birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

The Language Barrier

When my grandmother was dying, I wrote her a letter. We had never had a conversation, or exchanged more than a few words, which was all she knew in English. I knew only a few words of Korean -- mostly things like my mother's exhortations to "hurry up" and come "this way." But in many memories of my childhood I'm surrounded by the Korean language, flowing between my mother and her friends or our visiting relatives, incomprehensible and yet familiar. Occasionally I'd hear my name surface, and pale faces would turn towards me like so many moons.

By the time I got to college, there were only two things I knew I wanted to do. I wanted to become a writer, and I wanted to learn Korean.

I wasn't a great student of the language -- I was also trying out for the ice hockey team and making new friends all across campus -- but I managed to do all right, even if my writing looked like the work of a demented first grader. Although I lagged far behind my fellow students who had two Korean parents instead of one, I found that I had a certain affinity for the language. The alphabet and grammar were new to me, but beneath that, there was still the old familiarity.

I was charmed by the story of King Sejong, who invented the Korean alphabet in the 15th century. An intelligent person could learn this alphabet in an afternoon, he reputedly said, and even a stupid one could learn it in several days.

And yet Chinese characters are still used generously in Korean writing, so we learned these as well. Once I went to an office-hours session for extra tutoring in Chinese characters. I remember the teaching assistant, a Korean native, explaining the characters used to name America.

"Mee-guk means beautiful country," she said to me, smiling widely. "That is America! I really think so. Beautiful country."

I abandoned my Korean studies after my first semester, having barely squeezed out a B-minus. It was just too much for my freshman year, I thought. But towards the end of that year, my grandmother, at home in Seoul, slipped and broke her hip. She went to the hospital, and grew worse.

I had hoped to one day have a conversation with my grandmother, for us to be able to speak to and understand each other. Now, I hoped at least to reach her with a letter. I postponed it and fretted over it for a week or so before laboriously scratching out a few lines and taking them to the post office.

By the time my letter reached her, it was too late. My grandmother had weakened quickly. My mother later told me that someone had brought her a folk-medicine cure of a live baby bird, but when it was put into her mouth, the bird simply hopped out of her slack jaws.

My uncle-in-law read my letter, my few words that I had hoped would be the first of many, to my grandmother in her hospital bed, but it was unclear whether she was able to hear or understand it. This time, there was more than just language keeping us apart.


Letters, Past and Future