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Becoming Korean

“Mom! There’s a woman asking for you. I think she’s Korean!” my nine-year-old daughter whispers loudly, her eyes wide.

She thrusts the black cordless phone into my hands and stands as if rooted to an imaginary spot in our mint green kitchen. She follows me with her eyes. I brace my elbows against the butcher-block island in the center of the kitchen. I focus my gaze on the grain of cut wood. This return phone call is from the Korean Central Church of Pittsburgh, where I had called asking about Korean language classes for adults. In the wake of my mother’s suicide attempt a year earlier, I’m finally ready to relearn the language of my birth country, the language I must have heard in my mother’s womb, the language that was, at one time, my native tongue.

When I left Seoul at age six, I lost my Korean. In the 1970s, linguistic experts told my parents to stop speaking our mother tongue and only speak English, if they wanted their daughters to be fluent. My parents listened. And the loss of a culture began. My home became a silent vacuum, as my parents, who were uncomfortable speaking English, chose not to talk to us rather than stumble and sound foolish. Eventually, our communication reflected the stiltedness classic of many immigrant families—my parents would speak to us in Korean; my sisters and I would answer in English.

“Hello?” I say, my hand gripping the black plastic phone.

“Ahnyeong haseyo,” is the response, the standard Korean greeting, by a cheerful female voice.

“I am sorry, but I cannot speak Korean,” I enunciate clearly, slowing down my speech. My shoulders hunch forward.

“Please, do not trouble yourself. I understand English, but it is so poor I must speak in Korean,” she apologizes in turn, like a typical Korean woman.

“I am the one who should be sorry. Even though I am Korean, I cannot speak Korean,” I say, my head bowed.

“Please, do not worry,” she tries to sooth me. “I am Mrs. Lee, the pastor’s wife. I am sorry, but we have Korean language school only for children. Not adults. On Saturdays, our volunteer teachers give instruction for two hours in the morning. Afterwards, the children have snack time, And then, an activity of their choice—Korean Dance, Tae Kwon Do, Arts and Crafts or Sewing,” she explains.

“I’m sorry I bothered you.” My shoulders sink.

“Do you have children? Would you like to put your children in Korean language school?” she says.

“My daughter is nine and my son is five. I’m not sure if they would want to go to Korean school. I can’t read or write Korean,” I say. My skin flushes with shame. I know Korean teachers give prodigious amounts of homework and my children will be lost.

“We will help your children. And when you learn Korean, you can help them too. Do you know they have Korean language classes at the University of Pittsburgh?” she says.

“Really?” I straighten my spine, push away from the kitchen island. I had not thought of the possibility that Korean would be offered at Pitt. Twenty years ago, when I was in college, Korean language was not an option.

“Why don’t you call the university? We can start your children in our Saturday classes next week. We will do whatever is necessary to make them feel welcome. We want to help them learn the language of their mother,” she says with fervor, as though her willingness can overcome my lack of proficiency in the language that should be my mother tongue.

I am not used to kindness from a Korean woman. Tears run down my cheeks. I press my hand over my mouth to stifle my whimpering. I am glad we are on the phone, so she cannot see me. Startled by the sound of my crying, my children’s bodies swivel to me. They wrap their arms around my waist and legs. I hear them ask, “Are you okay, Mommy?” I try to smile through my tears. My hand grazes the tops of their heads, my fingers brushing their silky hair. I feel grounded by the weight of their limbs entwined with mine. I thank Mrs. Lee and tell her I will think about what she has said. I hang up the phone.

“Are we going to Korean school?” My daughter looks up at me, her face a mixture of wonder and doubt.

“I don’t know,” I say.

For a moment, there is silence.

“I want to learn Korean!” my daughter shouts.

“Me too!” My son mimics his older sister.

“Hold on, we need to talk about this before we make any decisions,” I say.

“We can all learn Korean together!” My daughter refuses to let my caution dampen her enthusiasm. She grabs her brother’s hands. They dance around the kitchen, their arms and legs flinging out in abandon, small bodies unrestrained.

After I send them off to play in the backyard, I sit on a kitchen chair, looking out onto the back porch. Wisteria twist and climb around wood posts painted red and cream, the soft summer breeze ruffling purple blossoms. I think about Mrs. Lee and what she said about my children learning the language of their mother. Korean used to be my mother tongue. When I was in first grade, in Seoul, I learned to read and write Hangeul proficiently in only one month, according to my mother. She had been astonished because, as the third child, I was so shy and quiet she had thought I was not very bright. Now, I cannot read one word in Korean. I can’t even remember the basics of the alphabet.

