Korean adoptee … learns Korean! Part 2

Last time I wrote, I said that I would write next about “How I ignored my emotions and oppression long enough to learn some grammar.”

Fugitive Visions is a lot about my very real emotional struggle for the first years coming to Korea and how that has intersected with my engagement or lack thereof with the Korean language, and how painful and rotten that was for a long time.  I’m not going to barf my guts out and write that all over again here, so I’m going to just talk about some things  here that are working for me now or that worked well for me in the past. I don’t think that I have by any means gotten it all figured out, and there are adoptees I have met whose Korean is far, far better than mine.  I am also in the lucky position of having a good relationship with my Korean family, and never having had to search for them because they found me first. I honestly cannot imagine how difficult it must be to embark on the Korean language learning process if you have not been reunited. Adoptees do it, and I salute them! I really don’t know how they can, but they do. Anyway, in my particular situation, I’ve figured out some things that work for me, and you can take what’s useful to you and leave the rest.

1. Ignore people who interrupt your learning

As an adoptee living in Korea, various situations have come up time and time again with

–white people who speak better Korean than me (nothing like that to make an adoptee clam up in a hurry);

–people who use adoption as a metaphor for their own experience but who have no concrete understanding of adoption as a reality (I had that one today:  “It’s like I was adopted.” Yeah right. Ha.);

–Korean people insisting on my foreignness or Koreanness and not just letting me be an internationally adopted Korean (“When are you going back to CHINA?” “You have Korean blood — you should be able to learn Korean fast!”);

–people telling me what I am or what my experience has been and then asking for confirmation later, (“Well you’re American … aren’t you?”) etc.

Hurtful conversations have hurt my language learning in the past because my learning would be interrupted by my anger at people’s ignorance and wrong assumptions, my jealousy at those white guys who speak great Korean because they are married to Korean women while people look at adoptees like “What the hell is wrong with you?” or just my overwhelming sadness about not being able to communicate with my own family in a meaningful way — to talk about our experiences, our feelings, our disappointments and our dreams together.  When the use of the phone is a anxiety-provoking event (“Sis!! SLOW DOWN!” “Big brother, your accent is crazy!! I can’t understand a word you’re saying!”), then it means you generally don’t use the phone and even though your family is so close, you are still so far …. How screwed up is that?

Well, I still have the phone frustration (though it’s getting better), but one of the keys that I’ve figured out is just to IGNORE OTHER PEOPLE.  Really. Could it be that simple? It is hard to ignore people when they get under your skin, but if you let them get to you, then you waste a lot of time. Wow, I have wasted a lot of time! There are always going to be annoying jerks in your class or your program, so since you can’t get rid of them and you definitely don’t want to be friends with them, you might as well just ignore them.

1a. Exception: You cannot ignore your Korean language teacher.

Korean language teachers can be just as ignorant about what an adoptee is as anyone else, and can proceed to say whack things about adoptees or adoption treat you in a way you don’t like in class without knowing that they just made you space out of class for the next 45 minutes while you try to hold back tears or anger.  I have unsuccessfully tried to challenge teachers when this has happened to me before, but last semester I was so proud of myself and felt very empowered because I talked with a teacher THREE TIMES and then she finally got it. I guess when you are presented with any new, awkward situation, you have to have some practice at it.

Also, those textbooks are all written for foreigner-foreigners, not adoptees. Especially adoptees who are reunited need to learn certain things like family words and casual language first, not after all the formal language and chatting about the weather as the books teach. So this is a difficult point, and maybe if I master the language one day, I’ll write my own little slim book for adoptees with all that family stuff that we need to know right off the bat. I’m in Level 4 now and there is STILL a lot of language that I’ve just picked up by myself that has never appeared in the book because I am interacting within a Korean family.

2. Have an emotionless stock phrase that you can say in Korean to explain your existence to get people off your back if you want, or to open up conversation further.

