Do you ever pause and wonder why you’re doing something? What’s the point of continuing something? Maintaining focus and motivation while also keeping momentum is extremely difficult, and inability to do so can kill a passion if the passion isn’t strong enough to actually be called a passion.
However, if a small spark is fed with care, or even just given a little extra energy now and then, it can develop into something big. Into a passion. What was once a ‘stupid idea’ becomes a reasonable pursuit. What was once something that you ducked your head and blushed about becomes something that you discuss with ease and perhaps a small bit of pride.
Learning Korean has become a passion of mine. It’s been a long and winding journey to even get to the point of studying the language, and I expect that as time goes on, I’ll continue to grow my passion. Once a passion is strong enough, it feeds and sustains itself.
My interest in other cultures began in a very base and unremarkable way: I was in sixth grade, and a family friend took his son and me to an anime showing. It was simple, just a couple hours of the less risque and more cutesy anime that sucks your life away with kawaii-ness. I wasn’t that fascinated, but I did keep watching the anime online – it was Shugo Chara, by the way. For a few years, I watched it and expanded my viewership into numerous other shows, eventually understanding a small amount of Japanese just from watching so much anime.
At the same time, my brother entered the military, where his linguistic abilities in Middle Eastern languages became a huge asset. I started to think that language learning was interesting, even fascinating. I had taken Spanish since kindergarten, and yet I was bored by it (no offense to any Spanish-speakers!). It simply wasn’t my thing. Perhaps it was too similar to English, too familiar. I never enjoyed learning Spanish because it was taught in a classroom so dryly and dully that I felt like I understood less and less with each lesson (I swear, my Spanish comprehension in my third year of high school was half of what my sixth grade self could speak). But here my brother was on Skype, telling me about language learning in a manner that was exciting. Here we were, biking home from an adventure, as he spoke fluidly in his target language and I listened in awe. I understood nothing; he explained and I still understood nothing. But the difference was starting to take effect.
I now wanted to understand.
The final kick came in one big, beautiful, month-long package. I went to New Zealand for a month. I have family there, wonderful, wonderful relatives who are hilarious and loving and accustomed to their beautiful country. But I wasn’t used to this place. Signs in both English and another language? I’d never been somewhere where this was common. Maori (New Zealand natives) became a mini obsession for me. It was so unlike anything I’d ever heard about before.
I have to admit something I’m ashamed of: I don’t know history very well at all. World history? Forget that; I barely know American history. It never stuck in my head and I have a suspicion it has to do with developing a strong dislike for it in the fifth grade because all we did was transcribe our teacher’s notes which she transcribed from her notes on the chalkboard for an hour and then she erased it once she has used the whole board and continued writing. Nope. That was awful.
But in New Zealand, I became aware of the rest of the world for the first time in my life. The idea that there were so many other countries with not only their own languages and natives but their own history simply blew my mind. I wasn’t dumb; I knew that history occurred everywhere, not only where I knew about it. But the idea that there was so much that had happened, so much heritage and culture and difference throughout the globe – it was beautifully incomprehensible.
I decided then that I wanted to know everything I could. I bought little books on colloquial Maori and on Maori history and a movie about native culture. The short stories that I wrote around that time were flavored with pieces from New Zealand’s history, New Zealand flora and fauna. I wrote little Maori phrases on everything. I dreampt of living in New Zealand, of never coming home.
But finally, I had to, and life changed. I had more of a focus, an idea of what I wanted. Language. Culture. History. I wasn’t just going to be a writer when I grew up; I was going to write in other languages. Travel. I had the travel bug, and I would never be cured.
I didn’t actually want to learn Maori. Maori is a language that perhaps someday, I’ll study. But it didn’t seem logical to learn it because it’s very uncommon and probably wouldn’t be useful unless I actually moved to New Zealand. Yet I was still watching my Japanese shows, both anime and dramas, reading my translated manga online (and pronouncing it incorrectly when people asked about it). I wanted to understand without subtitles. So I started studying Japanese on my own. I found countless websites, considered Rosetta Stone, did extensive research on study abroad, and sighed to myself. My brother used his connections and personal experience to advise me on language learning materials. I distinctly remember one long phone call where he had several fellow linguists in the room all discussing why I shouldn’t get Rosetta Stone for an Asian language.
I bumbled along through Japanese happily for a while, making friends with language partners and discovering how amazing it was to have an occupation other than addictive online games or lazing around all day. My big breakthrough was listening to music and trying to understand the lyrics.
