Word fatigue. I didn’t know I had it until I got slammed. It was May 2021 and I was on social media, reading posts that were strewn with words, acronyms, phrases: BIPOC, intersectionality, AAPI, immigrant experience, racial justice, representation, et cetera. I just couldn’t deal with them anymore. My eyes were glazing over them and I was becoming more and more wary of the way these words were being used.
These words brought to our attention the people and issues that have been long ignored. They were so critical to the conversations that were happening around me. But their power—their meaning—began to feel lost on me. The words were starting to fail.
The first language I learned to speak was Korean. I grew up in a neighborhood of Seoul where crime was often highlighted in the evening news. The adults around me seemed to think that the neighborhood was somewhat unsafe, but I never felt that way. I loved to explore the edges of the town on my own, much to the chagrin of the neighborhood mothers who alerted my parents of where I was last seen.
I absorbed Korean as I roamed the streets. I read books that were somewhat beyond my comprehension, wrote words that weren’t always spelled right, and watched historical TV dramas with my father late at night, well past my bedtime. Even if I didn’t understand every sentence or word, I felt free.
That soon changed. The spring of 2000, my family moved to Bangkok because my father was forced to take up a job at his company’s outposts. There, I was suddenly thrust into English. I had to become proficient in English before the entrance interviews for English-speaking schools. My mother, who used to be an English teacher, put me on an eight-hours-a-day studying schedule (even on weekends) to memorize as much vocabulary and grammar before the summer was over. I was confined by two entities: my apartment's walls and the oddly horizontal (and sparsely written) words of a new language.
The next few years, I consumed English in fear of falling behind and being labeled a “poor student.” Language became a means to an end, not something I could play with, but a tool I had to learn and correctly apply. I used words to receive acceptance and approval from teachers; they were not playthings anymore.
Even when I became fluent and was diving into literature, I still had that fear of being misunderstood and judged. The more sophisticated my English became, the more I started to regard words as signals to show my intelligence. Words weren’t there to express thoughts that were new and personal to me, but to show others that I could keep up with critical theories and nuanced literary analysis.
But I still believed in language. I thought that this shortcoming was mine; if I worked harder to master English, maybe I could write as elegantly, as powerfully as others. Plus, I loved that in this world of instability, I could experience empowerment, beauty, and transcendence through my use of language. Words opened up the world when global recessions and coups threatened to shut it down.
I began college in Minnesota, intent on studying English Literature. This was my chance to become the writer I had always wanted to be. However the more I tried to hone the English my American peers had seemingly mastered, the more I felt my own words—hard fought and hard learned—slipping away.
That semester, quite serendipitously, I stumbled across a physical theater workshop led by guest artist Dario Tangelson. I was totally hooked. Theater gave me a space to be free and showed me that I didn’t need any words to express what is most truthful about the world and myself. This workshop led to another lead by Bob Rosen, the founder of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, who changed the way I approached art and work. Right when I was feeling that words were failing me, physical theater showed me how to communicate emotions, thoughts, and conditions that words couldn’t.
Completely transformed by these workshops, I relocated to Humboldt County to train at Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre where, for the next three years, I worked with an ensemble of 12 to create and explore the realms where words couldn’t go. In that wild, rural landscape of California, I rediscovered the playfulness of expression, something that had come naturally to me when I was roaming the streets of Seoul.
In the intensive training I came to a realization. I had thought that if I worked hard and relentlessly expanded my limits in expression (using words and the body), I would achieve that. Instead, I realized that sometimes letting things rest and incubate in the wilderness of nature and wild parts of my inner realm was the key. Constantly goading myself into improvement worked for a while, but when it came to going beyond what had been done, I needed to change.
All forms of communication, physical or textual, have limits. They are mere tools that allow us to speak to one another. At Dell’Arte, I realized that if I didn’t take the time to intentionally craft what I say and how I move, I would always feel limited. Words only had meaning because we gave them it. I realized that I had the power to give words meaning.
Recently I revisited my past applications for fellowships, residencies, and artistic statements in which I used words like BIPOC, immigrant, and representation much more frequently. Re-reading these statements, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was trying to say. The phrases sounded like something I heard somewhere and copy pasted into my writing, hoping to express thoughts that were important and timely. But to be entirely truthful, they sounded just that—empty in meaning, hollow echoes of the zeitgeist.
