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Relearning Korean: A personal essay

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Staff

APRIL 15, 2023

J
anuary 2023.

I am relearning Korean. After years of confusing English and Korean banter with my parents, reluctant phone calls with my grandparents and awkward interactions with the Korean mother squad, I am relearning Korean. 

It took me 20 years to want my culture back. A culture I had so actively sought to lose since middle school. 

Growing up Korean in the ‘burbs of the Bay Area was hard. I spent my middle school years in Danville, an old-money town where white girls wore Lululemon to school and were driven to soccer practice in their mothers’ SUVs. Most of my friends growing up had nuclear families; lived in houses fit for a magazine. Houses with pools in the backyard, ping pong tables, glossy flat-screen TVs. Their parents had high-paying jobs and were home before dinnertime. Everything seemed so aesthetic, so easy. 

Meanwhile, I was the eldest daughter of Korean immigrants who started from ground zero in America. My father ran a small retail business at a shopping mall an hour away from home. He ran the business by himself, ringing the register, organizing clothes, ordering new shipments. My mom helped out as much as she could while taking care of me and my siblings. 

Both of my parents spoke limited English. Sometimes I was tasked with writing my mother’s emails in English or being the family spokesperson. I resented that. I was quick to grow frustrated when my mother’s English faltered in public. One day, I asked my dad why he didn’t study English more. A few days later I noticed he was reading his daily Bible passage in English rather than Korean. It was small actions like this that showed he was trying. And yet, my expectations for him were ruthless. 

Partly out of resentment and out of fear of being seen as lesser than my friends, I stopped speaking Korean altogether. I didn’t want to be the Asian friend. The friend who lived in an apartment because her immigrant parents could not afford a house in the Bay Area. The friend whose family ate kimchi with every meal. I didn’t want to be different. 

As a result, I tried to eliminate my culture to seem as American as possible, which in my mind meant being “white.” To me, being white meant the beauty standard and a comfortable life. Boys had crushes on the blond white girls whose parents could afford to buy them twenty pairs of Lululemon leggings. My parents and I began a strange form of communication in which they would speak Korean while I would respond in English. I thought I was doing a service to them by helping them improve their English comprehension. Rather, it did a disservice to our relationship. 

Communication and cultural barriers created misunderstandings that led to explosive arguments that always ended with me crying on the cold tile floor of our bathroom. To this day, I harbor a fear of being misunderstood and not being listened to. I hardly ever cry, but when I do, it’s because I’m not heard by the people who love me most. 

I used to think that this was simply how it would always be. My parents would never fully understand me and the underlying frustration I felt would always be present in our relationship. I blamed it on the cultural barriers, the clashing environments of Korea and America. These were the circumstances that I was born with. 

I used to think that this was simply how it would always be. My parents would never fully understand me and the underlying frustration I felt would always be present in our relationship.

While these reasons were certainly valid, I realized that there was an even bigger problem. Ever since I was a middle schooler I have been running away from my Korean identity. I’ve never been much of a rebellious kid. I didn’t get drunk at parties or sneak out at night with my non-existent bad boyfriend. What I did was worse than all of that. 

To be Korean means to be the daughter of my Korean parents. It means growing up eating my mom’s kimchi jjigae and listening to my dad’s childhood stories of summers in the Korean countryside. Cutting off my culture meant not accepting my parents for who they were. 

For most of my life I have been running away from my cultural identity, so what happens when one day I decide to stop and run back towards my culture? 

~

College was the starting point. At Berkeley, being cultured was cool and being able to speak a different language, even cooler. My roommate from my sophomore year of college was an international student from Istanbul, Turkey. She was the coolest person I had ever met. Having grown up in a big city, she was spontaneous and chic. She was the type of girl who could wake up in the morning and look good; her long wavy hair flipped over her shoulders. With her equally attractive friends, she partied all night and slept during the day. She was the ultimate “it-girl,” but didn’t subscribe to the fake social media culture. I respected her for that. 

She was constantly FaceTiming her friends back home, her Turkish rolling off her tongue like water rapids. As I listened to her, I began to wish I could speak Korean when FaceTiming my mom. I wanted the comfort of a conversation only between us in a language that we grew up with. When my roommate spoke Turkish, I noticed she hardly ever said “um” or paused her speech. The fluidity of her speech reminded me of how my mom sounds when she speaks Korean. The words from her mouth are always direct. She knows exactly what to say and how to say it. 

I can’t say the same for when I speak English — I’m constantly searching for the right words. In the middle of a conversation, I often find myself stuck, unable to find the words to best express how I feel. And even when I find them, I am left unsatisfied, as if the English language is incapable of capturing the complexities of my thoughts and emotions. My sentences are always peppered with “um”, “like” and random pauses. 

And even when I find them, I am left unsatisfied, as if the English language is incapable of capturing the complexities of my thoughts and emotions.

I always assumed that something was wrong with me. I’d blame my inability to express myself clearly on my jumbled mind or my lack of confidence. But more recently, I’ve been thinking about how perhaps the stilted conversations between my parents and I growing up may have played a role. Perhaps because of my decision to only speak English, I created barriers to having long, well-formed conversations with my parents. I’ve often found myself having to speak “simpler” to my parents so that they could understand. And if they still had trouble understanding, I was quick to grow frustrated and give up altogether. I hardly reached for my parents’ help as a kid, knowing that it would be easier if I figured it out myself. 

~

Perhaps that is why I am obsessed with communication. I’m constantly trying to improve how I express myself to others, whether it’s through writing or speech. Sometimes expression is simply for myself, as with my poetry. 

Communication plays a crucial role in my friendships. My closest friends are those who I can connect with through conversation. Friends who really listen to me rant about all my trivial concerns; the stress of school, my crushes. Friends who welcome deeper conversations, who I can open up to about my mental and emotional state, my hopes. 

At Berkeley, I fill my life with communication: writing for the Daily Cal, scribbling nonsensical poetry in my Moleskine notebook, conversations with my wonderful friends. But at home, the place that is the root of my identity, communication is still limited. 

 

To be continued…

Contact Jeana Lee at 

LAST UPDATED

APRIL 15, 2023