on speaking Konglish
When I was ten-years-old, it was “I don’t like kimchi” and “I don’t do taekwondo.” When I visited my grandmother’s house, she told me that I wasn’t “truly Korean” because I did not enjoy some foods—kimchi, to be specific. Upon entering middle school, I was thrust into an odd sort of limbo in between cultures, arms stretching toward both sides, but without handles to grasp. Different aspects of life—food, values, and especially language—mixed together into a gigantic melting pot.
My Korean language education formally ended when I was still in elementary school. Although my parents spoke Korean at home, I slowly assimilated into the English speaking world. For a girl who’d entered preschool with only knowledge of the word “bathroom,” I learned English quite rapidly. From an early age, I developed a profound fascination with books and language, and drowned myself in various types of literature, even if it was only Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House or my all-time childhood favorite: Harriet Ziefert’s Sleepy Dog. Over time, my English-speaking and writing level surpassed my Korean skills.
At the time, I took no notice. After all, I was excelling in elementary school language arts. However, without proper effort, my Korean—although still considered fluent—struggled. My grammar was unnatural and stiff, and my writing transformed into a hastily-scribbled mess of boxes and lines and circles.
Yes, I could read, write, and speak the language. But it was far from perfect. A typical after-school conversation with my mother consisted of the following:
“Hakyo uh taes uh?”
"How was school?“
Gaen chan assuhyo. We learned about the Mayflower Compact.”
It was okay.
By the time I entered high school, I spoke an odd arrangement of Korean and English. Konglish. I replaced words that I did not know in Korean with English. I replaced English words I did not know with Korean. My words, when speaking to other Koreans, were a finely-arranged jumble of mismatched nuances and phrases.
At school, knowing Korean was considered ‘cool.’ Upon learning that I knew how to write in Korean, some people told me to write certain words for them. Sometimes they were short phrases like “I love you” and “hello,” but other times it was “hello, my name is John Doe.”
Many times, I was unsure of my Korean grammar. There were different ways to write a word that sounded the same. Occasionally, I simplified their sentences to better suit my needs. How was I supposed to know every single word? Oftentimes, I scribbled the words down, then said nervously, “I don’t know if that’s right. You should check with someone.”
“Thanks! That’s neat!”
I was alone in my Holden-Caulfield-angst. My yearning to be the “perfect Korean” and “ideal English student” had left me in a state of utter confusion. Would I have to choose between the titles? Was there no way to merge the two together?
“Your daughter is so good at Korean!” parents would exclaim when I spoke to them using a long list of phrases I’d perfected long ago. Anything complex—politics, science, and religion—was alien to me when spoken the language.
I began to realize that my Konglish defined me. Neither purely Korean or English-speaking, it had trapped me within this bubble of ambiguity.
Why did I feel out of place when I was amongst white people, yet also feel so out of place amongst other Koreans?
When I visited Korea, I knew exactly what to expect. I practiced my immaculate chopsticks skills on the plane ride, changed my Korean keyboard to the Chunjiin version, and made a conscious effort to talk in Korean the entire time. During my trip to Korea, I visited my school friend in Busan, and engaged in conversation with the taxi driver.
“You’re from America?” he asked me in Korean.
“Yes,” I answered, “I’m here on vacation. It’s a bit odd because everyone else in Korea is at school. Some people almost look at me like I’m a truant.” I stumbled over the last bit.
“You’re good at Korean, you know?” the driver remarked. He turned sharply on the road.
“Not really,” I answered. “When I don’t know a word, I say it in English.”
“You are lucky. You’re good at both Korean and English.” I glanced out the taxi window. A strange thought entered my mind. Who was I to place myself into a rigid box? Why did I have to choose between Korean and American... when I could be both? Now I realize that I do not have to be either the “perfect Korean” or “ideal English student.”
There is no need to choose between Korean and English. Both languages are beautiful in their own right. Both languages connect me with people I love and admire.
Language provides me with a constant connection to my culture, even when I’m surrounded by other cultures and values. Konglish is unique in itself. It bridges the gap between Korean and English, revealing a distinctive shade of language. Coming to terms with my own identity means accepting who I am, and I am Korean-American.
Outside, the city glowed. The lights cast beautiful shadows across the ground, painting an exquisite image.
“Look at how beautiful it all is!” a voice in me whispered. “The place is seeped in culture! Your culture. You’re Korean. You’re American. But realize this: you can be both, and you should be proud to be both. Korean. American. Korean and American. You’re Korean-American!”
Claire Ahn is a student at Rancho Bernardo High School, and currently resides in San Diego.