September 28, 2023 | FEATURES | By Ceyna Dawson

What does it mean to be a Korean American who cannot proficiently speak her native tongue?

It means going on a 3 a.m. journey to San Francisco to wait for the 10-hour flight to Incheon International Airport, and only being able to greet her relatives with hugs, sincere smiles, kisses, and a hidden bit of shame.  

In anticipation of going to Korea, the ability to speak 한국 is at the forefront of every thought and every desire. Note cards fly across her room, tears stream down her face when the pronunciation sounds too American; she cannot express her thoughts to match her appearance.

Upon entering an H-Mart, a 할아버지(older man/grandpa) instantly knows she cannot speak Korean because her bow is not close enough to 90 degrees. So, again, the note cards come out. With a language program this time and a challenge to learn 50 words a day, the pronunciation isn’t there, and she hears the phantom-clicking-tongue of disappointment.

The journey to Korea begins once again; her two cousins are growing older. It is no longer acceptable to express love through playing games or with Legos. They no longer want to hold hands to cross the street or run with her through busy traffic. They no longer want piggyback rides or to play with her hair.

When leaving one time, the oldest cousin left her a note. Inside held a plea for her to learn, to speak well enough to get to know them, to study hard.

Each visit, they grew older, and each year, she would try to learn the language for them. And each year, the distance became apparent, the barrier exponentially beyond her grasp.

She memorizes minutes of video conversations to send over to her distant family. Still, she agonizes at the accuracy of each word, what they might think, and if they will even understand the terms.

Michelle Zauner, a Korean American, describes the struggle to learn, “I spent more than ten years going to hangul hakkyo every Friday, and this is all I have to show for it: I can read the signs for churches in different Asian texts, for an optometrist’s office, a bank.”

As much as pain comes with learning the language, she places an importance of struggling with Korean – a fond love for Korean sayings, culture, and the pursuit of learning drive her. There is a strange comfort in having a family 6,222 miles away who care for her health, education, and well-being. A family across the globe who live entirely separate lives but come together to blow out candles for her birthday.

Her grandparents can express their love through food and activities in each other’s presence without talking.

The actions of care have never disappeared with a deficiency in language.

The continual battle between learning a native language isn’t necessarily the challenge of learning. It is overcoming the barriers of judgment in speaking a word slightly differently or failing to approach the people you love most with an ability to communicate in words.

This suspension is uncomfortable and humbling, but invaluable.

It means she has to work to understand why you nod your head, bow down, and speak specific phrases. Why Korean culture functions so differently from American.

It means Korean spaces feel the most comfortable, but the words are incredibly foreign, and she has to sound out words like a child. 

At some point, she will no longer crumple the notecards in frustration; she will not cry over messing up in front of native speakers.

It is not at all a deep love of K-pop or K-dramas, with famous words like gwenchana, which drive the desire to speak fluent Korean.

The love of this culture keeps her thinking about it daily, the love for her family, and a willingness to struggle with understanding the words surrounding her most comfortable spaces.

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