On Korean Language and IdentityJuly 7, 2007
All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery…
Unbeknownst to me until a much later age, my father made the decision when I was a toddler to encourage an English-only policy with me as I began school in the United States. Understandably, he worried that I would never completely master English if forced to speak Korean at home. My mother disagreed greatly with this decision, rightly fearing that I would grow up never learning Korean, and therefore, losing the most obvious (yet certainly not the only) means of deeper communication with them. Because his decision was made wholly out of love for me and concern for my future, I would never begrudge my father for this, even as I know even he himself now regrets it.
Although I have always been able to understand Korean (as much as my parents use it with me, in any case), I have never been able to speak it beyond the level of a 3 year-old. (I say 3 year-old because some years back, I had the rather depressing experience of finding an audio tape of me babbling away as 4 year-old, all in Korean!) Ever since I was able to understand that speaking Korean is something I “should” know how to do, the inability to do so has caused me great embarrassment and shame. It has also deeply affected my sense of what it means to me — and to others — to “be Korean.” In 1989, for example, I took my first trip back to Korea. On several occasions, after it was discovered by relatives, family friends, and even strangers that I didn’t speak the language, I was told in disapproving tones that I “wasn’t Korean” and, on two occasions, even had restaurant servers make a grand show of taking my chopsticks away from me (even though I am perfectly capable of using them) and returning with a fork for me.
Granted, Koreans (at least in Seoul) are now a bit more used to encountering non Korean-speaking Korean-Americans. But these very painful memories still linger as I struggle once again to learn the language, this time through private lessons at a wonderful language institute here in Seoul. The process is very frustrating for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that even as I’ve tried on several occasions in the past 15-odd years to learn Korean (always in fits and starts), I still found the time and energy to become fluent in another language! Shouldn’t getting a PhD in French mean that language learning is supposed to come easily to me?
And then, there’s Matty. . . I couldn’t be more ecstatic or proud that he has in 10 years mastered Korean enough not only to become a professional translator, but (even more importantly to me) to be able to communicate and create close bonds with both my immediate and extended families. Still, I admit to getting a wee bit annoyed in certain situations, especially since it’s clear that Matty and I are held to very different linguistic expectations. For example, I’ll be the first to describe my Korean as pidgin-level at best. Still, it’s good enough pidgin to survive a 90-minute weekly lesson exclusively in Korean. Yet Korean friends and family still say (when introducing me, for instance) that I “don’t speak Korean.” A few weeks ago, to give another example, I spent 30 minutes alone with our neighborhood hyoung and his family in their beauty parlor. Sure, we weren’t discussing literature or politics, but we had a nice, simple conversation about my family and about how their daughter liked her new middle school. Yet just last week, hyoung tried to teach me how to say “thank you” in Korean, telling me “even if you can’t speak ‘our language,’ you at least need to know how to say ‘thank you.'” grrrrr. Even more annoying is the fact that while I’m obviously far from being considered a Korean speaker (by Koreans anyway), Matty is tirelessly fawned upon and declared perfectly fluent by every waitress or taxi driver to whom he manages to say annyoung haseo (hello) without a noticeable American accent. Does that sound fair? I think not!!
Oh well, it’s frustrating indeed, but it really bothers me a lot less than I let Matty believe. As you all know, he’s very fun to tease. In any event, 점점점 (bit by bit), my Korean is improving, and I am feeling more comfortable in the language — and with my identity as a “non Korean (speaker)” than I ever have in the past. Who knows? With continued study over the years, maybe one day I’ll be as fluent as Matty . . . and maybe even as Korean, too. 🙂