This is written partially in response to a challenge issued by Loving Language about telling our language stories. It was also inspired by his most recent post regarding language preconceptions (the first anecdote, anyway).
Before I begin, it is important to note that I am not Korean. My ancestry comes entirely from north-western Europe, and I do not – in any way, shape or form – resemble a Korean person.
When I was about twelve, my family went to South Korea for my uncle’s (wi sukbu) wedding. Most of my mother’s extended family was there, and one night, we went out to dinner with the soon-to-be-in-laws – Uncles First to Third Brother and their wives and children.
After dinner, the children left the hotel’s dining room to sit and play in the lounging area. We had a range of ages, but for the most part we all had “doubles”, new cousins of our age and gender. One of the pairs were two little girls of about three, my cousin (imo’s daughter), who – as is crucial to the story – was adopted from China.
At one point in the evening, Hyon-Ji wandered away from where she and Peng-Peng were playing near the wall of glass which passed as a window in the hotel. I can’t remember what for – perhaps to talk to one of her sisters – but we definitely had clear view of both of them.
While Peng-Peng was by the window, ostensibly by herself to any onlookers, a Korean woman came up to her and started addressing her in Korean – I presume to ask where her parents were. Peng-Peng just looked back at her in confusion.
Sensing a situation, I went over to try to do something about it. Unfortunately, Peng-Peng and I do not look like we’re related.
“She is Korean.”
“No, Australian. Hoju. My sa-chon.”
“She look Korean.”
“She’s from China originally. Jungguk. She’s Australian, though.”
“Yes, hoju. She’s my sa-chon.”
The thing is, Peng-Peng doesn’t – and didn’t – look Korean, either. But I suppose she didn’t look like she belonged with all the white Australians in the room, especially given she had been playing with a quite obviously Korean girl.
About a year later, I had started high school back in Australia and International Day was swiftly approaching – the day when the student body (hailing for more than sixty countries) got together with other people from that country in order to represent that country in a big festival on the oval.
At that point, with my weeks in Korea fresh in my memory, I talked about it a lot with my friends – one from China, one Chinese-Australian, one Vietnamese-Australian, one Indian-Australian, one French-Australian, and me, whatever I am. For the purposes of several discussions we’d had about westerners being unable to tell different nationalities of Asian apart, westerners being unable to use chopsticks, and my strange obsession with bulgogi, let’s just say I’d played up the “Korean relatives” thing a bit.
Anyway, in home group, discussion about going along to country meetings and representing countries reigned supreme. It turned out that we had a Korean in the class – one of the boys to whom I’d never payed much attention.
“I’m not actually Korean,” he pointed out, “But my parents are from Korea.”
“That’s Korean enough to go to the meeting,” Thuy-Anh informed him. “I’m going to the Vietnam one. Rachel’s Korean.”
The boy – Andrew or Anthony or something – was rightfully confused about that statement. “No, she’s not. She’s Australian.”
“Yes, she is,” another of my friends insisted. “Her family’s Korean.”
“Actually,” I pointed out – and it should have been just as obvious as Albert thought it was – “I’m not Korean. I just have Korean relatives.”
As it turned out, I went along to the Great Britain meeting and ended up dressing in tartan on the day.
Several years passed, and for some reason, I didn’t lose what little Korean I’d managed to gain in the lessons my family had taken before we’d visited. If you’re going to learn a second language, I don’t recommend you start with something as different to your own as English and Korean, because I was eleven, it was the first language I’d seriously tried to learn, and I didn’t learn much.
I know as much Korean today as I did when I visited Korea – which means I can read the alphabet and know a handful of phrases. Some of my sister’s friends took advantage of this a couple of times, writing down things in Korean and getting me to read them out before collapsing into giggles – they knew full well that I was just reading the sounds without any comprehension of what it meant.
When I was sixteen, I volunteered as a bunkhouse leader at a local youth camp. Two years in a row, I had the same girl in my bunkhouse – a Korean who called herself Amy (I knew several Korean Amies at that point). She told me towards the end of the first camp in my bunkhouse that her real name was Su-Mi, and I dutifully wrote out my own name in Hangul for her – Le-i-chel (yes, I need to do something about my name.)
