Isabelle Jung/Sun Graphics Editor

February 21, 2024

DO | My Korean Disconnect

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This past summer, during my hiatus from Noah’s Arc, I traveled to South Korea for the first time by myself. Traveling internationally and experiencing life in a big city solo were such surreal experiences that I still have a hard time believing it was actually me doing those things. If college was the big first step to independence, this trip was confirmation that I had reached some kind of newfound maturity in my three years at Cornell. Now that the trip has had time to marinate, I can better situate it in the grand scheme of my young adulthood. And most importantly, in my Korean identity.

Although many differences reminded me I was on the other side of the globe, like no one holding the door open, fast Wi-Fi everywhere and a myriad of aesthetically pleasing cafes, language stood out as the most profound. It’s difficult to explain the level of my Korean abilities because it’s such a context-dependent assessment, but the best comparison I can give is a Furby toy. Furbys can technically speak English, but only in simple sentences that sound robotic, and their speech can’t be customized for the situation; the Furby will give whatever pre-programmed message it has, regardless of what you asked it in the first place. Similarly, I tend to speak Korean in short, pre-programmed sentences. When I have a conversation in Korean, I understand approximately 30 percent of what is being said to me, and any contextless nonsense I have to say has been short-circuiting my brain for the last half hour. 

As much as I put down my Korean abilities, they have improved significantly since the start of college. I grew up speaking only English at home, and was in Korean school as a child long enough to learn the alphabet and some basic words.  My Korean is 95 percent learned from my own studying, which at least gives me confidence that I can improve moving forward if I keep at it. 

Still, though, that doesn’t change the fact that my Korean is piss-poor compared to many of my friends’. It’s common for Asian Americans to glamorize a connection to their heritage, and language is often used as a litmus test for the strength of that connection. We speak about language ability as if it’s a skill that some have invested time into and others haven’t, when in reality, it’s due to factors outside of our control, whether we’re fully fluent or know nothing. For most Korean Americans, being bilingual isn’t a skill so much as a reflection of how much Korean was demanded of us growing up. 

When I was in Korea, I was struck by how out of place I felt due to differences that had nothing to do with language. The stylish yet same-ish way everyone dressed, the prevalence of cigarette smokers and the unapproachable yet well-mannered aura that surrounded every Korean person all reminded me that I was halfway across the globe from home. Even if my Korean was at a competent level, the cultural gap would have found a way to alienate me. This discovery reassured me that improving my Korean would not magically make me feel more in touch with Korean people or unlock some Korean side of me that previously lay dormant. 

Having written all this, though, I can’t deny that I wish I could speak Korean fluently. I’ve gotten over the idea that it will somehow make me more Korean, and that becoming more Korean is even something I want, but there’s still something inside of me that would be ashamed if the Korean language died out from my family because of me. There are few practical reasons for me to ever have to speak Korean, and there will be even fewer reasons for my children to, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still feel compelled to improve it. 

Speaking Korean is not the missing piece in navigating my identity as a Korean American. As I’ve expressed in previous pieces, simplifying my heritage to a slider that runs from Korean to American erases all the nuance of actually being who I am. Being fluent in a language doesn’t legitimize anyone as a member of some cultural group and it’s reductive to link cultural authenticity to decisions made on our behalf. And yet, learning the language calls to me as an opportunity to express something that I can’t quite get out in English.

Noah Do is a fourth year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His fortnightly column Noah’s Arc documents his journey through the flood that is college. He can be reached at [email protected]

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