Once upon a time, Korean was my first language. When my family moved to Uganda when I was five, I was enrolled in an international elementary school with a fully English curriculum. But just a few months later, I had to drop out of school when the 1997 Asian financial crisis cut our family’s missionary support in half. My parents decided we needed to finish building our house instead.

So for the first half of first grade, I stayed home and, well, played all day. It was wonderful—but I lost all the English I’d learned. My brother was two years younger than me and still choosing what language to speak (it’s difficult when people around you speak Korean, English, or Lugandan). My parents spoke to us in Korean, and I communicated with my Ugandan soccer buddies using frantic gestures.

By the time our house was finished and I could head back to school, I didn’t even know the full English alphabet. I was six at the time. My mom pleaded with me to learn the song, at least the song. No! I told her each time she asked and ran off to enjoy every last minute of playtime before I had to go to school again.

I should have listened to her. Back with friends who had been at school for the past six months, I started to develop a nasty internal anxiety about my language deficiency as I began to realize how far ahead my peers were. Our first grade class had a reading series with color-coded spines to differentiate reading levels. I remember feeling desperately ashamed for being the only kid to read stories in the childish primary colors section while all the other kids were reading much cooler, more interesting stories in the brown and green levels. I passionately wanted to read about fun tree house adventures and mystery tales in those advanced sections that I knew I could read if only they were in Korean.

Korean remained my dominant language until I was in fourth grade or so. For those several years, I struggled with a self-imposed stress of playing catch-up with my English skills. It got so bad that I developed a nervous tic. When I was standing around, I’d hang my arms out and shake them. I had actually forgotten about this until my mom related it to me during my senior year of college after I told her I was buried under a mountain of work during a terrible exam week.

It was like she’d taken a flashlight and pointed it at a dark corner of my mind that had been forgotten over the years. Wave after wave of ambivalent emotions coursed through me as I tried to reconcile how real that memory felt, then and now, and whether or not I could validate the experience as something that I actually remembered. The intensity of that initial shock has now faded, but I still worry about the fact that I went through that experience—regardless of my poor memory.

In a strange twist of fate, English has now become my first language, and I’m trying to bring my Korean up to a similarly fluent level in preparation to join the Korean military later this year. I’ll be going back to the place of my heritage, where I will be surrounded by a mainly homogenous culture that’s densely layered with implicit social expectations. I’ll be tossed into a narrative stream that I’m supposed to understand. It’ll be like returning once again to that first grade classroom and finding myself behind and out of place with my peers.

Relearning one’s heritage language can be a treacherous endeavor. As a Korean Korean language learner, I find myself having to exorcise demons of self-doubt that exist in my fraught memory and guard against those that presently lurk behind the pressure of meeting social expectations.

But is there really any other way to greater knowledge that’s so intimately tied to one’s identity? I don’t think so.

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Knot

    Thanks for this fascinating reflection. All the best as you rediscover Korean!


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