Since moving to Korea to teach English last year, I have the same conversation about once a day. I walk into a shop—for books, a haircut, or a cup of tea—and reach the point where speaking to the shopkeeper cannot be avoided. I think through what I’m going to say in Korean, approach the counter, and say, “I’m sorry that my Korean’s a little awkward, but I was wondering if you could help me.”
Of course, the shopkeeper always helps me. After a moment, they usually also ask, “What country are you from? Are you Japanese?”
“I’m not Japanese,” I answer. “I’m ethnically Korean, but because I grew up in the United States and we didn’t speak Korean at home”—and here, I may or may not mention that I was adopted as an infant—“my Korean’s still quite stilted.”
Then the shopkeeper politely tells me, “Oh, you’re doing really well!” Sometimes they will add, “Keep up the good work,” or “You sound good,” or “Your Korean’s not that awkward”—leaving me to wonder whether that’s actually true, or just a kind lie.
I’ve been studying Korean for two and a half years, and every day leaves me astonished by how much I’ve learned and all the things I can’t yet do. Three years ago, I couldn’t say much more than “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “apple”; even one year ago, I still didn’t know how to communicate basic ideas like “cute,” “microwave,” “in order to.” Now, as much as possible in a job that requires me to speak English, I live in Korean every day. I can read the language, even if haltingly and with a dictionary—comic books and short stories and office emails. Yet I’m still brought up short at least once in every conversation, when I realize I don’t know some word like “imitate” or “screwdriver,” or fail to recognize some word I should know, or macerate Korean grammar in a way that leaves my counterpart wincing.
All of this is a typical part of learning any language. Yet Korean feels different from the other languages I’ve studied. I started Latin in middle school because it was offered to me; French in high school because of inclination; ancient Greek in college because it was pass-fail; little bits of Italian, German, and Chinese for travel and curiosity. I never would have come to Korean if it hadn’t been for my adoption, that biographical fact that sits like an anchor at one end of my life. It feels like the language pulled me back to it, despite the decades, cultures, and continents that came between us—not in a foreordained way, but rather as a matter of one will responding to another, as if the tongue called out to me and I chose to obey.
Obedience has not been simple. Korean can be a challenging language for a native speaker of English; the grammatical dissimilarities tend to overshadow whatever factors (a simple script, adjectives before nouns) might seem to pave the way. Many of the shades of meaning that English conveys with auxiliaries and tone are effected in Korean by an endlessly proliferating array of word endings. In Korean, subordinate clauses precede the thing they modify, so that in the phrase “the person I ran into yesterday as I was getting a cup of coffee at that new café down the street,” everything after “the person” actually comes first, and in backwards order; you have to train yourself to reverse the normal sequence of your thoughts. And just as English abounds with subtly varied synonyms due to its grafting of words from Latin and French onto a Germanic foundation, Korean’s blend of an indigenous base vocabulary with a profusion of Chinese loanwords sometimes results in five or six ways to communicate a single idea.
The author writing the first letters of the Korean alphabet with brush and ink / photo by friend used courtesy of the author
I’ve now given the language countless nights after work, weekend after weekend, a full year abroad in the middle of my twenties. A couple of Korean people, products of a culture that has made learning English the acme of a good education, have expressed surprise at the fact that I bother. There are days I’d like to return from a day of teaching and read a book in any language other than Korean—yet I stick with it, with the flashcards and textbook exercises, despite the fact that I probably could have lived a happy enough life without learning the language at all.
To many people, it probably seems natural that a Korean adoptee eventually came to learn Korean in earnest. But it will never seem natural to me, despite my relationship to the culture. I think it is one of the strangest choices in my life.
I’ve heard some other adoptees speak of “reclaiming” their Korean, arguing that it’s a cultural inheritance that was taken away by circumstance without their say in the matter. For my part, I’ve never felt comfortable with that phrasing, if only because I don’t feel I can “reclaim” something I never had in the first place. I don’t believe that heritage is a fixed essence, that some part of me is indelibly Korean and I am redeeming it; I am skeptical when other people describe what I’m doing as “getting in touch with my roots.” Still, I continue to find that building a relationship with the language of the country where I was born but could not grow up is rewarding, even as it leaves me stranded among the normal categories for sorting heritage and nationality: non-native speaker; native son.
More than one scholar of Korea’s history has pointed out that until the twentieth century, Korean culture, language, and ethnicity had never been detached from one another, and all three were tightly bound to the Korean homeland. Only the catastrophes and dispersals of modern times—Japanese imperialism and occupation, civil war, military dictatorship—prised these apart. Now, it is possible to grow up speaking Korean in a culturally Korean community, yet live in America or Kazakhstan; it is possible to retain Korean culture without much of the language, or vice versa. And in the case of those sent abroad for adoption in the sixty-five years since the Korean War, like me, it is possible to be ethnically Korean but grow up with neither the language nor the culture.
