For various reasons, I have always avoided telling Korean people that I know Korean. Not that I’m shy or afraid of making mistakes… I’m somehow hyper-conscious of unintentionally objectifying the him/her. As in, “I want to be your friend because you’re Korean.” People are individuals, not a race. I never want the other person to feel like I’m his/her friend simply because s/he is Korean. I want our friendship to be built on more than that.
So when I volunteered to host my friend Yekyung during this year’s interview weekend, I didn’t tell her I knew Korean until our very last email exchange before we were to meet in person. In the post-script, I wrote one short sentence in Korean, telling her to feel free to mix Korean and English with me if she liked. At that point, keeping it a secret would just be rude.
I think I’ve mentioned Yekyung on this blog a couple times. She is now a very good friend, a really great 언니, and a fantastic language partner of mine. This weekend, our program had its annual scientific conference by the beach and Yekyung was my roommate for 3 days – it was great! I mean, aside from the fact that she’s an incredibly sweet person and a wonderful roomie, she’s an incredibly strict language teacher. One of the best things about being friends with her, is that she got over the “한국어 잘 하시네요” phase pretty quick. When I speak in Korean, she actually listens to what I’m saying, she corrects me without reserve, and, yes, she praises me a decent amount, but not so much that it’ll get to my head!
I love that whenever we chat, at least one of us is getting language practice. She gets to practice English with me, but also has the luxury of switching back to Korean when she feels like it. I still find it difficult to hold conversations in 100% Korean, but it’s getting easier and easier to intersperse my English with longer and longer Korean sentences when I’m with her. And, man, is she a strict conversationalist! One day I said something like “스탠포드 처음 왔을 때, 너무 umm because it was like so big 길치니까, 걱정 됐어” and she just gave me a look and said, “Um? Because it was like so big? What is that? And there is no such thing as um in Korean!” Haha.
We like to share our language worries with each other. It turns out that many of the difficulties I have in Korean, she has in English. One of them, for example, is not being able to follow a conversation that’s taking place in a loud setting or with lots of people talking at once. Another being not knowing simple words (Yekyung: “Do you know 국자? The long spoon that you put in soup? I don’t know that word.”) It makes me feel like we can really help each master each others’ language.
Best of all, I never feel alienated from Korean when I talk to Yekyung. There’s never this sense of, “Oh, you’re not Korean so I won’t speak in Korean with you.” I mean, she’d wake up in the morning half-asleep and say “어 일어났어? 몇시야?” to me, like it was totally natural for her to speak to her non-Korean friend in Korean like that. It was great. I think I was the one only who kept thinking it was all amazing and unbelievable that I was actually speaking in Korean while Yekyung was totally unfazed. Haha. I think I even asked her like three times, “실제 언니라고 부르면 이상하지 않아?” and she looked at me like I was crazy, because what else would I call her? Hehe.
A couple months ago, there was a period of time during which I texted and spoke to Yekyung only in English because I figured, as a graduate student in the U.S., she should really practice conversing in English as much as she can. In fact, it’s probably selfish of me to try to talk to her in Korean for my own practice. But Yekyung actually encourages me to speak to her in Korean. Once we went out for brunch and I started talking to her in English but suddenly she interrupted me saying, “한국말로 해봐!” I feel an incredible surge of happiness whenever she says that (and she says it a lot!) because it makes me feel like she really cares about helping me improve.
I think it’s pretty clear that I’m still overly sensitive about how Koreans might view me as a foreigner with in interest in their language and culture, but Yekyung’s really helped me become less self-conscious. And I feel myself getting better and becoming more confident with each passing day. Here’s to both of us mastering our language of choice!