You’re wondering what any of this has to do with how I started learning Korean. Well.
I remember a very specific moment when I was listening to a song that I had just found (while watching the music video) and I accidentally scrolled down to see a comment:
“they aren’t japanese they’re a korean group called u-kiss”
I found out that most of the music I was listening to obsessively to help me learn Japanese – that I liked the overall sound of – was in Japanese but by Korean artists. Unwittingly, my music tastes had steered me away from most J-pop and into K-pop.
Ironically, Obsession by U-KISS just came on shuffle. Thanks, iTunes.
I became intrigued. I delved deeper. I found out that one of my favorite songs was also by a Korean group, Big Bang. I explored U-KISS, Big Bang, MBLAQ. They were my big three. I loved the way Korean sounded. It helped me focus on my schoolwork and be productive. I didn’t have any idea what they were saying or how to say it, so I couldn’t get distracted by singing the lyrics (that doesn’t work anymore). I discovered k-dramas, I found out that some of the manga (Japanese comics) I had read was actually manhwa (Korean comics).
Around that same time, I was becoming close with a classmate, who, coincidentally, is Korean. I started to occasionally daydream about how cool it would be to secretly become fluent and then surprise her with a conversation in her native language! (Ha, haaa, haaaaaa. Become secretly fluent? Right, I’ll get that done overnight….)
“What the heck,” I said. “Now I want to learn Korean.”
It was hard at first. Not learning Korean, but balancing my regular schoolwork with not only my regular Japanese study, but also figuring out how to study Korean. I decided to put off studying it until the academic year ended. But I kept thinking about it. I didn’t have the same lunch as any of my close friends during junior year, so I ended up in the computer lab every day for twenty minutes. And finally, my resolve to wait on Korean broke, and I spent three days studying hangeul during lunch and then I could write and read. I learned little phrases here and there, but I wasn’t able to actively study Korean besides at lunchtime until summer began. It was awesome. Unfortunately, I didn’t maintain Japanese and Korean at the same time, so my Japanese studies slid down my priority list. I still talked to my number one Japanese language partner, but Korean was so much easier to learn for one big reason: no need for thousands of kanji. The language resources for studying Japanese all used kanji and to practice written Japanese with my partner, he used kanji that I didn’t know.
Korean grew in my heart. At first, it was just language. I wanted to be able to talk to my friend and to understand You’re Beautiful without staring at the subs so I could stare at the flower boys instead. But then I saw a few historical dramas. I read articles online about culture/traditions. I went to a Korean restaurant for the first time and ate kimchi and bibimbap with gochujang sauce. I discovered that I could eat super spicy food as long as someone told me that it was Korean. I became able to easily distinguish between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese anything. Language, faces, script. I borrowed book after book from the library…and then I discovered that the University of Michigan’s Nam Center for Korean Studies held free lectures and movie showings throughout the academic year.
Brilliant, award-winning, gifted guest speakers galore, a few feet away from me, speaking to a room of twenty or thirty college students, professors, and general public. I learned about everything from how sounds are used in Korean cinema to the little-known background of anti-war/pro-reunification movements by Chinese, Japanese, and North and South Korean women in the past several decades. IT WAS SO AWESOME.
I’m starting college in about two weeks, and I’m finally going to be taking Korean in a classroom setting. I’m going to find out if International Studies might be the major for me. Or it might not. And I don’t know what I’ll do with my life. I have some ideas, and one of them involves helping with ending the Korean War while starting an awesome little cafe in Seoul with my cousin/Siamese-brain-sibling (as we call each other). I don’t really know how my interests in creative writing, or Japan, or video editing, or dancing terribly will apply to this. But whatever happens, I know it’ll involve Korean. It’s why I’m studying.
Korean has a place in my heart that will never fade away. Learning Korean isn’t just a hobby of mine, it isn’t just something to brag about, and it’s not just an excuse to watch k-dramas or obsess over k-pop singers. Those may have been signposts that helped me follow the path that led me to where I am in my language journey, but learning Korean has become so much more than that. Korea is a place with more than just pretty people and delicious food. It’s more than just the glamor and tech of prosperous South Korea. It’s a country, a family, split in two without its consent, divided by pain and grief. A place with a history more ancient than almost any other. A cultural heritage of both depth and breadth. And I am determined to know it. To teach others about it. To expand my perspective of the world, and also the world’s perspective of itself.
What’s your language learning story?