A guest post by Christine Yum Lenz from Small Town Girl Grows Up.
"A, ya. Uh, yuh. Oh, yoh." I heard my daughter practicing her Korean vowels in the dining room. Three weeks ago, she started Korean school near our home in Silicon Valley. I've always wanted to be fluent in my mother tongue but never got past restaurant-level Korean. My parents chose not to make me speak it at home perhaps to not confuse me. I developed my own blend of Konglish featuring a colorful array of slang and swear words (thanks Dad!) through home osmosis and Korean classes. On my first visit to Korea at age 12, I nodded silently at my grandparents while they uttered simple sentences about not eating too much or how I looked like my father, limited by my language comprehension to address any deeper topic. I felt foolish sounding like a 5 year old so I generally didn't speak that much. During my second visit to Korea several years later, I endured verbal abuse from taxi drivers who chastised me for not knowing my "own" language and teasing from my cousins. Remembering these experiences, I became determined to give my daughter the opportunity to learn Korean.
On our first day of school, I marvelled at the sheer quantity of Korean kids - 700 in all - little black-haired heads bobbing around the large high school campus. I felt at home and self-conscious at the same time. Most of the other parents were recent immigrants and spoke only Korean. I definitely felt out of place but as I gripped my daughter's hand and looked for her classroom, I became more determined to "take" our place in this community. I saw only one or two Caucasian parents so my 6'3" tall husband stuck out a bit but it really didn't bother me. I was focused on my daughter and how she was handling herself. I wondered if she knew that she looked different. She seemed nervous and shy but also curious about these rambunctious kids who were speaking a language that she heard her mom and halmoni speak. The class was comprised mostly of Korean kids including one little fellow who promptly told me that he was 4 years old. I watched him take out his little pencil case and start lining up his erasers. I noticed a few hapa kids with their parents and felt small sense of relief knowing that there were others who felt a little out of their element. The teacher was very kind and addressed everyone in English while explaining the curriculum. I said goodbye to Sophie and left with a hopeful feeling.Sophie going to Korean school has brought back a lot of memories of my own Korean classes which were taught in our church basement in the late '70s. My parents were recruited to teach the classes - to my great embarrassment - along with several parent volunteers. My dad was an old-school, you-will-obey-me-now-not-later, 1950s style teacher. He pounded tables with rulers and even flagpoles (watch out front row!) to get everyone's attention and make his point. My friends, Grace and Becky, reminded me that he broke several rulers throughout the course of our class. Despite all the theatrics in the classroom, I learned how to "read" Korean (mainly by sounding out words) and could understand my parents' conversations pretty well but not a KBS news show.
Now when I do homework with my daughter, I find that I need to speak Korean albeit poorly to support her lessons. At 40, I am trying to get over old fears and insecurities. I also realize that I want my daughter to learn Korean to not turn out like me. Though I was born in the U.S., I was considered and treated as a "foreigner" because of my looks but I was also treated as an outsider in Korea because of the way I spoke or did not speak. I hope that by giving my daughter exposure to Korean language and culture that she will gain a sense of ease that I struggle with in my own community. I also hope that she will gain insight into the Korean people - one half of her heritage - and a fresh way of looking at the world.
Christine grew up in Sunnyvale, California and has been blogging about motherhood since 2006.