Found in Translation

We trusted in music too much. We would not have it any other way.

By Erin Kang


My mom and I do not primarily speak the same language, so we used what we could to forge something of our own. Naturally, we turned to music to create a form of communication that surpassed international barriers and crossed generational chasms. Bite-sized playlists to pass the time during long commutes, simple exchanges of our favorite tunes from our favorite bands, bursts of nostalgic joy triggered by melodies of the past—all it would take was a song to neutralize our many differences.

This is our story: mother and daughter, products of two entirely different cultures and generations, simultaneously brought together and distanced by the forces of colonization, finding a joint identity in music, which we wholeheartedly believed to be the most evocative, accessible form of time traveling.

My mom was a 60s child born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. As the country’s economy was rapidly industrializing in a post-war era, the possibilities of Western hopes and dreams seeped into its cultural landscape. My mom, just like her motherland, was young and wide-eyed and developed a keen sense of her own spunk as she discovered popular records for the first time. She would use up her meager allowances to buy tapes at her local record shop and spend hours listening to the same four albums on repeat, ranging from Western hits like Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and ABBA’s “Greatest Hits” to prominent Korean pop and folk albums of her time. Back then, she was merely a girl, one who lost herself in rolling daydreams fueled by the decade’s popular anthems that would come to define the only girlhood she’ll ever know.

Contrary to my mom’s upbringing, I grew up in the shadows of false dreams and futile identities. My rage, born from my inability to communicate with my mom, looked for solace amid the humdrum routines of sleepy suburban Virginia. I was full of angst as a teenager and found comfort in the alternative music scene. Constantly, I looked for songs that coded the language I wanted to express to my immigrant family, validated my longing to feel seen and heard, and affirmed my (self-proclaimed) anti-heroic tendencies. My internalized anger eventually turned into resentment toward my mom, who could not understand my predisposition toward self-actualization.

It became clear later down the road that my mom and I struggled to find a middle ground. She couldn’t speak fluent English. I only spoke elementary-level Korean at best. She expressed herself through packaged lunches and vague text messages that danced around the shapes and sounds of three-letter words. I only ever sought words of affirmation. Was she ever aware of the consequences of birthing a child who would come to know of different borders and tongues? That this was the language her children would one day inherit, one that would scorn and set her apart because she could not say words the “American” way?

Years ago, I discovered a box of my mom’s dusty collection of old cassette tapes and CDs. I remember taking some and listening to them on my own, while others I would play in our morning car rides to school. Some days, I would visit the secondhand shop to hunt for my personal favorites and store them in the same box of her keepsakes. From time to time, she would even pick out some of mine for when she wanted something new to listen to. Overtime, her collection became ours, featuring a mix of artists and bands that represented various chapters of our lives. We had The Beatles, The Fugees, and Electric Light Orchestra to take her back to simpler times and soothe her anxieties about motherhood in a foreign country. We had Radiohead, Death Cab, and Lorde to remember when and why I fell in love with music. We had Light and Salt, The Black Skirts, and COOL to remember who we were and where we came from. We trusted in music too much. We would not have it any other way.

Perhaps music became the avenue in which we found the will to persevere rather than grieve past and impending versions of ourselves that might never see the light. Whenever I watched my mom’s inner child light up while listening to her favorite songs, I’d remember what she gave up so that I might know a future that I could claim as my own. The best that I can do now is give it back to her so that we may bridge the gap between past and present, the motherland and promised land, mother and daughter.

Most importantly, music became our love language. There were always lyrics to fill silent rooms and melodies to color absences in time. One day, I hope to share what’s on my heart without the boost of courage music so often gives me. But for now, this is how we’ll do it. We’ll play a song, lock hands, and find gratitude in what no longer has to lose itself in translation.