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Confessions of an incompetent Korean

I HAVE a confession to make: I'm not very good at being Korean. It seems that when you look the part, people expect you to do at least one thing right - like speak the language, know the food, or be good at math. I can't do any of that. This becomes particularly evident when I go to a Korean restaurant with American friends. They always seem puzzled that I can't identify every dish on the menu, but if my mother didn't make it at home, then I don't know about it. When it's time to order, the waitress talks to me nonstop in Korean, refusing to believe me when she hears the one sentence I can say very well in that language, ``I don't speak Korean.''

Suddenly, everyone at the table seems to forget that I don't speak Korean, and wants me to ask the waitress how certain dishes are prepared. The answers are rarely illuminating, since most of the waitresses at my favorite Korean restaurant are only marginally better in English than I am in Korean.

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Once the food arrives, I spend a lot of time surreptitiously massaging my hand under the table instead of enjoying the meal - I eat with chopsticks so infrequently that when I do use them, I get cramps in my fingers.

I know I've disappointed people with my failings. Aside from my friends in the restaurant, there was my first boyfriend, who told me he had seen me several times before we met and was hoping I would have an exotic accent. Unfortunately, my accent was no more exotic than his, since we both grew up in the same town in New Jersey. And then every year, there were a few new kids in school who were crushed to discover that my answers to the math and science homework rarely resembled those the teachers provided.

A few people have wondered why I'm not better at being Korean after all these years. My parents tried to guide me in the right direction, but we all got distracted by the fact that we were living in the United States. Although they wanted me to be bilingual, by the time I was 3, all I could say was Mama, Dada, bye-bye, and Coca-Cola.

Far from realizing their good fortune, they panicked at the thought that I might never learn to speak, which would reduce my chances of graduating summa cum laude from Harvard. If something wasn't done, their eldest child would end up a Bowery bum.

AFTER consulting a child psychologist who suggested I was confused by the two languages, they spoke to me only in English, and sent me to nursery school. By the time I was 3, I sounded like any other American kid, and my parents couldn't shut me up.

After learning English, I saw no reason to learn Korean. Almost everyone I knew, including my parents, spoke English, and none of my friends had to learn another language.

``It's too hard,'' I would wail to my parents whenever they tried to teach me Korean words.

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Besides, in those days, nobody seemed to know what Koreans were, or where they came from.

``Are you Chinese or Japanese?'' people would ask.

``Korean,'' I would reply. I almost always got a blank stare. ``My parents came from Korea.''

``Where's that?'' was the usual response. ``Is it part of China?''

FORTUNATELY, many people were willing to help me become a good American, including a nursery school teacher who tried to teach me the correct pronunciation of my name. She called on me one day when I raised my hand to answer a question.

``Marian Hi-oon?''

``Excuse me, ma'am. My last name is Hyun [rhyming with sun],'' I explained.

``NO, dear,'' she insisted pleasantly. ``Hi-oon.''

I took it on myself to teach my parents what I learned in nursery school. I gave them their first lesson when I was four years old.

``Where's my turkey?'' I asked my mother in mid-November. ``Thanksgiving is soon.''

My mother explained that we ate Korean food, that she didn't know how to cook a turkey. Exasperated, I told her that we had to have turkey because that's what the Pilgrims and the Indians ate. I had learned all about it in school.

Although she might have had second thoughts about the education I was receiving, she bought a small bird and studied the roast-turkey recipe in her ``Good Housekeeping Cookbook.'' That Thanksgiving, we had a turkey with all the trimmings, the first of many. I was happy, and my mother eventually became such an expert at holiday dinners that years later, she taught other Korean women how to cook turkeys for their children.

As a result of her success with the turkey, my mother discovered that American food was much easier to prepare than Korean food. Soon we were eating hamburgers, meat loaf, tuna casserole, whatever else people ate before cooking became known as cuisine. My father was not impressed with Western-style food, nor were his friends, whom he often invited for dinner without giving my mother more than a few minutes' notice; of course, they all expected a full Korean meal.

``Oh, no,'' she would moan. ``The Koreans are coming for dinner.''

Her appreciation for American culture grew as she became familiar with major appliances, such as the washing machine and the dishwasher. She became an ardent baseball fan during the 1969 season, and was loyal to the Miracle Mets until they had the audacity to trade Tom Seaver; she switched her allegiance to the Yankees.

My father wasn't completely happy with Mother's enthusiasm for all things American. He could see that she was becoming a less-than-perfect Korean.

``After I retire, I want to live in Korea,'' he announced a few years ago.

``Fine,'' she replied. ``Go live in Korea. Just mail me a check every month, because I'm staying here.''

He eventually gave up his efforts to reform her, but continued to give all of his children opportunities to become good Koreans. He sent each of us to Seoul several times to visit relatives or attend summer school. He has given us gift subscriptions to English-language Korean newspapers. And before I got married to an Irish-Ukrainian from the Bronx, he frequently offered to introduce me to Korean bachelors.

``I know a handsome young doctor at the hospital,'' he would say casually at dinner. ``He just arrived from Seoul two months ago. You could practice your Korean with him.''

My father never seems to remember I have no Korean to practice with anyone. I remind him of that, and he frowns disapprovingly. I wish I could speak the language; I spent two summers in Korea studying it, and forgot almost everything within a few months of returning home. It saddens me that I was never able to exchange more than the simplest greetings with my grandmother, who spoke almost no English. But I think she was aware, much more than my father (and even than I), that I was incorrigibly American. We had our last conversation when I visited her in Seoul, soon after I met my future husband.

``Do you have a boyfriend?'' she asked.

``Yes, Grandma,'' I replied.

``Is he Korean?'' she wanted to know.

``No, Grandma,'' I said. ``He's American.'' I waited for the look of disappointment, or the snort of disapproval. There was none.

She just paused to think for a moment, then asked, ``Is he pretty?''

``Yes, Grandma,'' I said.

``Good, good,'' she said, smiling and patting my hand.

It was during that trip to Seoul that I began to realize I would never amount to much as a Korean. I have always believed that self-discovery starts at the dinner table. Now, I love Korean food, especially when my mother cooks it. But after more than a month of soup, rice, and kimchi (a mouth-searing cabbage pickled in garlic and red pepper), I found myself daydreaming about hamburgers, French fries, apple pie, and Tropicana orange juice. Once the food cravings began, I knew I wouldn't be satisfied until I was back home.

I tried to keep up my Korean skills after returning to New York. I signed up for language lessons, ate frequently in Korean restaurants, and even took an algebra course during a period of temporary insanity when I thought of pursuing an MBA. As I slipped back into my normal pattern of living, the language lessons were the first to go. The algebra course simply reaffirmed my incompetence in that subject, so plans of business school were scrapped.

I still go to Korean restaurants with friends, though not as often. These days, I scan the menu, then suggest ordering what is listed as ``Assorted Korean Dishes,'' to which I add a few other things I happen to like. The great number of plates on the table keeps everyone busy eating instead of asking a lot of questions I can't answer, and leaves me more time to massage my hand.

Someone once asked me why I don't ask for a fork. That's something I hope I never have to do. I may not be good at being Korean, but I do have my pride.