Learning English May Be Hazardous To Your Reputation

Learning English is serious business, in case you didn’t know. I got lucky since I got to learn the language immersively by living in the States, but that’s not to say that it didn’t take a few years of bumbling around and trying to figure stuff out. Unfortunately, that first part means that I embarrassed myself a lot while I learned. Actually, that second part too. Since they mean the same thing. But the point is, my early years here were filled with language-related incidents, most of which my memory back then must have decided to suppress. They were all part of a learning process, and I can have a laugh over the memories now. But you can imagine that it wasn’t so jolly for little me at the time.

I came to Washington during the summer of my third grade year, which means third grade had already finished across America. So I skipped half a year, totally without my knowledge, and started in the fourth grade in autumn. I remember feeling pretty cool for that. The first day of school was going well enough–my mom walked me all the way (we lived about five minutes’ walking distance away) and even sat in during class with a number of other parents. I liked my teacher, a kindly lady named Mrs. Ault, and thought the classmates were okay too. Then we had a little icebreaker (though I’m sure you never use that word with kids. What ice is there to break?), and during the instructions I heard the word “birthday”. I knew that word! It seemed that she would say all the months in order, and everyone who had a birthday in that month would raise their hand. (My birthday’s in August, so I had a little time to figure this out.) Then she would point to each person who raised his or her hand, and the kid would reply with some number. I was able to conclude that they were replying with the actual date of their birth. So I raised my hand when the teacher called “August”, and when it was my turn, I was able to triumphantly say “one” and feel good about my abilities of inductive reasoning.

My teacher didn’t seem so impressed, though; her expression turned rather curious, instead. If I had paid a little more attention to the numbers that everyone else was saying, I’d have noticed that they were all either nine or ten and thus realize that they were saying their age. I wasn’t embarrassed at having proclaimed that I was one year old to the class, though, because I didn’t figure it out until I thought about it at home later.

Things improved a little after a year of experience under my belt. Fifth grade was still dotted with a number of incidents, though, the most memorable of which is probably the rice debacle. The class was divided up into groups for a project that I can’t remember anymore. But it must have been some kind of crafts thing, because each member was assigned materials to bring from home. My material happened to be rice, and I was instructed to bring enough for the whole group to use. Oh hey, good news right? Not like I didn’t have tons of that at home.

At this point, I should tell you a couple things. First, the Korean language differentiates between two words for rice: “쌀” (pronounced “ssal”) and “밥” (“bap” with a long ‘a’), where the former is the grain in raw state and the latter is in cooked state. Second, the English language does not. Third, while I was learning English, I had this thing where if it was possible for me to understand something the wrong way, I generally would.

I went home and told my mom that I needed to bring, like, half a ton of bap on the next day for class. She thought something here was more than a little weird, but I was adamant that that was what I was told, because it was true. (Even though I thought that it was a tad bit odd too.) So mom ended up cooking a significant amount of rice that day, and it had to be packed into a plastic picnic basket for transport.  I walked into class the next morning with that big thing and set it down next to my desk for the first couple hours, until it was time for group work. Some of my friends were curious and asked if that was for lunch or something; I didn’t feel like explaining that it was for a project, so I just told them no. In retrospect, that must have have been confusing.

Imagine my groupmates’ surprise when I show up with lots of cooked rice and none of the raw rice that we actually needed. I don’t really remember what happened afterwards, but I think it involved a lot of languid laughing and kids trying to make me feel better. Oh, and that rice took a good while for my family to finish.

By the time I graduated from elementary school, I was fairly well versed in conversational English and most everyday expressions. What took a little more time to master, though, were cultural nuances. That was the reason for what happened in sixth grade. It was a Lion’s Quest class period: correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I believe it was sort of a citizenship development thing. The class took turns giving short presentations about what kind of behavior they would like to see and not see throughout the year. One of my “don’t want to see” things were hurtful gestures: for example, giving the finger. (Which, being in the sixth grade, one did see a respectable number of.) At that time, my understanding of the middle finger was that it was certainly an undesirable expression, but not quite at the level of taboo. I did my presentation, and when it got to that part, I thought I would show them an example of what I meant by hurtful gestures. What I mean is that I basically flipped off the entire class while my teacher was standing right next to me. Silence fell over the room for a few seconds, and to her credit, my poor teacher ended it with a terse “Thank you. But don’t actually show that, even as an example.”

Seven years later, I’m certainly bumbling around a lot less. Though sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be totally caught up. I’m sure that there’s something, some aspect of Americana waiting for me to mess up somehow and learn it, but that’s okay. I’ll just tell myself that I’m Americanized enough, I’m okay, I’m good to go. And that I’m still Korean at the same time. What an idea. If it feels like this conclusion is rushed, it’s because I took a whole another post and crammed it into the last two sentences here without a sufficient transition. So don’t worry, it’s not just you. I’ll write about that someday.

The life that couldn’t be

In case you didn’t know this about me, I moved to America at the age of nearly nine. (Two weeks before my ninth birthday. But I was actually ten already by Korean standards.) Educationally, relocating at that age made possible a very best-of-both-worlds opportunity, but culturally and socially, that was less true. Not only were my teen years spent completely here in the States, but having to adapt to a new country and deal with a language barrier made my first few years here fairly barren. In a way, I was stuck where I was in third grade while my friends there moved on with their lives.

