Anna grew up in LA as the daughter of Korean parents. She went through it all: Embarrassment, Saturday School, Korean Summer Camp. With the benefit of hindsight, what would this bilingual child wish her parents had done differently? And is there a lesson to be learned for us, whilst we’re on our journeys to raising the next generation of multilinguals?
I speak Korean, I just don’t use it anymore. My parents aren’t in London and I don’t have Korean friends around here.
I can feel a decline in language. When I go back to Korea it takes me a while to get back into it. My pronunciation has gotten a little bit worse and it doesn’t come as free flowingly anymore. I can’t finish my sentences. There is a whole way to finish sentences in Korean and I always mutter. My family will finish them for me.
A lot of my friends in the States are Korean-American. The majority of the time we speak English but certain words, when you’re trying to capture some idea or feeling or just to describe a flavour, will be Korean. We call it Konglish, which is what I speak with my sister, too.
On replying in English
I didn’t speak Korean growing up at home. My parents would speak to me in Korean and I would answer back in English.
Is this normal for you? To speak English to your parents and have them answer in Korean?
Yes, this is a bit normal. When I was really angry I would use Korean trying to make a point, almost like “You’re not understanding me, let me speak in your language so you can understand how I’m feeling right now!” Then they’d start making fun of me “You said that word wrong” or “That doesn’t make sense”. It helped though because my parents saw “Ok, she’s really frustrated, she’s trying to be on an equal playing field.”
How did you feel when your parents corrected you in Korean?
At times I was embarrassed. At times I took it on as a lesson. It depended. I was kind of embarrassed but wanting to learn as well.
It didn’t put you off learning Korean?
No, because you’re in the comfort of your own home. When you are out with their friends and you get corrected then it’s a little bit more embarrassing because you feel like “All these people are staring at me!” You don’t realise as a child that you’re an American kid speaking another language and of course you are not going to know everything.
On the parents switching to English
My dad was always better at speaking English. He went to grad school in America and at the dinner table he would be talking to us about football or history in English. My mum was all Korean.
When I heard my parents speak to me in English I found it really weird. The same happened when they’d call me Anna instead of using my Korean name. I thought “Why are you calling me that?” It was a bit odd. It happened at birthday parties. I know they are calling me Anna because I have my friends there and they wouldn’t know what my Korean name was but I went “Don’t call me that, dad!”
The older I got the more self conscious I became just because race is a big thing growing up in the States. I didn’t want to be made fun of and if they would call me by my Korean name, I would get a little bit embarrassed as well.
What is the right thing to do then?
I think for me it depended on my age. Calling me by my Korean name at a birthday party was more outwardly facing and “What are people going to think of me?” gradually became more important.
What would I have preferred? I guess I’d rather have them call me by my Korean name because they turn into someone other than my parents or put on a show if they were to say Anna to me. If your parents speak to you in one language and they suddenly speak to you in a different one, it puts them out of place. You’re “Oh, what just happened? My code for my parents changed.”
When did you become conscious of the fact that your parents speak another language to you?
When I was in Kindergarten we had a school assembly and we had to sing “It’s a small world” from Disneyland. The school had us wear our traditional clothing so I came in my Hanbok, the Korean dress. But I didn’t see myself as being different at that point, I just felt I was part of this thing - like it’s a small world.
A year or two later, both my parents worked, and in our school district they had this program similar to a day care centre called “Fun Club”. My mum packed my lunch, a little California roll Korean style and you know, it smelled a little bit, it smelled differently. I remember eating it and these kids going “Ewww, what’s that? Is that sushi? It smells so bad” I remember putting it back in my lunch bag. Those moments I realised I’m different and I got mad at my mum “Stop packing me that kind of food! I just want a sandwich”.
This feeling really settled in when I started middle school. There was this guy in sixth grade I remember. He was of Filipino background and said “You’re so white washed Anna! Why don’t you hang out more with Asian kids?” and I thought “Oh my gosh, I’m yellow, I need to hang out with others or else it’s racial suicide.” That’s the moment I switched and hung out with all the Asian kids. I knew I was different before but I wasn’t necessarily ashamed of it.
What is the worst thing that could happen?
Being made fun of or laughed at? Kids don’t laugh at you out of malice, it’s just because it’s different to them but when you are the kid on the other side, a laugh is still a laugh.
On Saturday School
I went to Korean school every Saturday for seven years and stopped when I was 13. I couldn’t take it anymore, I really hated going. As a kid your Saturdays are the time you get to play.
