To the crazed k-pop and k-drama fans
who throw random Korean words into their sentences
just because they think it’s cute
Don’t you dare preach to me
about how much you love my culture
After hours of watching videos on Youtube
people I’ve seldom spoken to
distort my face into the crisp cover
of a bilingual pocket dictionary
Imagine their disappointment
when they realize that all of the pages
have been torn out
they will settle for Google Translate
whose vending machine dispensation and availability
will quench the questions jingling in their diaphragms
오빠 너무 사랑해
They swallow 한국말 fervently
sucking context out of meaning
like sucking flavor out of gum
just maybe, their breath
will lure Korean men and women to their lips
the best alternatives
for idols they’ll never meet
But our language
is not a commodity for your convenience
In college Korean
I have stumbled through forests of letters and sounds
struggling to harvest the familiarity
in my teachers’ voices
week by week
I feel the ripped rice bag trickle
of past lessons leaking out from my memory
day and night
I till the ancestral fields
plotted along the banks of my bloodstream
praying that I’ll cultivate fluency for a language
that must lie somewhere within me
is a jammed sewing machine
I have tried to fix since childhood
When I was young, my parents
fed Korean sentences into my ears like spools of thread
waiting for my lips to stich up the gaps between America
and their homeland
but everything I wanted to say
tangled and puckered amidst a language I could not
still, I cannot string together enough words
to embroider 한국인across my heart
I have spent years convincing myself of my heritage
because in America, people ask why I can’t speak my native tongue
in Korea, passerbys make quips they’re certain
will go misunderstood
I am too other to be American
but not other enough to call my skin my own
Our language is not just words
Our language is a carrier of culture
tying our birth names back to the soil of our people
It is resistance to Japanese occupation
when they tried to erase Korean identity
It is helplessly crying on homework at 2am
and forgetting the spelling of your name
the only piece of your heritage you could carry
It is knowing that your family’s history may be forever buried
if you don’t learn to speak with your relatives in time
So to the fuckers who insist that they’re just appreciating my culture
Stop treating our language
like merchandise from your favorite tv show
Being able to read English subtitles
does not make our language yours to keep
If you earnestly care about our culture
tie up the loose ends in your understanding
and trim the fragmented scraps from your tongue
by taking the time to learn our language properly.
Stephanie Yun’s Youth Poet Laureate Speech
A poet mentor of mine once said that stories were the common currency of human interaction. This is a truth that I have always held close, and one which has especially resonated with me during my time as the Oakland (CA) Youth Poet Laureate. There is no doubt in my mind that poetry is essential to our survival because we are each a collection of our experiences; but as writers, we bear a unique responsibility. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, our words carry weight beyond ourselves. As writers, we represent the voices of many, and in the act of speaking, we wield the power to bring about change.
For one thing, I firmly believe that art is what sustains us. Art builds community, forming the quickest connection between people. We celebrate through art; we mourn through art; we discover ourselves through art; and we heal ourselves through art. Art is an escape and the freedom to express ourselves. Quite frankly, I believe we would be brought to ruin without it.
In particular, I have witnessed the power of poetry to create spaces for critical dialogue. In a world filled with joy and sorrow, poetry has served as a bridge between people by bringing relevance and life into sometimes abstract conceptions. Poetry and personal accounts place things into context, transforming previously inaccessible ideas into tangible faces and people. Time and time again, I have found no quicker or more effective way to reach people, and it is amazing how much can be conveyed through the page or through words.
So to every young writer out there, I encourage you to never stop writing. We cannot trust the media or others to portray us as we truly are, and your voices are more necessary now than ever. No one else can tell your stories. I cannot stress enough how important each and every one of you are. Intention and impact are not strictly aligned; no matter what, your words are something someone needs to hear. If you have touched even one person through your words, you have made all the difference in this world. For all you know, you could have brightened someone’s day, or even saved someone’s life.
Think of who you are and where you come from. Think of what has made you into the person you have become, and the communities you represent. Your presence alone gives people strength and hope. In my time as laureate, I have experienced many things, but that which has really stayed with me are my interactions with the people of Oakland. Their words of love, appreciation, and encouragement are what constantly remind me of the importance of this work. However, this is not something that is exclusively associated with a title; this is what comes with the sharing of your words.
What the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Program gives to our youth is the opportunity to further develop their writing and leadership skills. It is evident that the potential is already in us; we just need to harness it. I have personally grown so much through this program and thank Oakland Public Library, Youth Speaks and their community partners for this experience. My best wishes to all the finalists and Oakland’s new laureate.
– Stephanie Yun, 2012 Oakland Youth Poet
Stephanie Yun, 18, is Oakland’s first-ever Youth Poet Laureate (2012). A lifelong Oakland resident currently enrolled at UC Berkeley, Stephanie has contributed to some of the most significant youth poetry stages in the country. Stephanie is a poet’s poet — the kind that writes out of necessity, the one that writes to live, and more fully. California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera calls her “a breakthrough poet” and we believe him, because we believe in her.
Initiated by Oakland Public Library and Youth Speaks, the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program is an unprecedented citywide effort to celebrate literacy through poetry and connect young writers to far-reaching opportunities. Culminating with an annual poetry competition, the winning poet earns a $5,000 educational scholarship and embarks on a year of opportunities as an ambassador for literacy, arts and youth expression.
Check out Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate Facebook page here!