Learning Korean

Graphic by Amy Hoang
June 13, 2024

I always remember being envious of Asian Americans who could speak their mother tongues. Growing up as the youngest child of immigrant parents in Fort Worth, Texas, I was put at a significant distance from my Korean heritage. Korea existed as a mirage across an impassable chasm. I could only stare at the far away land and wonder about what it could be like to bridge the gap. 

The reason my sister and I never learned Korean is quite simple. My sister had grown up in rural Pennsylvania. One day, when my sister was playing on the playground with my mom, a girl on a nearby swing couldn’t understand what my mom and sister had been saying. She asked her mom, and her mom had no clue. Of course, my mom and sister were speaking in English. From that day, my parents got the idea that teaching us Korean would hurt our English and make it harder for us to “fit in.” The linguistic research would beg to differ. Kids are language-learning machines and have no trouble learning multiple languages at once. Plus, my sister and I were going to have a hard time fitting in no matter our perfect English. 

This story always made me frustrated. I always felt that I was “denied” that bridge to Korea all because a girl on a swing and her mother couldn’t understand plain English. Maybe it’s not their fault. It’s really the fault of history, but that never mattered. What mattered was that I had to learn Korean from scratch. I had to overcome my frustration and learn. 

It could have been so simple. I could have just given up on Korean. Just decided to move on and forget that any of it really exists. I never was interested in Korean. My favorite Korean dish was always a bowl of white rice. I didn’t know a lick of Korean history and had a starting vocabulary of maybe ten words made up of familial terms and an odd selection of foods. Like many Americans, I had an early interest in Japan. My mom’s fond memories of briefly growing up in Osaka combined with my father’s aberrant interest in the country made Japan an only more intriguing place. Going into middle school, I fell in love with the stories of the power obsessed Toyotomi Hideyoshi, not the tactful Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Somehow, Japan was able to strike a chord that Korea never could. 

My frustration and disinterest made the task of learning Korean essentially impossible. Kicking me while I was down, I started to fear an American accent. I had gotten too old. My American tongue became too stiff to dance around Korean consonants like a native. By this point, if I were to learn Korean, I would always sound ridiculously American. It was a horribly embarrassing thought: butchering a language my ancestors used to create art. Eventually, I quit. I decided that I had no need to learn Korean. The gap was too wide to bridge. I’m more American than Korean after all. 

By the time I was in high school, I had long given up on the dream of learning Korean. By my sophomore year, the pandemic crept over us all, and I’m sure everyone found new interests to keep satisfied and distracted. By chance, I had stumbled upon the absurd world of Korean variety television. To many it may seem childish and insane, but to me watching Korean comedians play ridiculous games with the severity and concentration of Olympic athletes will never get old. But more than just laughter, these shows handed me the blueprints to something wonderful: a bridge. 

As funny as it may seem, I was able to learn my Korean through variety shows. Variety shows had given me all I needed to build that bridge I had always wanted. Soon enough, I was watching these shows without the aid of English subtitles. From here, my interest in Korea grew wings and flew far. I started to flesh out my understanding of Korean. That measly vocabulary of ten must have grown to nearly two thousand by now. 

As for my accent, I had come to peace with it. In my exploration of Korean television, I came across many Korean American celebrities who have accents that are frankly more ridiculous than mine. One of my favorite Korean American celebrities in Korea is a singer from the nineties named Joon Park. Born in Korea, Joon Park was raised in sunny southern California, and there is no question about that. His sunglasses pasted to his face and perpetual tan screamed SoCal. Even his way of speaking Korean is somehow Californian. His pronunciation is imperfect, and his words lack the rigid formality of Koreans from Korea. Another such Korean American personality is Jessi. Her Korean is marked by the distinct habit of the American accent. The cadence of her sentences and posture of her vowels betray her Queens uprising. Both singers use their Korean in a direct manner that can symbolize the American attitude for better or for worse. In a wonderful way, they both speak Korean like Americans. Seeing how unapologetic they are about their Korean, I embraced my own imperfections when speaking. At the end of the day, it is really just a new dialect if anything. French was once Latin until it “degraded.” In any case, why should I speak Korean like a Korean? I’m more American than Korean after all. 

Now, my Korean is far from perfect even today. I may know close to two thousand words, but that is nowhere near enough in the grand scheme of things. I might not care about my accent as much, but speaking is still the hardest aspect of the language. And my interest in Japan never died away. Frankly, I probably still know more about Japan than Korea, but none of this is what is important to me. The important thing to me is that I build that damn bridge. I built it, crossed it, and made contact with that faraway land. Sure, the bridge is a bit ugly and needs some more structure, but it’s there, damnit. 

But at the end of the day, would any of it even matter if the gap weren’t there in the first place? My entire relationship with Korea was and still is built upon that gap. That gap created the sense of wonder and desire for my heritage. It created urgency and purpose. If I were a native Korean speaker, would I really be happy about it? I’ll never have the answer to this question, but I can’t help but think that I really wouldn’t.

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