At her second camp in my bunkhouse, there were several Korean boys she knew in another bunkhouse who were – if we’re being honest – very much our problem campers, constantly getting into mischief. Almost every time we were near them, Su-Mi would sidle up to me and whisper, “Rachel, he said a bad word in Korean!”
Things came to a head on the second-to-last day of camp, when they were making nuisances of themselves at dinner, talking to each other loudly in Korean, safely assured that quiet Su-Mi was the only one who could understand them. (Which was true – although her little voice in my ear assured me that what they were saying was rude).
My table ran out of water, and I leant across the aisle in the dining room and tapped one of the boys on the shoulder.
The two boys went so pale! “You speak Korean?”
The answer is ‘no, not really’, but I didn’t let that stop me. “Nye, gulochyo.”
Silently, they handed the jug of water over.
Su-Mi didn’t tell me they were swearing for the rest of the camp.
It’s been eight years since we were in Korea, and a lot has changed. When we first came back, there was just one Korean restaurant in Adelaide, and no-one had heard of Korea, kimchi, bulgogi or bibimbap.
Somewhere along the line, K-pop became the newest fad in Australia, and suddenly every teenage girl around was an officinado of Korean culture, music, and kimchi. A lot of Korean takeaway shops opened. I stopped talking about Korea – and bulgogi – quite so much, because I didn’t want to look like I was just following the latest fad.
But I’m still a massive fan of bulgogi – even though I don’t really like kimchi – and given that I’ve overfilled myself on ₩2000 of actual, genuine bulgogi with rice and lettuce and banchan sitting on the floor of a hole-in-the-wall establishment somewhere in the back-streets of downtown Daejon, I have a limited tolerance for the rice-and-meat-in-a-plastic-box combination that Korean takeaway shops in Adelaide try to pass off as “bulgogi” (or, even worse, with the English translation of “beef teriyaki”).
So sometimes there’s nothing for it but to visit one of the local Happy-Go-Lucky Marts and buy a bag of thinly-sliced beef and a jar of bulgogi sauce (yes, yes, I know, dear sister, that this creates sub-standard bulgogi and I should make the sauce myself) and make myself banchan and peel myself lettuce and eat Korean food the proper way.
With thin metal chopsticks, not with round wooden throw-away ones.
I’m planning a massive bulgogi (with banchan! with banchan, I tell you!) feast for the next weekend and made one of those trips into my favourite Happy-Go-Lucky Mart this afternoon.
It may be my favourite, but I only go in once or twice a year, and there’s always someone different in there. You know that feeling when you walk into a shop and you know you don’t belong? It wasn’t very full – there was only one other customer – but eyes followed me, thinking, “What is this white woman doing here? Should I ask her if she’s lost?”
I didn’t want much – just beef, bulgogi sauce, savoury pancake mix and puffed rice honey sticks (ssal-gwa-ja) – but there weren’t any rice sticks and I had trouble finding the pancake mix. I toyed with the idea over going over the counter and asking “do you have any pancake mix?”, but I didn’t know the word for “pancake” and asking “pancake mix issoyo?” is just confusing, because in Korea, pancakes are savoury and have vegetables in them, but in Australia, they’re sweet (in Korea, “hotcake”).
I eventually found the pancake mix and made my way over to the cash register to pay. The interaction was silent – they never know what to make of me – and as the man handed over my shopping, I bowed and murmured, “Kumsumnida.”
With K-pop and all things Korea so popular, I wonder every time why they’re so surprised every time.
“How do you speak Korean?”
“I was in Korea once when I was a child. My uncle lives in Daejon.”
“This is very good! Very good!”
“Chonun hanguk-olul haji malhanda.” (Officially the longest sentence I know, and probably wrong).
“Very good! Very good Korean! Here, is free!” He handed me a packet of squid-flavoured two-minute noodles, “Free for speak very good Korean!”
“Kumsumnida, kumsumnida!” More bowing as I leave. “Annyonghi kyeseyo! Kumsumnida!”
When we were in Korea, free things came to us because we had small blond(e) children with us. Here in Australia, I get free things because I know a handful of phrases in Korean.
The area where I grew up – at the time, almost entirely Italian – is now the largest concentration of Koreans in the state. It’s a little sad that a white “local” knowing a few greetings in Korean is such a rarity that it warrants such excitement.
I can’t stand K-pop, just for the record.