“The Magical Language of Others” by EJ Koh


Eun Ji Koh was a typical Californian teenager before her immigrant parents surprised Koh and her brother with some startling news. Her father had been offered a far more lucrative job back in Seoul than he could ever expect to be offered in the US. It isn’t uncommon for immigrants to return to their countries of birth for better employment opportunities, but in this case Koh and her brother would be staying behind.

In her new memoir, The Magical Language of Others, Koh shows the damage that ensues when leaving one’s children during their teenage years for no reason but selfishness.

At first, Koh’s brother felt that he could care for his sister. Koh, aged fourteen when her father received this job offer, was too young to know any better. And her parents viewed this opportunity not as missed years with their children, but as making up for lost time away from their country of birth. It was not something they could easily pass up.


Should my parents move to Seoul, they would be sensible parents, well paid, confident with tall backs from splendored living. My father, a top-tier executive. My mother, reunited with brothers and sister she had left behind seventeen years ago. Two luxury cars, a condo in a skyscraper, shopping sprees at the company-owned department store, new friends like themselves, could be theirs.


When her parents left for Seoul, Koh also left the family’s Bay Area family home for Davis, California, where her brother was attending university. From the age of 15, Koh became parentless and it gravely affected her teenage and early adult years. She skipped school and spent days in a park, only to return to school as the final bell rang and her brother picked her up. They return home and Koh slept for twelve hours. Eating disorders and thoughts of suicide followed.

Koh talked to her mother on the phone regularly. But after being back in Seoul for nineteen months, Koh’s mother started to write to her daughter on a weekly basis, mostly in Korean. Koh saved forty-nine of these letters, some of which are reproduced in the pages of The Magical Language of Others. Her mother’s letters show a narcissism that discounts their separation.


Today, your Auntie’s visiting from Daejeon. She’s buying a coat and wants Mommy to go with her. Her birthday passed, end of November, so she said her sons gave her money. She’s probably riding the bus to Seoul now. Mommy will go along with her to pick something out, then make her buy me delicious food. Must be nice, right? I know. Mommy has it so good. For the 1 year and 5 months I have left, I’ve got to have fun with my big sister.


But mother and daughter were not reunited in a little more than a year. Koh’s parents ended up staying away for a total of nine years as Koh’s father accepted one extended contract after another. Time away from their children was always framed as sacrifices for the family and the chance to spend more time with relatives in Korea. But Koh and her brother viewed it for what it was: abandonment.


 The Magical Language of Others, E J Koh (Tin House Books, January 2012)
The Magical Language of Others, E J Koh (Tin House Books, January 2012)

Koh’s prose is elegant and beautiful. Forgiveness becomes a major theme of the memoir; it’s through Koh’s undergraduate and graduate studies in poetry, creative writing, and translation that she learned more about the realms of forgiveness. And it was poetry that in the end saved her life, allowing her to speak about her mother, memories and loss.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her parents’ apparent prioritizing Asian opportunities over their posterity, Koh has chosen a particularly public American way—writing a book—to come to terms with her parents’ choices during her teenage years. Her parents may never understand her dedication to poetry, but towards the end of The Magical Language of Others Koh’s mother showed that she just might get it even without taking responsibility for the pain she caused Koh by leaving during her formative years.


“You have no idea how long you’ll write poetry for—maybe one day you’ll say, ‘It’s not for me anymore!’ You don’t know what’s coming, but I know everything. You were supposed to be a poet. In a previous life, you died with the wish to come back and tell people the truth.”
      “Stop,” I said, exhausted. “Stop talking—”
      “How long will you punish me?” she asked.
      My mother refused to come back to the cabin until I apologized. But I could not say sorry because of how it might feel to see the pride in her face, as if the way I had grown taller and prouder was a result of her raising me.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.