It’s only after I had my daughter, who is half-Irish and half-Korean, that I came to understand how our cultural heritage informs our personal identity. In my attempt to help my daughter understand her Korean background, I developed a stronger pride in my Korean heritage. Despite enjoying Korean food and many aspects of the culture, I have always felt excluded because of my weak communications skills in Korean. I also came to realize that until I could read and write in Korean, I would be missing out on Korean literature, which may never be translated into English.
I signed up for a beginner-level Korean language course offered through the Korean Education Centre here in Toronto. To my surprise, most of my classmates were not even Korean! When asked why they had signed up for the class, several shared that they had a deep love for Korean food, K-pop, and K-dramas. Some lived in North York, which has become another Koreatown, and wanted to be able to read store signs and restaurant menus in Korean and in English. My heart skipped to learn that one young lady had a two-hour commute in order to attend! Her commitment inspired me to study hard. We were also lucky to have a passionate teacher who engaged us with her enthusiasm.
Despite being Korean and having spent my first seven years in Korea, I find learning the language quite challenging. Korean is complicated by the use of honorifics that requires one to speak “up” or “down” to a person depending on that individual’s age and/or status. As well, sentences are constructed differently. In English, we use the “subject + verb + object” order, but in Korean it is “subject + object + verb”, so the sentence “I ate an orange” would be “I an orange ate.” Then there’s the complex use of particles that we don’t have in English.
And all this is in a beginner’s class!
My long term goal is one day to be able to write an essay or even a story in Korean. I’ve avoided learning Korean for over four decades, believing that I’d never need it. Now, I understand just how vital the language is for me to feel connected to my heritage.