If there has been one phrase that’s stuck with me throughout the pandemic, it’s this: America is full of cultural orphans. I never could place the proper label on myself as the daughter of an Iranian immigrant, a daughter incapable of replicating the basic vowels and sounds of her mother tongue. As many of my friends and I, all children of immigrants have discussed, is this disconnect, this feeling of abandonment, from the culture we lost.
My senior year of high school, right after graduating, I was given an extreme privilege and a once in a lifetime opportunity: the State Department of the United States gave me a fully funded scholarship (it’s called NSLI-Y, for anyone looking into similar opportunities) to live in South Korea for two months and learn Korean. No strings attached, nothing—just learn as much Korean as I could. On that program, I was one of the students from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds, and I never had the opportunity to go to another country like this until, well, someone else literally paid for it. But this program changed my life in a very valuable and specific way: I discovered a different form of empathy, one where I could build a home, rather than be given one.
I had studied Mandarin Chinese for six years before fatefully arriving in Korea. My host family would make fun of me, saying I spoke Korean with a Chinese accent. Once, at Gyeongbokgung Palace in the heart of Seoul, two male Chinese tourists asked for photos with my friend and I. They weren’t aware of the fact I spoke Mandarin, and began making compliments to each other about my friend and me. Smiling at them, I said “xie xie ni men (谢谢你们)” and the look of horror that flashed across their faces will forever amuse me.
Throughout this language-learning journey, so many new friends and experiences have been made. I met twenty Indian and Pakistani friends in windy Iowa, who educated me about the world of South Asia, and now I cram Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali in between my college classes. I signed up for Turkish classes and now laugh with my classmates as our teacher chugs chai and randomly pulls up pictures of döner kabob at 4 AM in the morning. I will never forget Korea, magical hikes up to Namsan Tower to watch the sunset and city lights, the spirit of Seoul, glimmer with the stars.
By choosing to learn a language, you manifest a unique form of energy into your life. Some of the kindest, most genuine people I never would have met without, say, applying to a random writing program in Iowa with Indian and Pakistani writers. Once, I felt lost. I was a Persian girl who didn’t seem Persian enough for her community. But because I have had the experiences I had, I feel more at peace with the world and felt clearer about who I am destined to be. You also truly and literally open up a whole new world, whether it’s fashion, film, literature, or spirituality.
So go–download that language app. You don’t know where it may take you!
Some Language Resources:
- LingoDeer – Very useful for East Asian languages, but they have several other options as well. This literally saved my life before going to Korea, it built a basic phrasebook to survive.
- Viki – This is an Asian drama site, but they offer learning mode for subtitles!
- Yunus Emre Institute – They offer free Turkish courses every season, as well as free online events about Turkish culture and history.
- Talk to Me in Korean — An excellent Korean resource, they also sell accompanying workbooks.
- italki — You can find a tutor within your budget for many different languages.
- Memrise — This is extremely good for building up vocabulary; this is one of my go-to resources as they have many, many different language sets.
- Hindipod101 — You can learn Hindi with short little lessons with visuals!