An engaging, literary take on language and its role in the diaspora of a scattered family, The Magical Language of Others speaks from—and to—the heart.
When E.J. Koh is 14, her father lands a lucrative three-year contract with a Korean company in Seoul. Her mother goes with him to Korea, leaving Koh and her older brother essentially on their own in California. Their mother writes letters in Korean, her native language, dotted with attempts at English. Koh has yet to learn Korean and cannot write back. She can only blur and stain the indecipherable text with her tears.
The distance between mother and daughter grows. Visits to and from her parents are sparse and awkward. Her father, who seems to know only how to work hard, keeps renewing his company contract until, seven years later, he accepts that his American daughter can have no future in Korea, and he and Koh’s mother return.
By then, Koh has learned her father’s native language, Japanese, while studying at a school in Japan, a country that once despised the Korean people. She learns about her grandmother’s traumatic years in Japan during World War II, adding another layer to her understanding of language and her complex family history.
Throughout this slim memoir, fraught with differences in culture, custom and, most of all, language, runs a thread of familial love and pain, a back-and-forth that, given Koh’s eloquence, needs no translation. It will take her years to translate her mother’s letters and decide if she was abandoned or if, as she tells a fellow resident at a New Hampshire artist colony, “my parents set me free. They gave me my freedom.”