I struggled for a long time with my limited Korean trying to figure out how to give Koreans I encountered in everyday life the information they want (to get them off my back) in a way that was also dignified to me.  Now I can spit out my phrase quickly and like a robot and decide, depending on how they respond, whether I want to continue the conversation. I often do because I want to ask them questions about what they think about adoption, etc., and because they usually seem like good people who are just curious, and whose cultural idea of privacy … well, they don’t really have one. Usually I encounter people whose services I need in daily life: the beauty shop lady, the taxi driver, the shoeshine guy, etc. They are all free language tutors. And each time I decide that I want to engage, I have a chance to share ideas with another person.

3. Play mind games with yourself if you need to.

I don’t need to do this anymore, but I used to pretend I was white to get through the learning, since it seems so easy for white people to study Korean as a hobby. (A hobby!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! IMAGINE THAT!!!!!!!!!!!) I want it to be easy for me too. So you know, for an adoptee raised in rural Minnesota, pretending you’re white is not really a big stretch.

4. No drama, no drama, no drama

This one is hard, but I can really say that since I have taken some steps to decrease the drama in my life, the learning and productivity have increased significantly. There is still the occasional flare-up, but I think I’m getting better at handling things so I have the emotional freedom and space to learn.

5. Talk to supportive adoptees who are studying well

I met a cute little someone who had taken Korean classes for years growing up, and she tested in at Level 4 when she went to the Inje program six years ago. I was so impressed with her that I decided to make my goal Level 4, and happily, I’ve achieved that goal finally this semester! I remember what she said when I complimented her on her Korean, while I was feeling so inadequate. She said:

“Everyone’s Korean sucks. Some people’s Korean just sucks less.”

Another adoptee I met, who has been in Korea for years, speaks pretty great Korean — enough to translate for other adoptees. I asked him what his secret was, and he said:

“Don’t compare yourself to other people in your class. Even if you have to repeat a level, as long as you’ve improved, you’re doing OK.”

Another adoptee who does not live in Korea at all, but who confidently put on her attitude and went to Yongsan with no Korean language skills at all and helped an adoptee who actually lives here purchase a computer, put it like this:

“People who make their living by selling things want to sell things to you. So they make it easy for you.”

Another adoptee who studied her face off for years and who would not come out to play with me often, but in exchange  is now very comfortable speaking Korean, told me:

“You just have to decide that you can do it.”

Off the subject of language learning, another adoptee told me a number of years ago to “Just decide to live in Korea, and your life will be a lot easier.” Unbelievably to me at the time, she was completely right. Once you decide to apply yourself to building a life in Korea and stop wasting your time on indecision that actually doesn’t get you anywhere, you can get a lot of stuff accomplished, including learning Korean. Of course, it is a big decision that you have to take carefully, but I also see that a lot of adoptees have been in Korea for years without actually deciding to live here — it’s just that they haven’t decided to leave. It’s a kind of limbo. Well, I’m not going to judge anyone because everyone’s gotta do what they need to do to stay alive, but for me in my personal experience, it was important to make a conscious and deliberate decision to live here. The minute I did that, life started to open up with opportunities. Specifically, I got a great job and at the end of 3.5 years I had saved about $100,000 by living frugally (which is also great for the environment), and then I got a full-tuition scholarship through NIIED that will give me a master’s degree in public policy and 1 year of Korean language instruction for FREE + 900,000 won (less than $900) a month as a living stipend. It won’t make you rich, but it is enough to live on in Korea if you are frugal and concentrate on your studies instead of partying. (Note: You cannot take advantage of this or other services for “foreigners” if you are a dual citizen.) I’m not saying this to brag, but to encourage other adoptees, because a determined person can do a lot!!! It’s like the method of picking a date in your day planner and writing something down, and then it magically comes true because then you have the vision and the goal. Living in Korea and learning here can be done, it is being done now by other adoptees, and you can too, thanks to the struggles of many adoptees and organizations such as GOAL who have been building infrastructure for us and advocating for us in Korea for years.

