My Korean Tongue. Where is it??

Eating breakfast with 외할머니.

Over the course of 9 months in Seattle, I sent my 한국 가족 (Korean family) a handful of e-mails. Some of them were in English, but a few that I sent were actually in Korean, painstakingly composed after lots of trial & error and the help of my Korean teachers/language partners. I think these e-mails, however, gave my family a sense of false hope that when I stepped off the plane in June, I would be speaking beautiful, fluent Korean.

Alas, I even surprised myself with how poor my speaking skills still are!

Although I was able to compose decent compositions and read Korean passages with relative ease at the end of three quarters of beginning Korean at the UW, my listening and speaking skills remain woefully low. Part of the problem is that I already lived in Korea for a year without learning more than survival Korean, so I know how to navigate around by using one or two Korean phrases, basic English, and body language (miming helps). Another problem is that when I start to make a sentence, my voice falters as I search for the right words to say, and by that point, the listener will often jump in and finish my sentence for me. As a former English teacher, I know it’s so tempting to complete a beginner’s half-finished sentences–but it really impedes learning!!

However, those three months of study did count for something. Although I can only understand about 1/16 of what I hear, at least that’s 1/16 more than I could understand at this time last year. Also, I have fewer taxi drivers asking me, “Where you from?” Must mean that either my pronunciation is better, or I’m somehow forming actual sentences rather than what was probably something like, “Sinchon. Go,” last year. My explanation in ’04-’05 for why I didn’t learn much Korean was because as an English teacher, I spent my entire day in language frustration. So repeating the whole process–with myself on the receiving end–was the last thing I wanted to do when I got home at 9:00 at night. Plus, I worked with other foreigners who were Korean-language-challenged and provided an all-too-easy English outlet. Finally, the emotional drain of being an adoptee in Korea sapped any motivation that might have been left to wrap my brain around Korean.

But I was hoping this summer would be different. Although I’m starting my 4th week here, and have yet to crack open the Korean textbooks I brought with me.

It was very interesting living with my aunt, grandmother, and cousin for a week at the end of last month. I got a taste of day-to-day life with them. Due to my somewhat enhanced Korean, I was able to stay engaged almost the entire time, although I have to admit that part of my brain tends to shut off when I hear rapid Korean. It’s similar to what I experienced in science classes in elementary school . . . . my daydreams were beyond my control, my mind wandering to a million different topics and then suddenly the bell would ring and I’d realize I had heard absolutely nothing said by the teacher. My American parents would always scold me for “tuning out.” Perhaps this is why I’ve never been tempted to smoke pot–I don’t need herbal supplements to tune out the world. (Besides, I’ve been told numerous times that my heavy eyelids make me look perpetually high. [I prefer the term “bedroom eyes,” thankyouverymuch.])

Anyway, I’ve been trying to keep myself literate by reading as many signs and advertisements in hangeul as I can. And I find myself recalling some of the obscure vocabulary we learned over the course of the year. But it’s too easy and too tempting to encase myself in an English bubble while commuting in Seoul. Sitting on the subway, I listen to my iPod full of American music and read my American books. And I chose to live most of the summer at KoRoot, which although it is run by Koreans, the house is full of adoptees who don’t speak Korean for the most part.

I feel this need to explain myself, to justify why I’m not throwing myself into full immersion. Why am I not making a more concerted effort to make my insides match my outsides? I realize that as long as my Korean remains so rudimentary, the heart of Korean culture and deeper communication with my family will elude me.

But I think as adoptees, we all have a measure of “Korean-ness” that we’re comfortable with. Although I would definitely learn Korean more quickly if I lived with my family the entire summer, the amount of personal freedom & mobility that I would have to sacrifice by living with them is not worth it to me. Naturally, my family worries about me—what time will I be home, where will I eat dinner, when will I marry a Korean man, etc. etc. I can only take about a week of that from my American parents–and it’s about the same here in Seoul.

One’s relationship with Korea . . . it’s so different for everyone. I know adoptees who have never returned here, and I know adoptees who are living here indefinitely and have been here for over a decade. There’s a Korean adopted guy who’s actually married to a Korean woman . . . and he still doesn’t speak Korean.

Scene from last week: Perhaps some more motivation to learn Korean
On Seoul subway. Line #2.
I’m reading
The Korea Times (English-language newspaper here). Looking at a World Cup article. The lone white foreigner in the subway car suddenly approaches me and asks, “Soooooo . . . do you fancy soccer? Or are you just studying?” Meaning–am I studying English? Will I swoon at the sight of his Western looks? Will such a ridiculous opening line receive a polite response or an ALAG-style double-middle-finger gesture?

I’m sure he didn’t anticipate the latter. But I was too sober to surprise him.

Hm, where are those textbooks……



Filed under Updates

7 responses to “My Korean Tongue. Where is it??

  1. I still genuflect to you and those other KADs who pack up and go live aboard the mothership for extended periods of time, with varying degrees of Korean language skills.

    I hesitate to say I even know “survival” Korean, and the way I clam up when I Skype my sister and Umma is so embarrassing. I can’t even bring myself to say one or two words in Korean because I feel soooo inadequate, I don’t even want to tease them with a single “안녕.”

    Icky white Asiaphile dudes seem even ickier when inserted into Asian settings, don’t they? Instead of zoning in on the lone Asian woman sitting on the subway car to test out a “Konnichiwa!” on, they just scan the scene for English-language opportunities to spring upon an unsuspecting female. Ewwwwwwww. Double-middle-finger salute indeed!

  2. hmmm, i guess i would give the guy the benefit of the doubt that he’s missing speaking english – something i feel when i go to other countries and don’t understand – and then therefore gravitate towards people i might be able to talk to. but obviously everyone’s coming from different places on stuff like that.

  3. There’s no shortage of English-speakers in Seoul. At least there are enough English-speakers here that approaching random strangers on the subway isn’t really necessary. Besides, Korea is saturated in English. Everything from advertisements, street signs, to the millionth English private institute on the corner blare English phrases at people. I haven’t yet been to Japan myself, but my friends tell me that Japan is significantly less English-friendly. Seoul, on the other hand, has a dysfunctional adoration of all things English.

  4. Sarah, good to hear how your summer is going so far. Good luck with your Korean and don’t be so hard on yourself, your ear for it and your accent will improve…probably right about the time your have to leave.

    Saw there were some skirmishes in Seoul yesterday over trading contract with the US. Were you near any of that?wauh

  5. hey sarah, i second lynda. no worries about the language stuff. it comes with time. i don’t even understand what’s being said most of the time here b/c i don’t know tamil at all. so i constantly need someone to translate; that’s truly exhausting after awhile.

    what are you eating in the picture?

  6. Great response to the subway guy. I hope you’re having a great time, Sarah.

  7. What an idiot. Stupid white men. It’s times like that where I wish I was “quick on my feet” and could just role play to f*ck with people like that. Make it funny even though it so is not funny! I’d act like a “Korean student” for a minute or two then break into my “normal English” and make him realize how dumb he is to assume sh*t. But then, I never seem to act fast enough to react like that.

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