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When I was younger, my mother attended ESL classes every Wednesday evening at our local church. When she came home, it was straight to the dining table to complete her given assignments. It would not be uncommon for her to take hours just finishing one activity, often erasing answers only to re-write them minutes later. Unlike my mother, I was very impatient. It came from my Korean roots, the “Bbali-bbali” pace of life which championed quantity over quality in the household. Even so, she remained patient and took time to understand every problem. I offered to do assignments for her so she could move on, not wasting any more time on something I saw as insignificant; however, my mother refused my help, telling me that “learning something for others” was “not a substitute for self-learning.” As she forced herself to repeat this long process every week, I slowly began to learn that being content with just “finishing the task” was not enough, and that true commitment to learning meant that quality, not quantity, was important.
Shopping for groceries every week with my mother was a test all in its own. She was forced to use all she knew of the English language; her thick accent and mispronunciations made conversations with employees a linguistic mess, but eventually she would get across what groceries she needed. I felt waves of embarrassment come over me with every trip, but the constant smiles she would have as she talked with workers each week told me she felt otherwise; it was an uncomfortable and new way of learning English, but she was happy to have others catch her mistakes. Rather than seeing errors as setbacks, she saw them as opportunities to expand her understanding of the language. I began to see that the embarrassment I felt was unfounded. I was only worried about failure, not looking past to see the potential learning opportunities these failures opened up for me, as they did for my mother.
All of this frustration came to its culmination this year. As I began the last year of high school, my mother sent me an unexpected text message. She wrote, “You going to graduation this year, and I very proud to seeing you become adult now.” It was imperfect, but this was the first time my mother had ever been able to communicate how she truly felt to me in English. The language which had once kept us emotionally distant now helped wash away all of the frustrations and misunderstandings we once held. This became the latest lesson I learned: nothing worth learning is ever learned without hardships, but a hard lesson brings with it rewards that last a lifetime.
Through the past fourteen years, my mother’s persistence in forcing herself to learn the English language has put my own learning efforts to shame. I realize now that if I had simply had told her what to do or what to say, she would have not harbored the excitement that she experiences as she learns the language on her own today. Because of her, I could have never imagined myself wanting to take on new challenges on my own, no matter how easy or how arduous they may be, as I now know I have the ability to turn my own efforts into progress. Much as my mother found a reason to keep improving her English, challenges or no challenges, I hope to find a reason to maintain the same enthusiasm with every challenge I face, today and in the future.
Fourteen years ago, I knew this land by its Korean name, Miguk. Today, I call this land America, and name it my home in both languages.
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