To conclude this part, I just want to give a big thanks to those who’ve commented. Yes, Mei Ling, in 1995 my language skills really were that non-existent! Papa2hapa, I totally know the feeling. Toni, props to you for maintaining your son’s family connection.

Happy New Year everybody! If you break your New Year’s resolutions, you have another chance in February for Lunar New Year. We will all get one year older on Lunar New Year. I will be 40 in Korean age. Holy crap.

Next up: Misconceptions Koreans have about how the adoptees learn Korean and some good book recommendations and study techniques.


7 responses to “Korean adoptee … learns Korean! Part 2

  1. “then it means you generally don’t use the phone and even though your family is so close, you are still so far …. How screwed up is that?”


    I remember how it felt to have my mother in the same room, and it still felt like I was miles away from her because we couldn’t communicate well enough. It just really sucked.

  2. Pingback: A take on KADs learning Korean « kim saebom

  3. My son’s halmoni told me on the phone the other night that she wants me to hurry up and learn Korean better, because she wants to be able to talk to me, not the translator. I understand this, as there is so much for us to share about the boy who links us, but there is the reality of learning and time. She told my son this summer that she will spend more time with him once he learns more Korean (that one hurt him a lot). We are trying, but it is hard without an organized, daily learning situation. Even in our situation, where people on the subway quickly figured out my kids were adopted, there was an expectation that we would speak Korean. That surprised me the first time. And my poor kiddos were so frustrated at being told over and over they were 미국 – they are so proud to be 한국! One nice gentleman gave us language lessons on the long ride from one end of the green line to the other…

  4. Jane, I would really appreciate any book and study technique recommendations. I am a white AP who has been studying Korean for a couple of years so I can help my son (now 7 years old and in first grade) learn Korean. While there are certainly more resources now than just a couple of years ago, it’s still hard to find really good books and other materials. And Korean materials for children all seem to be geared towards kids who speak Korean at home and just need to learn reading and writing. We do go to a Saturday morning Korean school. And even though my son is the only adoptee there he hasn’t minded it so far because there are several Korean-American kids in his class who are also spoken to in English at home. I won’t pretend that my emotional connection/issues with Korean is anything like that experienced by adoptees, but I do feel that if my son doesn’t have basic competency in Korean by the end of high school that I really will have failed him in an important way. (We plan a return visit to Korea in 2 years and I would be so happy if my son could say at least a few words to his foster parents. We met them several times before bringing him to the U.S. and they really were just wonderful people.)

  5. i teach language and i really liked this series. what you’re saying about emotions and learning resonates with my experience teaching some heritage learners. i suspected some had additional pressure (both self-inflicted and peer-inflicted), your posts are making me think about how to face that pressure head-on. part of the issue is that, as americans, we have so little knowledge about other languages and how to learn them. and even in my situation, where i do know something about it, i’m surprised by how my own child learns 2 languages at once. anyhow, awesome posts.

  6. You’ve learned a lot already. I guess you’d be finishing it with honors. lol..

  7. Thanku sooo much for writing this! I first read it a couple of months ago and the emotional stuff with language learning really resonated – it was that feeling where something u have been struggling with for years but were never really aware of was brought up illuminated for u. I am mixed race (arab/ european), my arabic is terrible and I recently moved back to the arab world. I feel like I am constantly having an identity crisis, feeling vulnerable about my lack of arabic and not fitting anywhere. It just takes so much energy and I am struggling to study at the same time. And the thing about white people who are fluent – completely makes me clam up and feel stupid every time. I reread ur post and it is sooo helpful to read. If there is any other sources taht helped u overcome this please please share them

Thank you for visiting my blog. I no longer have time to update this blog regularly, but I appreciate your comments, even though I cannot respond to all of them. All comments (except spam) have been allowed to go through unmoderated since June 16, 2014. Any comments you see prior to that date have been read and approved by me. Thanks again, and wishing you peace and blessings.

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