Kim: Grappling with the Korean language is an experience in vulnerability, growth

Yvonne Kim, Opinion Editor

My parents often tell me of the first time they sent me off to preschool. They recount standing outside the classroom, secretly staring in through the window out of concern, to observe me crying in confusion. I understood none of the English spoken by the teacher or my peers — my parents had taught me Korean when I first learned to talk — and I spent my earliest years in school struggling to navigate a new language. That was the last time Korean was my preferred language, and — as is standard for a U.S.-born Korean American — I have since become entirely familiar with English.

English is, for me, a very safe and comfortable space. While growing up, my mom often said — in typical, honest Korean mother fashion — that I had no real skills beyond studying (I can’t help but agree). In fact, as I moved from middle school to high school and college, I continually came to realize that even my academic passions are limited, lying within the world of language. I shrunk away from lecture halls full of STEM students, where I soon realized upon arriving at Northwestern that I was merely average at best. Where I did find excitement was in doing class readings and writing papers. I have concentrated my studies in journalism and English, in hopes that I can continue improving in this art, and found comfort in how safe and predictable this language feels.

But it is easy to value and treasure something that feels natural. For someone who takes pride in English — even looks forward to an entire career in it — it’s hard to grapple with the realization that this is exactly why my love for Korean, conversely, is so much more tiring. English is light, natural and easy. Korean is heavier and slower; it requires thought behind each word and phrase to make it work. And as a result, I’ve come to find insecurity and fear behind it.

I first started engaging with Korean culture, from an interest in music to a love for visiting the country itself, shortly before high school when I began to truly appreciate the language beyond Korean classes or a formal linguistic study. With this increased love for my parents’ mother tongue came a greater desire to fully grasp it in its entirety and all its nuances — not only to make myself proud, but more importantly, to truly feel a part of the culture I valued so dearly. But over time, I’ve grown to feel that the more I connect to and appreciate my background, the more difficult it is for me to fully delve into the complexities of the language. In my standard perfectionist efforts to do everything immaculately or not at all, I often avoid Korean out of fear for not doing it well enough.

While I am more than comfortable with other aspects of being Korean, language is different in that it requires me to question the age-old question of whether I am Korean “enough.” I feel stuck in an in-between. Being the stickler for grammar and spelling I am, I refrain from texting even my mother in Korean unless I feel confident in the words on the screen. Despite my personal sense of pride in the level of Korean I have achieved, my relatives’ constant affirmations about my Korean, and my part-time job translating news articles, I continue to deny my fluency, feeling that it is not perfect enough. It is a sphere of uncomfortable growth that constantly makes me feel incompetent, an experience in vulnerability that forces me into discomfort whenever I try to lose any trace of an accent while in Seoul, or fail to write proper emails in Korean, or need subtitles to watch a Korean video.

But I know that each time I actively make the decision to use Korean instead of English, I am paying homage to the people who raised me and the language that raised them. When I am willing to send an email without asking for someone to proofread it, fully aware that it may be awkward or flawed in sentence structure, I battle my pride of having to be perfect in both my Koreanness and my Americanness. English — my preferred language, passion and favorite area of study — might bring me a familiar sense of comfort, but Korean is a space that helps me grow.

And most importantly, I know that my relationship with Korean, just like any difficult relationship, is one of love and understanding. Each time I stumble on my words while explaining something to my mother, I remind myself that this is the same experience she has struggled with for over two decades — who am I to prioritize my own comfort over hers? With my uneasiness comes a better empathy for hers, and those of others who speak English as a second language. For many second-generation students and immigrant children, this experience is a relatable one. Language carries with it not only generational weight, but also individual insecurity, but if I can, I urge all of us to take on the burden it brings. Only by putting away my pride and giving up my expectations for error-free, perfect Korean can I really grow in learning the language and understanding the experiences of those who came before me.

Yvonne Kim is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members at The Daily Northwestern.