The Korean language itself strains somewhat to make these distinctions. There are words to describe such people and experiences: “gyopo” (a Korean overseas), “haewe-hanin-dongpo” (the community of Koreans around the world), “ise/samse” (second- or third-generation), “hangukgye-migugin” (Korean American), “ipyangin” (adoptee). I rarely hear these words used, though. There is a more fundamental dichotomy employed in the language from day to day, between “hangugin” (Korean people) and “wegugin” (foreigners). People in Korea invoke this distinction more frequently than people in any other country I’ve ever known. Even when the conversation has nothing to do with me, I constantly hear people contrasting the way things are done in Korea and the way “foreigners” (always taken monolithically, whether near or far) do them. People are acutely aware of what practices and ideas are distinctively Korean. Scholars of Korea often remark on the frequent use of the word “uri” (we, us, our) in Korean; Korea and the Korean language are usually “our country” and “our language” in colloquial speech. There is a very clear boundary drawn on a daily basis between things Korean and things not.
To many Koreans, I am a thing not. There are good reasons for this view: I am an American citizen; in a country where all men must serve in the national military, I never have and never will; perhaps most significantly, I don’t speak Korean fluently, or even all that well, and so I cannot pass for Korean easily. There are other little tells of culture and behavior, but no matter how much I acculturate, as long as my speech falls short of practical fluency, I think I will always seem to fall clearly in the not-Korean box to most Koreans.
The author at Cheongpyeongsa, a Buddhist temple in Gangwon Province / photo by friend used courtesy of the author
Non-adopted Korean-Americans, of course, feel the divide in other ways. Some of my friends, despite their fluency, have said they would never feel completely comfortable calling Korea “our country” or Korean “our language” in a conversation. But it’s even clearer to others that I don’t belong to that linguistic “we”—and thus, not to the more general “we.” In shops, people treat me as Korean until my accent comes out; after that, they start hollering things like, “Come help the foreigner at the counter.” At work dinners, when I make some mistake in drinking etiquette, the other teachers attempt to reassure me by saying, “You’re a foreigner; it’s okay.” It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that, after a lifetime of Americans telling me I’m Korean, I might feel disoriented by the sudden revocation of my Korean card.
I didn’t come to Korea with the delusion that becoming Korean, full stop, was possible for me, and I certainly understood it would be presumptuous for me to act as if I were. I knew that I would always be on the outside of many things. Still, I’d expected a little more fellow-feeling, or a better understanding that I might not be totally Korean yet also not quite not- Korean, a creature in-between. I’ve been surprised by the casual vehemence of many Koreans that I must fall into one of the two established categories, Korean or not Korean.
Often these people are otherwise very nice to me, and some have been abundantly generous in sharing with me Korea’s culture and history—though at times even this can shade into condescension (“Spencer, do you know what kimchi is?”). To them, it’s a simple and obvious fact that I am a foreigner, implicit even in the Korean word for “Korean American,” which literally means something like “American who has Korean ancestry.” It’s embarrassing to confess that I sometimes feel hurt by this small, offhanded exclusion—hurt implies expectation, and expectation reveals that I had some particular hope as I arrived here after all, despite my insistence that I was coming with clear eyes. On bad days, I want to shake the well-meaning people to whom I’m so indelibly foreign and say, “Don’t you know it wasn’t my choice to be a foreigner?”
Am I Korean? Am I not Korean? I tend to think that where a simple label frustrates, mere description is the best alternative—an end-run around the limits of ideas that often stymie our attempts to determine where we belong among these enormous abstractions of nation, ethnicity, and race.
The fact of the matter is that I’m an ethnically Korean person born in Korea who was adopted and raised in the United States, and is learning to speak Korean as an adult. I’m also a person who likes and values Korean culture and history as part of the story of how he came to be what he is. The late ethicist Derek Parfit was fond of this kind of re-descriptive maneuver: “Though we need concepts to think about reality, we sometimes confuse the two,” he wrote. “We mistake conceptual facts for facts about reality.” He was writing about personal, not sociological, identity, but I think the same basic idea may hold true: Tracing what matters in our social as well as our ethical lives may involve restating the problems we face in terms other than the ones we were given to work with.
When I decided to commit myself to learning about Korea almost three years ago, I could have chosen to omit the language altogether. It would have been possible to read about Korea in English; to hire an interpreter for important things; even to come here and teach English for a year, as many people do, without attempting to become proficient. Yet I decided to learn Korean for all the reasons I’d come to appreciate learning other languages: There is a special intimacy with a culture that comes from knowing its language, a unique access that one can’t even gauge from outside. Loving literature, I dreamed of someday reading books in Korean.
And on top of all the other motivations, the truth is that I wanted to learn Korean so that if I ever located the people who conceived me, I would be able to speak with them freely and eloquently, without an interpreter mediating. I wanted to be able to convey every nuance, every last corner of my thoughts to them.
I remain far from both of these goals. My Korean still falls short of every idea I want to share, especially the most abstract feelings and experiences, and it seems increasingly unlikely that I will make contact with my birth parents anytime soon. But I will never again have such a personal reason for learning any other language, and so we have a unique relationship, Korean and I. I fight with it every step of the way. If English is my mother tongue, Korean is a difficult and distant birth parent that enacts every bit of the rejection and ambivalence an adoptee might fear. From day to day, I love it—its vibrant kennings, its profound etymologies—and then hate it as it spits my best efforts at my face. It nourishes and teaches me, then coyly demands fealty in return. It tells me I will never measure up to its expectations, then reminds me merely trying is a virtue. It is a language capable of blunt and earthy insults, melodramatic swoons, catchy songs, and recherché poetry. It is a language I share with about eighty million other people around the world. It is our language.
The author’s given Korean name, Yeong-il, written by him / photo courtesy of the author