How To Be A Bad Asian: Flunk Your (Native) Language Course

Life is hard enough as an Asian. Not all of us can get perfect SAT scores, graduate from medical school or trick out a Honda Civic. The pressure to embrace our culture remains but sometimes, we just don’t want to. How To Be A Bad Asian is an ongoing series of personal essays by the 8Asians writers about what sets us apart from the API community, how we deal with the stereotypes that we put upon ourselves and why we all can’t be that perfect Asian. It’s time to be bad.

I came across this commentary on Korean language instruction. It sparked some memories of my own experience in language class.

While I was in seminary – a graduate/professional program for those who are pursuing ordained church ministry – I decided I wanted to try the Korean language course at the University. When any seminary student wanted to take a course at the University the registrar required a petition, and I rationalized it would help my development as a pastor since I was serving in the children’s ministry at a local Korean Presbyterian church. But, I namely just wanted to say that I was technically a Princeton student for a semester.

Well, the course kicked my ass.

It was the hardest class I was taking at the time, and that meant it beat out Biblical Greek and Systematic Theology II. At the beginning of the semester, I took an assessment test, and the teacher thought that I was good enough to be in the “advanced” Korean 101 class. I felt pretty good… even uncharacteristically cocky. The class consisted of me and two Princeton graduate students in the Asian studies department. One student was Japanese, and the other, I think, Italian. Well, as it turned out, the Italian was doing the best out of all of us. I can’t tell you how terrible I felt about it, especially since the teacher was Korean. That just didn’t help anything at all. Even though she was young and hip, she may as well have been channeling my grandmother and all her potential disapproval.

I ended up getting a B. Barely. Which means I basically failed. And what’s sad is that I worked crazy hard for that B. I can’t remember anything from the course except how to turn a verb into an adjective modifying a noun. Which, I can’t even come up with an example for right now.

It’s hard to quantify how much Korean I actually know and can use in a conversation. I make a decent first impression with “Hello,” and “Nice to meet you,” but then the conversations pretty much disintegrate after that. I do say certain phrases in Korean with ease (like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” and “Happy Birthday”) and I have random Korean songs memorized that I conjure up perfectly like the Korean National Anthem, John 3:16, or the Moon Song. And, reading is relatively easy since the alphabet is incredibly straightforward, but I usually don’t know what it actually means, and of course, I probably sound like a doof. My parents taught me the alphabet when I was young, but I didn’t attend Korean Language school. Unfortunately, the biggest issue is that my bah-ruhm (accent) is not good. My parents can rarely decipher what I’m saying unless I’m saying that I’m hungry or tired.

For a long time this was something that embarrassed me. I didn’t like going to Korean restaurants without my parents or other fluent Korean speakers for fear of being found out and chastised, and I constantly felt unsure about myself. But, in the last few years or so, I’ve come to grips with it. It’s who I am. And I know I’m not alone in it. Plus, I’m too old and tired to care anymore. If I have the opportunity, I do speak it, as much as I’m able, and I don’t worry about how I sound. But, then I realized that a lot of Koreans, especially the ones that work at restaurants actually speak English, too, so all that really matters is that I get my ox-tail soup. Language isn’t the only thing that makes anyone Korean (or whatever other Asian language).

That being said, I love language, and am fascinated with it. I discovered a new found respect for it. At the time, it was interesting to see how the different systems work (Greek vs. English vs. Korean…although I wonder if all the languages got mixed up in my head that semester), and all the different cultural idioms were wonderful. I just suck at it. Unless it’s put to song. Anyways, I can redeem myself by doing the proper Asian parenting act of living vicariously through my children. I really do hope the babies learn Korean. But, also something useful like Spanish. And, Chinese. And, Arabic. And for fun, I’ll teach them Pig Latin.

(Image Source: Galt Baby via Mihee on Pinterest)

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About Mihee

Mihee lives in the Mid-West with her husband, toddler-aged twins (yes, terrible twos is actually a thing), and baby #3. Though her reserve of brain cells is seriously depleted she is still passionate about Asian American culture, religion and social justice for marginalized people, stories about Korea, sports, and power naps. During the day, she spends a lot of time trying to remember which baby needs to eat or get a diaper change, mentoring and ministering to college students, occasionally taking a walk, writing, watching Sportscenter, or grabbing coffee. You can read her blog here.
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