I wasn’t pretending to advocate for something I didn’t believe in, or attempting to sound more political than I actually was. I used those words because they were convenient. They were shorthand expressions to communicate immensely complicated issues. At the end of the day, they were just signals to show other people that I could keep up. I used them to receive acceptance and approval from my peers and application panels. They were convenient, quick, and efficient. Ultimately, though, they were incapable of capturing exactly what I wanted to talk about.
For example, one word that I used to use is “immigrant.” I used to use “immigrant” and “immigrant experience” when I talked about who I was because some of my experiences were like those of other immigrants, and I wanted to be in community with others who felt like they had to adapt to survive. In fact, when the word “immigrant” started to become heavily politicized, I saw how much power it had. I thought if I used this word to talk about my experiences, I could harness that power as well.
But the truth is, I don’t see myself as an immigrant. I didn’t come to the US with the intention of leaving my “home country” (whatever that means) and becoming a citizen. In my life, migration has been a natural part of my experience, and I didn’t see the US as a final destination.
I had to remind myself that I am not an ESL student anymore. There are no teachers with red pencils marking me right and wrong. I thought to myself, instead of looking for the most efficient expression, what if I took the time to come up with what feels the most truthful to me? What if I took the time to craft language that I needed to speak about my experience?
I am still on that journey of finding the right language for myself. I think it will be a life-long one because I am constantly changing, and the society I live in and the language it uses also change. This essay is another step in my quest to articulate the personal, the intimate, and the political.
For right now, here are the words that I am toying around with. I am “transnational Korean” because my Korean-ness is not bound by the borders that define countries, and I can be Korean in contexts that are not usually associated with being Korean. There is a certain twinge of pretentiousness about the word “transnational,” which I don’t love, but I think its unusualness helps to bring out my somewhat unusual identity.
I am also an (im)migrant. I am a migrant who is open to the possibility of making (multiple) homes in different parts of the world, while still being Korean and while still being transnational. Things may happen in my life that require me to move, to make a home somewhere else. And with the word “(im)migrant,” I can be open to that possibility.
And there are words that I toyed around with but eventually stopped using. One was “expat.” I came to Thailand as an expat (or child of expats), but as our circumstances changed, I realized it became more and more alien to me. Another was “foreigner,” which I use when I travel to places I have not lived but have stopped using when I’m in the US or Thailand. Interestingly, some people in Korea think that I am a foreigner, which is a story for another time.
Even with words like “transnational Korean” and “(im)migrant,” I can’t quite sum up all the things I know to be true about myself. The reality is, I need more than a few words to talk about myself. Actually, I need more than just words. And telling my story won’t be quick, easy, and efficient.
I think it’s important to approach language as art. When we start to parrot words back and forth to each other, they lose their potency. If we take the time to really craft what we mean, and not hide behind words that seem powerful and political, maybe we can really speak with one another.
The recent proliferation of words like BIPOC, representation, and racial justice—in theater, politics, and corporate worlds—made me wonder who uses these words, and why. Who is actually trying to push for change? Who is just using these words to avoid some kind of social backlash? Who is reluctantly employing these words due to social pressure or an inability to find a clearer way to communicate? What are we actually trying to communicate with these words?
This past May, a year after George Floyd’s murder, Forbes reported that despite talking the talk and pledging 50 billion dollars toward racial equity, American companies have only spent 250 million dollars, according to a study by Creative Investment Research. That is just 0.5 percent of the original pledge.
We all remember the heartfelt statements that corporations, nonprofits, arts organizations, and theaters released in the summer of 2020. They knew what words to use and what to say. But that doesn’t mean that they stand by them. It was convenient, quick, and easy for the business entities to repeat the words. But the change we all need isn’t convenient for them. And no matter how much we want it to be quick and easy, it’s not looking like it will be.
Perhaps we need to give each other time to craft what we want to say, how we want to say it, and to not write each other off when we don’t use the words we already know. Let’s give ourselves the time and space to say what we really mean.