“Do you speak [fill in the blank with any number of exotic sounding languages]?”
It’s a perennial question that we international adoptees get.
The short answer is no. I don’t speak any Korean. Unless you count hello and goodbye and thank you…although, I can never remember which good bye to use (well, at least I know that there’s more than one!).
The long answer is…it’s taken me nearly 30 years to finally feel okay about studying that funny-sounding language called Korean. It’s not that I don’t love learning languages–over the years I’ve studied French, Spanish, Italian…I’ve been lauded by the Alliance Française for my French skills (alas, now long extinct). I’ve studied Spanish extensively and lived in Costa Rica for three months. I’ve even spent a year studying Modern Hebrew, for crying out loud!
(Yeah, I don’t know how useful it is for a non-Jewish Korean adoptee from MN to have a working knowledge of Modern Hebrew without any real intention of heading to Israel anytime soon…but hey, that’s besides the point. Hebrew’s a beautiful language with a rich history, and I was excited my senior year of college to try something different, something other than a Romance language. But…not brave enough then to study the language of my birth country.)
So, yeah. Here’s the dirty truth:
For years, the thought of studying Korean was just too much. Sometimes, I couldn’t even say the word Korean without choking a little. Someone would say, “Oh, you must be Korean!” and I would think “What the hell does that even mean?” Years of growing up in a culture in which all Asian languages have been alternately mocked or fetishized have laid the groundwork for some pretty deeply rooted fear and denial. What ten year old wants to study Korean when class mates and even family members think it’s funny to make “ching chong” jokes? I had no role models, no mentors to assure me that it was okay to embrace this part of my identity…and frankly, it was just too freaking scary to try and do it on my own.
Basically, I couldn’t figure out how to make it fit into my life as it was–which was me trying to fit in as “just like everybody else” (everybody else = white people). No one I knew spoke Korean. Learning Korean would have forced to me acknowledge, head-on, the reality of my life: that I am a Korean-American, trans-racial/trans-national adoptee who has had to negotiate my identity as an Asian-born woman in a white family. I wasn’t really well-equipped to handle that as a kid, or even a college student…there was too much fear, too much emotional baggage to even open that door.
For me, studying Korean is not just about learning another language. It’s opening a window into a part of myself that has been lost for thirty years. It’s acknowledging the other-ness about me, and the possibilities of what could have been had my birth mother made a different choice. It’s an attempt, however meager, to re-imagine a more holistic sense of self. It’s an act of healing.
More recently, I’ve tried learning Korean, with some pretty entertaining results. In my last effort, I took a beginner’s class through the local community college’s community education program. The instructor, a well-meaning native-speaker and Presbyterian minister, spent much of the class trying to convince me that the best way to learn Korean was to attend services at his church. Having spent several teen years trying to avoid going to church, this wasn’t a terribly appealing teaching method. I didn’t bother trying to explain my “earth-based spirituality” to him. Almost everyone else in the class was white–they were planning to travel to Korea for fun and wanted to learn how to say “Do you serve bulgogi?” Needless to say, the class was not a great fit.
The other day, I was buying lunch on campus and the cashier was an older Korean woman. She squinted at me, and I knew right away what she was going to say: “Where are you from?”
“Korea…” I sigh. I’ve had this conversation, oh, maybe a million times before.
“Ah! I knew it! I’m Korean, too!” she beamed. “You speak Korean?” Her face looked hopeful.
“No, not really,” I said. “But I’m learning.”
We make small talk a bit longer, then I prepare to leave. “Kamsahamnida!” I say. Thank you!
“Oh, you do speak Korean!” she says. And then a whole babble of Korean emerges from her mouth, ending in
Shit! I just learned how to say the right one…there’s a goodbye if you’re the person leaving, or if you’re the person staying. But I couldn’t remember. I opened my mouth, and the first thing that escaped was…”Gracias!” She looked at me funny. I just smiled and waved. Really, how else do I explain that I speak Spanish better than Korean?
This summer, in anticipation of a possible trip to Korea, I find myself taking a deep breath and diving in. I’ve found someone who will do one-on-one tutoring. My husband and I have been listening to podcasts from Talk to Me in Korean (they’re pretty good, actually). I have a list of recommended Korean soaps (perhaps even more dramatic than the telenovelas, if that’s possible). Each new sound, each new word, is an act of letting go of the fear. Maybe someday, it won’t sound foreign anymore, it will just sound…like me.