Gift or Curse of Bilingualism

As their work in music, finance, and law gets them increasingly more to interact with Korea, an economic powerhouse, my children reproach me for not teaching them Korean by speaking it at home while they were growing up.

Because I wanted to spare them the crushing burden of bilingualism which I blamed for falling short of my full potential. Had my life not been usurped by the relentless mistress, English, since 7th grade, I could now be doing something vastly more important, like basic science. In 9th grade after local and provincial preliminaries I won first place in the National Scholastic Contest of Korea, scoring perfect in math. Even in law college, undergraduate then, looking down on the faculty for not grasping the English texts they purported to quote or explicate, I boycotted their classes as irrelevant to my English program. The result was failing or near failing grades across the board. Somehow I managed to graduate, probably at the bottom, a whole year and a half behind my class, but with my pride and contempt intact for the plodders who got good grades.

Society didn’t wait long to exact its pound of flesh. The mediocrities I had heartily despised got accepted at Harvard, Yale and Stanford, whereas I got turned down everywhere. I remember writing once to Harvard that my low grades were proof of my superior intelligence. Funny I never got a reply to that one. So I gave up hope of ever coming to the States, though I needed to in the worst way. I had to live among native speakers to kick my English up a notch. But this was not to be. The Korean government issued passports only upon proof of admission to an American graduate school but no American university was willing to have me. By sheerest luck someone on the English faculty at Bowling Green had read an English newspaper article of mine and took a chance, admitting me to its doctoral program.

I wanted my children to grow up focused on the substance, math, science, history, not the package, language. If they chose to make the study of a foreign language their life’s work, of course I wouldn’t have stopped them. But then I would have steered them away from Korean, the language of a no account third world country I couldn’t get out of fast enough.

In September, 1950, during the last days of Seoul under North Korean occupation, my father died from a blunt trauma to his head under Communist interrogation, a 32-year-old college professor and entrepreneur who everybody said would go places. I was 12. Still I might not have left Korea, the country I had loved with a passion. Many times I cried over the hard fate of Korea, pushed around by the world powers, and swore never to leave its side. But then something happened, forever embittering and estranging me.

It was August 1961, a couple of months after Junghee Park’s military coup. Park had already started surrounding himself with people from Gyungsang, his birthplace, rewarding them with promotions, contracts, licenses. In no time the Gyungsang accent had become the shibboleth of the new aristocracy. When pulled up by police in Seoul for some infraction, all you had to do was say something, anything, in a thick Gyungsang accent and they would let you go with a Beg Your Pardon, Sir, so the saying went. Assiduously marked for exclusion from the cornucopia were people from my province, Julla, in the southwest, the rice bowl of Korea accounting for a third of the country’s population, under some idiotic notion that they were rebellious by nature and untrustworthy. Uncharitably, one might say it served him right: in 1979 Park was shot, point blank, by none other than his handpicked KCIA Director, a Gyungsang man.

Back to 1961, catching sight of my closest high school and college buddy K on the other side of the street, I ran across with a shout of joy. Curtly, he addressed me in the Gyungsang patois, with no hint of the chummy Seoul dialect we had used all along. Well aware that I had been born in Julla, though I had lived in Seoul since two years old, he was in effect putting me in my place, trashing me. It was a moment of epiphany revealing not only K but Korea in all their stark bigotry and cruelty. Nothing hurts like disrespect from those you have felt close to, because they are your world. My world came crashing down. The fallout could have been violent, as it is between Sunnis and Shiites, fellow Muslims, between Mahayanists and Hinayanists, fellow Buddhists, or between Catholic and Protestant, Southern Baptist and Northern, or what have you. Instead of turning homicidal, I fled.

The very air I breathed in the land of the free was liberating and I took the label, Chinaman or Gook, as a compliment to my new-found humanity with my Korean Star of David, the Julla badge, expunged. Now after living nearly half a century as a naturalized American I wonder what all that row was about that had gotten my blood up to such a murderous pitch. Who cares where the provinces are or how they jostle on that teeming seaboard, smaller than the State of Hawaii? I am glad they are doing well there but would I therefore go back? Even if I wanted to, I doubt I can handle the condescension and hostility. Calling us hayway dongpo, overseas countrymen, sometimes glottalizing d, which then means “overseas shit bags,” they despise us for leaving the country like rats from a sinking ship, forgetting that the dollars we had sent home had seen them through the lean years. No, my roots are too deep here to dig out again. My children and grandchildren have been born here and I will be buried here. Besides in this global age of the internet any place on earth where it is convenient to your situation is your home.

But lately I have second thoughts about my previous stance on bilingualism. Our mental space may not be as finite as I thought. In other Korean American families with a different philosophy about speaking Korean at home the children seem to have picked it up with no sweat. If it is a burden, then it is surely preferable to the hundreds of Nintendo games they clutter up their brains with. I now concede that I have ignorantly and unfairly extrapolated my experience as a Korean War survivor to my children, who could have internalized Korean, had I spoken it at home, without the kind of obsessive compulsion I labored under with my English. But, in extenuation, please understand that it had been for me a matter of life and death. Fatherless, I had to earn my way early on and could do so with what little English I had absorbed. I translated Korean newspapers for foreigners in Korea, getting paid three times more than those doing it in the other direction, English into Korean. But the pressure was naturally extreme. I had to produce something acceptable to native English speakers, a pressure that never really let up as I taught English at an American university. Incredulous, Americans never fail to ask, “You mean you taught English as a Second Language?” to which I reply, “No, English.”

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3 thoughts on “Gift or Curse of Bilingualism

  1. As a Korean American who was born in the U.S. but grew up in Korea, and now work on “exporting” Korean culture to the U.S. – I infinitely agree with your conundrum on the gift or curse of bilingualism. Language is only a tool — but in the case of English-Korean bilingualism it threatens to overshadow everything else and the tail starts to wag the dog. Interestingly, my mother was also a bright all-around honor student whose English fluency became her bread and butter. Whether we bilingualists are the poorer or richer for it — is a conundrum I continue to mull over as well. Thanks for your story!

    • My heart goes out to your Mom, Angela. Perhaps I know her. Have her share some of her toils and travails on my website, so our children and grandchildren will know what we went through.

  2. Your insight on bilingualism has really opened up my eyes to why it would be a curse. We are trying to raise our daughter with whatever Korean influence we can, which includes language and culture. It never dawned on me that the Korean language would be a detriment in any way to my daughter, especially because of the recent surge or Korean relevance on the global scene. Your powerful sharing of your past has provided me with greater empathy for those who choose to abandon their roots to start new. I hope that our daughter will learn enough from us to practice Korean on her own, and one day be fluent. Unfortunately we are limited because neither of us as parents are fluent. This has not deterred us however, as we believe that any exposure is positive because it is a part of our daughter’s heritage, a part that we don’t want to be lost completely.

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