By Alice Lapuerta
The things one finds when one rummages through the attic. An old shoe box with dusty cassette tapes, for instance. The sweet voice of a little girl babbling away, telling stories, singing songs. That was me, when I was 5 years old. How surreal, listening to one’s childhood self.
What totally flabbergasted me was that I was speaking Korean! Fluently and without the trace of an accent. My parents were right when they said that we used to speak Korean like native speakers when we were little.
See, the thing is, we never spoke Korean at home, only German.
When I was younger, my father, a Korean, attempted several times to speak Korean with us. He eventually gave up because we resisted him and would not react whenever he addressed us in Korean. Should he have tried harder? Should he have forced us to speak Korean?
My response is: no. No regrets. It just did not feel right to speak Korean together. We felt awkward, and so did he. We would have resented it greatly if he had forced us.
We spoke German with our father because it allowed us a closer, more intimate relationship. German allowed us to meet our father on the same hierarchical level. We could address him as “Du” (informal “you”), whereas in Korean, it felt as if he had stopped being our familiar Papa and had become “aboji” (formal: father), suddenly towering high above us, aloof and distant. This we simply could not accept as kids.
Our father did read us children’s books in Korean, and he taught us how to count and sing simple songs in Korean. As long as he kept it on a playful level, we did not mind.
Then we moved to Korea.
My father, without much ado, enrolled us in a local Korean kindergarten. And this broke the ice.
Before we knew it, my brothers and I were babbling away in Korean as if we had always spoken it. I made friends quickly, and interacted with ease with my Korean grandparents and cousins. Speaking Korean became like second nature to me. I remember how I had no problems at all speaking Korean with my cousins and friends. The cassette tapes that we still have are evidence of this.
After two years of living in Korea we returned to Austria again. This is when something interesting happened: I apparently “forgot” Korean.
One day, my friend asked me: “Say something in Korean.” And I just could not think of anything to say. “Say, this is a house.” This should be easy.
But the words would not come out! It was like my tongue was all twisted and knotted up. When I finally managed to translate the sentence, with a lot of effort, it sounded odd to me. I ran home, wondering why I could not speak Korean anymore.
What happened was that after we returned to Austria, I stored Korean somewhere in my brain, in a container labeled “Passive language to be reactivated only when necessary”. The need for speaking Korean wasn’t there anymore.
My priorities were elsewhere now, like brushing up my German, and learning English (my parents sent us to an exclusively English-speaking school later on).
My relationship to Korean to this day is one of love and frustration. I cannot and do not want to ignore that the language is a part of my heritage. I still know the songs from kindergarten, and the fairy tales and nursery rhymes that my father and grandmother taught me. I pass those on to my kids.
But I am also frustrated at the difficulty of the language, and at the fact that my tongue knots up every time I try to say a simple sentence.
I took language and conversation classes at University both in Vienna and Seoul to help things along, but the classes were too easy for me. I was bored. One teacher “threw me out” of the basic language class and sent me on to a higher class. Which was still too easy for me.
So why do I still have trouble speaking Korean?
For me, when it comes to Korean, it is not a matter of learning the grammar or vocabulary, but of simply overcoming an internal barrier and of “un-knotting” my tongue. No language class in this whole world is going to do this for me.
Sometimes I ask myself why I am hanging on to Korean so much when no one in my environment is speaking it at all. I haven’t spoken it in years, now. The need for me to speak Spanish is a lot more imperative than Korean. Spanish, which is so much easier to speak than Korean!
Still, now and then, we put on Arirang TV, which we receive via satellite, so my children hear the language. I teach my kids my old Kindergarten songs that I still remember. And I give them basic children’s books in which they admire the Korean alphabet. Yesterday we put on a Korean CD, and Isabella declared that she “really liked” this Korean music!
It is only when back in Korea that I can pull out my Korean again. It is not as fluent as it used to be as a child. It is rusty and stilted, and I get the tenses and honorifics all wrong.
The reactions I get from Koreans are mixed. Mostly people praise me, saying something along the lines of “How well you speak Korean!” But I’ve also received other responses. One taxi driver scolded me: “If your father is Korean, you should be speaking better Korean!” I started to argue with him. I paid, slammed the door and stood on the street, furious.
Then I laughed. Because I had been arguing in Korean with him, all along. And that rather fluently.