I haven’t spoken Korean in over three decades and I don’t know if I have the courage to relearn it. I think back to a conversation I had with a Korean woman at Sam Bok last year. Inside that small Korean grocery store in the Strip District, I had spoken about my mother’s isolation and mental illness, about the estrangement between my mother and me. The Korean shopkeeper had been kind, as kind as the pastor’s wife just now on the phone. Perhaps it is possible that I do not have to feel shame around a Korean woman. Maybe I can relearn the language of my ancestors and also help my children learn the language of half of their people.

I stand at the bus stop, burrowing into my grey pea coat, muttering to myself. Too much. Very much. Really. I cannot pronounce these words in Korean. My tongue trips and stumbles over the same words I am sure I used as a child. Even though I can hear my mother saying them in the faint echo chamber of my memory, I cannot reproduce those same sounds. They are foreign to me now, tongue twisters instead of everyday language.

Korean is considered an Altaic language, along with Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, Estonian, and Mongolian. Vastly different in sentence structure and phonology from English, a Germanic language, Korean is one of the most difficult languages for native speakers of English to learn. And vice versa. Koreans remain confounded by the subject-verb-object (SVO) construction of English because, in Korean, either the subject or object can begin a sentence. It only matters that a sentence ends with a verb. Articles do not exist in Korean: there is no such thing as “a” or “the” before a noun. And there is no difference in the pronunciation or spelling of the singular or plural form of a noun—it is implicit in the context of the sentence whether you are talking about one book or many books. Prepositions are also not important in Korean, and frequently omitted in speech, because it is understood that you are sitting on a chair not over or underneath it.

Phonemes produced in Korean often do not exist in English. The first, “g” in Gwangju, the city where I was born, is pronounced like a combination of “g” and “k,” a sound that is difficult, if not impossible, for speakers of English to emanate. Twin consonants and double vowels, common in Korean, bewilder the tongues of non-native speakers. And there is no “f” sound in Korean. Borrowed words from English, like “buffet” and “fighting” are pronounced “bu-pay” and “hi-ting” in Korean. Complicating matters further, Korean is a syllable-timed language, where there is no emphasis placed on any part of a word. For instance, the word “camera” would be pronounced “ka-mera” in English, with the accent on the first syllable, but “kah-meh-rah” in Korean, with no emphasis on any single syllable. But Korean is not monotonous. Rather, it is musical—no staccato harshness, just gentle dips of intonation and slight changes in inflection. Almost poetic in nature. Even when I could barely speak it, Korean always sounded beautiful to me.

So engrossed in my attempts to speak Korean, I have missed the Asian woman standing next to me.

“Excuse me,” she says.

Startled, I turn around.

“Are you speaking Korean?” The woman, with long black hair and black frame glasses, gestures at the paper in my hand.

“I’m studying for a test. I take Korean classes at Pitt,” I say, my eyes watchful, my shoulders tense.

“That’s great! I’m Korean. Is there anything I can help you with?” she says.

The kindness of strangers shatters something inside me. The shards embed in my heart, seep into the marrow of my bones, spread like heat in my belly. I want to cry. Instead, I take a deep breath and hold it. I pretend to this solicitous Korean woman that I am fine. I pretend that it is not humiliating my tongue won’t twist, won’t slide, won’t make the sounds that are words, instead of gibberish. I want to hide from the brutal truth that I am no longer a native speaker.

Because my mother didn’t teach me Korean, I am learning it from a Turkish woman. A woman of Turkish descent teaches the Korean language classes at the University of Pittsburgh. I was skeptical when I read her bio on the East Asian Languages and Literatures website, looking for the Korean professor’s email address. Born and raised in Turkey, she studied Korean in college and pursued it at Seoul National University for three years at the graduate level. She received her doctorate in Korean Language and Linguistics from the University of Hawaii. I was still skeptical. But Ebru proves me wrong with her impeccable Korean. She is generous in allowing me to join her class, even though it is officially full. I suspect she sympathizes with me, in my struggle to learn and understand this culture and language. At forty-years-old, I am the oldest student in the class. I’m closer in age to Ebru, the professor, than the rest of my classmates.

The kids in Korean class, only eighteen and nineteen years old, remind me of younger, different versions of me. Yet not me. Linda, born in this country, dutifully went to Korean school as a child and is taking this class for an “easy A.”  But she says, “I’m the whitest Korean you’ll ever meet,” as she gives me a sideways glance through her blue-colored contact lenses.

Erica, adopted by white American parents when she was a toddler, has no memories of Korea. She is majoring in economics and speaks amicably of Korea’s role in the global economy. She seems to bear no grudge towards the country that gave her away. Extroverted and articulate, she mounted an energetic campaign to be a member of the Student Senate and won. In her first year of learning Korean, she took over as president of the Korean Student Association.

It seems that Erica even dresses like she is Korean. “She wears colors and patterns just like Korean women in Korea,” Ebru says.