That’s no longer true, and I don’t regret any of it. I do sometimes wonder, though, what my life would have been like if that critical event didn’t occur–if I had never moved. If I continued to live in Seoul, South Korea, in that third-floor villa which was atop a hill but didn’t actually have a view because an apartment building menacingly stood right behind it. I’m surprised at how different it could have been, but I shouldn’t be.

I’d still be playing the piano. A couple days a week after school, I’d go to a piano academy in my neighborhood, about five minutes walking distance from home. It was a pretty tiny place. Third floor (I think) of a neighborhood social/cultural center, had a main classroom for bookwork (which I didn’t really do) and four practice rooms. I learned for about two years, working up to Czerni 100 and Hanon, and saw the teachers change at least twice. I don’t think I ever developed a real passion for it, but I still liked playing and I made cool upperclassmen (in elementary school terms, mind you) friends. I had to quit when I moved and didn’t take it back up–even after my parents got me a keyboard, I gave up trying to teach myself after a little while and just played whatever I felt like learning once in a while. If I’d never quit, I’d be in my eleventh year now, and I’d probably want myself to perform. Maybe I’d even have learned how to play by ear. That’d be an experience.

The education fervor would have had killed me, but at the same time there are some things that I really wish I could have experienced in those schools. It’d have involved such undesirables as night study hall, arts/sciences majoring, and a race towards the College Scholastic Ability Test, but also more interesting things like class-wide, two-nights-and-three-days trips and social inquiry projects. I feel like I’d still have found ways to make it all memorable. My parents liked to put me on the elite path. Class president in all three years of my schooling there (they pick a new president every month in elementary classes, but I usually got it the most times), outside tutoring to keep me ahead of the curve, and lots of effort on their part personally. But to get the best education, I’d have had to attend a Special Purpose high school, like one of the Science Institutes or a Foreign Studies High School. It would almost certainly have got me into a top Korean college if not an Ivy provided that I worked hard, but would that have been what I really wanted? I don’t know.

(I found a recent picture of my old elementary school. It was under remodeling for the three years I went there, and the area adjoining the big round part and the rectangular wing on the left is where I spent my second and third grade years. But they lied to us! They said they were going to eventually redo the entire place. The left wing seems like the same old building to me.)

I don’t think I’d love music the way I do now. Part of why I got so into music–not just listening to it, but digging deep into the scene and eventually reviewing–was because it was one of the only ways that I could keep in touch with Korean culture in those first few years. I held onto that tightly and eventually it became a passion for music in general. If I stayed, would I have had more of an opportunity to experience music? Yes. I would have had access to concerts, countdown shows, indie performances, and even foreign artists’ concerts. Whether I’d take advantage of all that is a different story. You don’t appreciate stuff until you don’t have them anymore.

I’d have been part of… a lot of things. The Red Fever during all the World Cups (definitely would have been skipping school left and right) and other sporting events, for sure, but probably in more serious things as well. I remember watching how high school students organized the mass demonstrations and half-riots that occurred across the country during the FTA talks and mad cow controversy. I’m not even affected by the things that got those kids riled up, but I still agreed with a lot of it; and I’m no more a fan of the current Korean administration than anyone else. If I lived there, I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t have been swayed by the anti-government fervor and been a part of those protests. Activism is good; less so is doing it to go with the crowd. I would hate to have acted on matters like that while young and realize later that I was wrong. So I’m actually glad that I got to sit in peaceful Lakewood and got to spend my formative years developing and strengthening my opinions.

I’d have a lot more culture in my life, but not necessarily more cultured. The discussion on music above sort of explains what I mean. I’d have been in the middle (literally. I lived within a few minutes of the Han River, which flows through the center of Seoul) of a vibrant urban area of ten million, with opportunities to enjoy as well as create all forms of art, to try things and improve myself, to live the city out. Not that those opportunities don’t exist here, but it would all have been a much more natural part of life. But again, would I have taken advantage of all that? Chances are I would have been too busy with other stuff to develop an appreciation for most of it. Still, I suppose you never know what might have happened.

I’d never have met my God. I was raised atheist, and never particularly cared for religion (even though I did go to a church-affiliated preschool) as a kid–which isn’t unnatural. Only after moving here did my parents convert fully to Christianity, and though it took me a few years, I eventually came around as well. The life that I lived in America is almost certainly more tumultuous than the life I would have lived in Korea, which partly made me rely more on a higher power. I doubt that my pride would have allowed me to believe in a God if I kept living that affluent (fairly, at least), elite-course life.

These examples are not able to describe it, nor my words able to illustrate it, but it’s a whole different world, these two places that I’ve lived in. A lot of the things I mentioned above make me regret that I missed out and couldn’t make them part of my life. But there’s so much precious experience from here, so many valuable people that I’ve met, that it’s impossible for me to say “I wish I stayed”, either. Korea will always remain the life that couldn’t be for me. I had enough wonderful memories growing up there to last a lifetime, and I’ve filled in the rest so far with my life here.

But sometimes, it’s hard to not get nostalgic, even wistful, about that childhood. About the city that started it for me. My city.