I’m not a morning person and had to wake up at 8am to go to school for four hours. My parents were quite strict as well. I put up a huge fuss in the morning. I would be in bed, first pretending that I’m sick, then complaining, then getting into a yelling match, then crying, then one of my parents would drag me out of bed. At one point I said I want to stop and they gave in.
Do you regret that you stopped learning Korean?
Yes. I wish - I see friends who speak and write it a lot better.
On different teaching styles
The principal at our Korean Saturday School was so scary. We lived in Southern California where it’s really hot but she’d come every morning in her coat with fur trimmings. It’s almost like she would carry around a stick. When you were late you would have to go to detention. It was quite militant.
However, I still know my alphabet, I still know how to read and how to write. Granted, my spelling is really off but at least I know how to do that. Korean school was good for learning the rules: grammar, spelling, all that kind of stuff. But you learn so much through osmosis, living at home and being talked at.
I think I would have enjoyed Korean more if it was taught to me in a less strict way. When I compare it to learning Spanish in High School - yes, sometimes it was annoying to go to Spanish class, too, but our teacher made it so fun! It was hands on, she was silly about it. When I’m now thinking about how to say left and right and front and back in Spanish I’m finding myself singing in my head.
Our teacher was from Argentina and there’s this huge pop star named Justo Lamas. Somehow they got connected and he would come and perform concerts at our school. Part of our curriculum was teaching us the lyrics to his songs. We were 13.
On Korean summer camp
You know what they did one summer? My parents sent me away.
The Korea Times (a Korean newspaper in LA for the Korean-American community) partnered with a school in Korea and took a bunch of kids from LA over for a three month program. It was called Diyomoko: Discover Your Motherland Korea.
The school was in the mountains of Seoul and sponsored by one of the big milk companies. In all our lunches we had pasteurised milk. This school was known to be very traditional. All the kids would wear traditional clothes. You know what you see in the movies? The rice paper doors, sleeping on the wooden floor? It was legit like that.
We learned Taekwondo, Tai Chi, and music. I think my parents were very purposeful about wanting to teach us about Korean culture and language but then again I saw this as being forced to go on this program I wasn’t excited about. I was a shy kid, too.
We grew up in the suburbs of LA but there were kids from LA City participating too, and I always had the feeling that Korean-Americans from there were really scary. They were all going out smoking and drinking, they’d wear dark makeup and stuff and I was going to school with them now! Trapped on this compound, sponsored by this milk company, waking up early to do Tai Chi. When my grandparents came over to visit me, I felt so happy and relieved.
In retrospect I think I picked up a lot of Korean there because I was immersed in it. But everything to do with learning Korean I associate with things I didn’t like, a chore, too disciplinary.
On why context matters
As what would you describe yourself?
Korean-American. That’s my identity, though depending on my context I’ll up one of the sides.
In London I find myself saying that I’m American because I’m trying to avoid this “Do you speak English?” A lot of people think that I’m from Korea but I’ve never lived there in my life. You know, I’m purebred American. When they say “Where are you really from?” Or “Where are your parents from?” then I’ll say “Korea” but that’s not what I like to lead with.
In the States it’s the opposite. I lead by saying I’m Korean. There’s the feeling you have to stand up for where you come from. Because it is so racially driven, so segregated in a way, you get proud of that community that you are part of: I’m Korean. I’m Korean-American.
Why is race such a big issue in the States?
It’s almost in response to white Americans: You need to recognise that there are other Americans who aren’t like you who are prominent in this country. It comes from identity. Whereas in London it’s more akin to ignorance. It’s this “Oh, you look Chinese, you must be Chinese” - No, I’m American, I can speak English, that’s my first language. I don’t know if that’s clear.
It’s more of a statement in the States where as here it’s more a fiddling around in which box to put you in. In the States you raise a banner and declare allegiance. It feels like Europeans put you in a corner and then figure out how different you are to them. I don’t know why but I’m really offended when people assume that I don’t speak English.
With the benefit of hindsight
What would you recommend to Korean parents nowadays?
Make it more fun, make it immersive, take your kids to things. Don’t make it seem like a chore. Turn it into something almost not associated with you. Immersion is still very important. Speak to them, be surrounded a lot by Korean. There’s also church or other families’ homes. Go visit aunts and uncles.
Even drag your children out of bed?
Not for school! I think in hindsight any kid will be grateful that they went to school. But how can you make sure it’s not too disciplinarian? Make it more about “Hey, we’re going to have fun and speak a different language.”
Is there anything you regret?
There’s things I regret more when I get older.
Don’t get shy about trying to speak a language. When I go to Paris I get really soft spoken and I don’t want to try to speak French because I’m afraid I’m going to mess up. Just lean into it.