“You mean the high heels and the pink satin raincoat that no sensible person would ever wear in the rain?”

Ebru laughs. “Yes! But that’s not it.”

“She has a lot of Korean-American friends. Maybe she is imitating them,” I suggest.

Ebru shakes her head. “Koreans in America dress like Americans. Erica is different. She chooses colors and coordinates her outfits like she is Korean.”

How does a girl raised in one country dress with the cultural instincts of another, albeit the country of her birth? Does she even know that she acts Korean?

And then there is Kimberly. Half Korean, half American like my kids. She has that same hard-to-name quality to her facial features as my children, which stamps them apart without quite knowing why. Is it the wide-spaced eyes, the lack of epicanthal folds, the high curve of their cheeks? The hint of something exotic, belying the American nature of their gestures and their walk—elongated and free, not truncated or restrained. Kimberly displays none of the reservation of a Korean daughter, even though her mother is Korean.

She speaks like any American teenager. “My mother drives me crazy! She bugs me that I eat such unhealthy foods. And then she starts crying that she can’t cook for me. ‘Ma,’ I tell her, ‘Stop it! I’m eighteen. Leave me alone!’”

“Kimberly, she’s only worried about you.”

“I know,” she sounds contrite. “She misses me. I guess we get along so well that it’s only the small stuff like junk food we argue about. We’re actually quite pathetic!” She laughs.

After class one day, Kimberly stands up and turns to me. She is grinning. “I finally had no trouble understanding today’s lesson. When I was little and bad, my mother used to say to me a lot, “Don’t do that! Don’t touch that!

I laugh. “You didn’t understand the previous eleven chapters, but you have grammar pattern 12.2 down. Excellent.”

I envy Kimberly’s relationship with her mother.

Both my children attend Korean language school at the Korean church for three years, until we move from Pittsburgh. My daughter eagerly participates in Korean dance, and my son practices Tae Kwon Do. They enjoy their activities more than the language classes, but they go every Saturday. Sometimes, after I drop them off, I stand in the quiet side yard of the church and look up at the brilliant stained glass windows. I can picture my daughter, in her basement classroom, sitting at the long cafeteria table and doodling on the margins of her notebook, instead of paying attention to her teacher. She is probably daydreaming about her Korean fan dance performance and her hanbok costume in rainbow colors. I can almost see my son sitting, among his younger classmates, at the large wooden table in the attic classroom, tracing the Korean alphabet with his crayons, the blue one, his favorite. Given his placid nature, I don’t think he pines for his white Tae Kwon Do uniform and yellow belt, or yearns to kick his foot through a wooden board, as he once did during a demonstration. I am grateful that this small Korean community has welcomed us despite the fact we do not worship here. Whenever she sees us, Mrs. Lee’s face always breaks into a huge smile, and she greets my children and me with unflagging enthusiasm.

Sometimes, I imagine that I belong here.

Often, I go to the Korean restaurant in Oakland, near Pitt’s campus. It has become one of my favorite places to have lunch after class. The Korea Garden has the best soon dubu, a spicy tofu and seafood stew, I have ever tasted. I remember my mother eating it when I was growing up. But it was too spicy for me then. Now, I scoop the soft tofu and clams in broth, tinged a deep ruby by red pepper flakes and spicy oil. I slurp the mixture. I inhale the aroma of ocean and garlic and earthy mushrooms, the sharp scent of red pepper infused throughout. My tongue mashes the silken tofu and my teeth cut the firm flesh of octopus and sliced scallions. The warmth of the soupy stew comforts me as it travels and settles in my belly.

I am reminded of the countless times I would come home after school, as a child, opening the door and calling out for my mother. I would catch the wet, doughy scent of cooked rice lingering hours after my mother’s meal. She most often had steamed rice and kimchi and gim, roasted and salted seaweed sheets, cut into squares for her lunch. A simple yet comforting embodiment of the country where she was born, a home she yearned for, a place she wished to return.

The female chef, who is also the proprietress of the restaurant, stops at my table and refills my cup of barley tea. I thank her in Korean; she nods and smiles at me. She has peered out from her kitchen many times as I ate here with different friends and frequently with my children. We like to come here for dinner. My daughter usually asks for mandu guk, dumpling soup, and my son always has bulgogi barbeque beef. I order the food in Korean because now I can speak Korean without stuttering, my tongue gliding to make sounds that mostly make sense. I understand the question the waitress asks me. Do I want more bap? The word for rice in Korean also means food, nourishment. Love.

When it is time to leave the restaurant, I say the customary farewell in Korean without hesitation. Ahnyeonghi gyeseyo. I am pleased with my increasing dexterity in the language of my mother.

I smile as I bow.



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