From the age of nine until I entered high school, I woke up around 8 a.m. every Saturday to attend a full day of Korean school in the community space of a local Presbyterian church 15 minutes from my house. There, I was made to fill out colorful little vocabulary worksheets, practice conjugations and watch old documentaries from the ’90s about the Korean peninsula and its history.
There were never more than five kids my age in each class — kids with names like Angela Lee or Danny Park. All second-generation Koreans, obsessed with Pokémon or Nintendo. And usually, they were inexplicably near-fluent in the native language.
“Where in Korea did your parents come from?” I remember one of them asked me in rapid-fire Korean. I stared back at him for a good five seconds, trying to translate. A moment later, he gave me a quizzical smirk and turned back to his coloring book.
I hated those Saturdays. I hated raising my hand, mumbling a phrase I knew too well — “Can you say that again?” — in poorly accented Korean, whenever I couldn’t understand my teacher. I hated reading aloud, stumbling over text written for 6-year-olds, straining for a good five minutes to decipher those old documentaries and spending the rest of the time pretending to listen because I’d given up.
I was usually a fair student back in “normal school,” in safe, American English-speaking comfort. But in this alien place, I was the outsider, clueless, inexperienced.
“Stupid,” I heard one of my classmates mutter under her breath one day, after I mixed up the Korean words for “car” and “train.”
I tried not to cry, at least until I arrived back home that afternoon and had a free moment in my room. I’d never known what that felt like. Stupid.
I could study all I wanted. It wouldn’t change a thing about what they all thought of me. I was the kid dragging the entire class down because he took a few seconds longer to count to 10 and wrote sentences with large, scrawling, lopsided characters that barely fit in the lines.
In the past, I didn’t mind too much about keeping up with my Korean, before I started going to Korean school. I knew the words for most of the colors, most household items. I could ask my parents to pass the salt at the dinner table, could listen intently and update my grandparents on what grade I was in and how old I was, when asked.
To be honest, that was all I thought there was to it. There was no consequence, no embarrassment in my admittedly loose grasp of my native language. When I didn’t know a word, I just switched to English. Full-on Korean conversations only ever seemed to me like this strange, adult thing my parents and their friends did, and I didn’t ask any questions.
But this Korean school, the first place in my entire life where I wasn’t the only Asian in the room, was a different story. Kids here not only spoke Korean, they lived it. They followed Korean news, they listened to Korean music, they watched Korean films and television shows. They wore their American clothes and spoke accent-less English like I did, but did it without neglecting the other half of their identity.
They were Asian Americans, composed of two worlds, two cultures. I began to realize over the first few weeks that I couldn’t even hope to contend with something like that.
I spent a lot of my preteen years sitting in that dusty old Presbyterian Church community room hating this language, hating this culture, hating my classmates who now snickered every time I was called up to read aloud from the books. It hurt, to know they grew up in a way that I didn’t, that they were as Korean as they were American, while I, even at 10, 11, 12 years old, was still reading Korean at the third-grade level.
I blame myself. It’d never been in my own interests to keep up with my Korean. Not when I was 9, anyway. I didn’t know how much my relationship with my heritage would come to impact me, positively and negatively.
I speak Korean whenever I can now. I try my hand at a few Korean television shows every now and then. My accent’s better every time I notice it.
My greatest fear is that I’ll lapse again, that maybe one day, I’ll get a call from my 90-year-old grandmother, and won’t be able to understand a word she says.
So I keep it up, for her and for me. And I am still learning.
Jinwoo Chong is a sophomore in the College. He is the editor of Chatter, The Hoya’s online opinion section.