Part II of Relearning Korean: A personal essay
ick and tired of the communication barrier between me and my parents, I set about to relearn Korean. I started off by taking advantage of what was available to me: Kdramas. The summer of 2022 was filled with nights spent curled up with Harold, my stuffed cat, and consuming slow-burn Korean romances. I have never been the same since.
Growing up, I had only watched American television – teen shows like “Gossip Girl” and “Teen Wolf” with hypersexualized and glorified white actors. Being exposed to Korean entertainment showed me that Koreans, too, were main characters that some audiences swooned over. My culture was romanticized in a way that I never thought it could be. Suddenly, I was longing to be there, summer in Seoul, sipping on 바나나 우유 (banana milk) and gazing deep into Nam Joo Hyuk’s eyes.
Suddenly, I was longing to be there, summer in Seoul, sipping on 바나나 우유 (banana milk) and gazing deep into Nam Joo Hyuk’s eyes.
Kdramas were something my family and I could share. I watched “Twenty-five Twenty-one” with my little brother, squished up on our beaten couch, faces pressed up to my laptop screen. I could talk about Kdramas and Korean actors with my mother who, like most Korean ladies, was way too up-to-date with Korean pop culture. My father recommended that I watch “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” a Kdrama that made us cry with laughter. Already, from this summer of Kdramas, I felt closer to my family than I had ever felt in my teenage years. From this simple reconnection to Korean culture, I caught a glimpse of what could’ve been if I hadn’t run away.
After that summer, my Korean identity was something I was proud of, and I wanted more of it. I decided to enroll in Korean 1BX this spring semester – an elementary language class for Korean heritage students. It was a class filled with Korean American students like me who longed to communicate with their family members. I felt a strange sense of solidarity with my fellow classmates. With the nod of a head or a slight smile, we seemed to be saying to each other: “I’ve shared your experiences.” “I know why you are here.”
Every weekday from 10-11am we forced ourselves to bring out our halting Korean. And if we didn’t, 선생님(teacher) would bring it out of us. She was lively and firm, challenging us to let our Korean tongues loose. She reminded me of the Korean mothers I grew up around, tough on the outside but soft-hearted. In class, all fear of judgment faded away. For one hour each day, I didn’t have to be embarrassed about being a disgrace to my Korean identity. Sometimes, as I sat in that stuffy sunlit classroom in Dwinelle, I imagined myself as a student who grew up in Korea. What would I be like if my parents hadn’t immigrated to the United States? Would my family have been rich? Would I be a pretentious Korean girl if my family was rich? In Korea, an American college education is considered to be gold. My father, who received his masters in Graphic Design at Pratt University, could have been a designer or even an art professor in Korea.
Sometimes, as I sat in that stuffy sunlit classroom in Dwinelle, I imagined myself as a student who grew up in Korea.
But my father isn’t a designer or a professor. He’s a man who stayed in America and chose a life of endless blue collar work to give his children the opportunities he can only dream of. My mother left her comfortable independent life in Korea to raise three kids in a low-income household. Despite hardship after hardship, my parents raised us with love and Christian faith. To them, we are the American Dream.
I am not the pretentious Korean girl who lives in a penthouse apartment overlooking the 한강 (Hangang) river, but I am better for it. Rather, I am the Korean American girl who comes to class everyday, eagerly peppering broken sentences in Korean and easily breaking into a smile to jokes that only Korean Americans can understand. With each passing day, I find myself gently melding into my Korean culture: slipping in Korean phrases while calling my mother, keeping a jar of kimchi in my fridge and cooking 된장찌개(doenjang-jjigae) every weekend, listening to Korean indie music and keeping my Korean friends close. It’s a pleasant feeling to reconnect with myself. It’s as if I am getting to know myself again.
This summer, my family and I are taking a trip to Korea. It’s been five years since we were last there. Korea wasn’t very romantic to me then. I hated the thick humidity of Korean summer and being confined in my grandfather’s tiny apartment in Seoul. Other than the polite 안녕하세요 (hello) and 감사합니다 (thank you), I didn’t bother trying to speak Korean extensively. I used my “Americanness” as an excuse to get out of uncomfortable conversations with relatives I barely knew. I was a different girl then.
Today, I look at summer in Korea with bright eyes. I want to take in all of it. Cafe hopping in Seoul; Korean fried chicken nights with my family; gazing at the nighttime ocean lights in Busan. My body yearns to be there, to physically take in the culture and the people that should be a part of me. The summer humidity should be sinking into me like a soft dream. I fantasize about how when I’m in Korea, my tongue will remember the language it knew first. The Korean in me that I had buried during my youth will finally come out. And I will feel born again.
My body yearns to be there, to physically take in the culture and the people that should be a part of me.
I am coming back to my identity. After years of invalidating my culture and undermining my parents in my youth, I am finally done. On June 12, 2023 I will be turning 21 in Seoul, Korea. I will not be bar crawling in San Francisco and getting wasted with my friends. Rather, I will be at a table with my relatives, mouth full with Korean BBQ, laughing to myself about how far I’ve come. Who knew that the white-washed Korean girl would be relearning Korean in college? And yet, at this entry to adulthood, there is still a long way to go.
So I’m running straight back to my identity, eyes focused straight ahead, no looking back. I’m going to keep running and running, until one day, I’m finally home.