differs from the love she knows personally as a queer Korean-Canadian.
Some things are forever lost in translation. That’s not the tragedy—it’s the thought that our experiences are limited by the languages we speak.
LA-based singer-songwriter Lowhi also expressed similar sentiments. In a panel discussion about the potential market of Chinese-language music in North America at Jade Music Fest, he mentioned that his personality is perceived differently depending on the language he is speaking. In Mandarin, he jokes, he sounds more polite. “I think as artists, our greatest insecurities become our greatest strength,” Lowhi said.
Depending on the situation, people of colour often do this thing called “code-switching.” An example is when we speak to colleagues in the office—formally, using proper grammar, versus how we speak with friends—casually, using slang and a mixture of languages. It is a method of fitting in, by adjusting parts of our identity without sacrificing anything. Some might even say it is a method of survival.
In an interview with Margaret Gallagher on CBC’s North by Northwest, Kyo Lee said that winning the prize makes her “hopeful that linguistic acts of defiance are being recognized.” Through poetry, the eleventh grader is building her own understanding of the world. She is writing a present and a future that has space for healing, and for being free to love.
Language shapes the way we perceive our lives and our relationships. It’s not a stretch that it also shapes our personalities. I wonder, then, if by being bilingual, do we see the world twice as differently?
In the Asian culture I was brought up in, love is not something often spoken out loud. Queerness, even less so. There is a difference between existing terminology and the lived experience. Having the vocabulary to describe yourself and your idea of happiness is easy enough. Having to sit down for a conversation with your parents about generational trauma and inherited homophobia? Not as much.
Kyo Lee’s identity as a queer poet might be in conflict with the way love is expressed or learned in the Korean language. Reconciling with yourself in all the languages you speak can be a difficult task. It’s unraveling the status quo and putting yourself in the first person. I think, perhaps, part of the difficulty is knowing that this language existed before you. Your parents, your ancestors, and generations of strangers speak it better than you do. When half your mind is worrying about conjugating the right verbs or figuring out the right level of honorifics to use in this particular conversation, it’s no wonder you sound unlike yourself, trying to speak it.
But you try to speak it, anyway. Because it’s a part of you.
Kyo Lee said her poem “is ultimately about growing out of these broken definitions of love and redefining it beyond language or history, into a personal one.”
And I think that’s the beauty of being bilingual. The ability to piece together new sentences, new meanings, and new definitions. We’ve learned how to speak love in a specific way, sometimes even shapeshifting to fit into the right syllables and vowels. Beyond the constraints of the language and culture that raised us, there is always room for love.
Kyo Lee is a queer, Korean-Canadian high-school student, writer, and dreamer. She is the youngest-ever recipient of the CBC Poetry Prize. You can read her winning poem lotus flower blooming into breasts here.