Written by Bruce Park, Esther Min, Laura Wilczek, Eric Horvath, Leslie Kang, Izumi Han, Andrea Sohn, Anthony Cho and Sonia Kim ETAs’11-12

What is it like to be anonymous in the crowd? How does it feel to be betrayed by opening our mouths? What does it mean to be clearly Korean but also frustratingly foreign? Nine takes on the Korean-American experience in Korea — including a puzzle piece, a banana, and a Twinkie; a voice, an actor, and a spy. We are Korean, American; these are our stories.

Waiting for a friend, I take the only table left in the café — one near two Korean girls loudly chatting away. I feel my phone vibrate. It’s my host father, probably calling to check if I’ll be home for dinner. Reluctantly, I take the call and begin to speak, in Korean, with my hand cupped over my mouth, wary of someone overhearing. I make sure to speak politely using honorific speech, to mind my intonation and accent, but most importantly, to speak quietly — such painstaking effort for such a simple conversation.

“I may be late today. Please eat first,” I say quickly, yet carefully, in Korean, enunciating each syllable.

“Don’t come home too late,” he responds without a second thought.

My American friend arrives and a sea of eyes follows her to my table. I can feel the stares shift toward me, teeming with curiosity. The girls beside me abruptly halt their conversation and gaze intriguingly at the newly arrived foreigner, unaware one had been among them the whole time. As my friend and I talk, I can hear their astonished reactions to my fluent English.

I overhear one girl say: “His English is so good. He must study very hard.” Her friend responds: “Maybe he’s a foreigner. I really thought he was Korean, though.”

Korean-American: Two vastly different cultures, histories and languages brought together by a single hyphen. The compound descriptor suggests a steady balance or harmonious union, like two puzzle pieces cut neatly and perfectly for one another. Every day I go unnoticed, undetected as a foreigner until I speak, in Korean or English.

My looks are unmistakably Korean, but the way I think, talk and carry myself is distinctly American—bowing often feels awkward, sharing food unsanitary and saving face insincere. The formula seems so logical: a Korean American representing America as a cultural ambassador in Korea. But to varying degrees, this union often becomes complicated, convoluted and confusing. I’m forced to wonder: Why don’t my pieces fit?

Cue the ajumma (an older woman): relentless pecking punctuated by a harsh, “Agasshi! Miss! Miss!” I turn around to see a face puckered in agitation. Not even the bob of permed curls can hide the angry slant of her mouth.

I pick up the animated chatter of my friends in the background, laughing at host family anecdotes and inside jokes from our summer orientation. It has been a month since moving to our Jeollado placements, and we were all too glad to see familiar faces.

I reluctantly respond in Korean,  “Yes?”

“Where are you from?” Did she know I wasn’t Korean?

“I’m American. Why do you ask?”

“You are too loud. Much too loud. We are on a bus.” Her eyes stray to my English-speaking friends in the front before turning back to me. They tell me what is obvious to her:

You are Korean. You should know better.

I bite my tongue. Thank you, ajumma, for choosing the cultural identity most convenient for you. What was I supposed to know, and why exactly did I have to know it? My two friends beside me offer an apologetic look. They don’t need to understand Korean to understand what she is saying. I hide my indignation and attempt to tune out the conversation behind me. My eyes locate the source of noise, and I see a group of Korean college students sitting in the last row, slapping each other on the back in amusement and shouting the latest gossip.

I glance in front of me at the obvious congregation of foreigners, my friends. Right. I should have known better. I turn to the ajumma, looking past her head to the back of the bus: “I’m sorry. We will be quieter.”

Hello, I am Korean-American — and I am your Designated Korean.

This is who I am: I am American. I am Korean. I am the birth-child of two people I will never get to meet. I am the daughter of two mothers and two fathers. I am a child whose departure left one family torn, and whose arrival made another family whole. I was given up out of love and received with love. I balance two cultures but will never fully understand the culture of my birth.

No matter where I go, I will always either look or feel like an “other,” even when surrounded by members of my family. I look into my parents’ faces and see no reflection of my own. Not a single person in my family shares the same blood or genes, yet we all love each other unconditionally. I have many questions, but very few answers. I was lucky. I am grateful.

I am a Korean-American adoptee.

Yet, when I tell Koreans I am an adoptee and they call me “입양아,” I become a person who is merely American, a person dismissed by their own Korean blood. I become a person worthy of extreme pity, a person denied full membership within the people of my birthplace. It is as if the word “adoptee” becomes something beyond my recognition. It is as if the Korean word for “adoptee” fails me; lost somewhere in translation, it becomes a word that fails to express my true identity.

For me, the word “adoptee” and the Korean word “입양아” signify two different things.

I am Korean. I am American. I am proudly both.

It happens most frequently in taxis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s rehearsed everywhere I go in Korea, regardless of companions or venue, but the choreography is sharpest when I get caught in the rain or the subway’s closed.

I stand on the corner with friends and volunteer to hail the cab. It comes quickly and I climb into the front seat, usually “welcomed” by a cantankerous ajusshi, an older man who doesn’t seem interested in chauffeuring a handful of rowdy foreigners to their next watering hole.

We exchange the necessary information (“Hongdae Station, please”), in Korean, and everything seems fine.

Except it’s not — I’ve butchered the simplest of pronunciations and before I get to the second syllable of Hongdae he already knows I’m an imposter, using my Korean features as a way to disguise my American-ness — a costume, character and contradiction in which I never had a choice.

He impatiently mutters more Korean, incomprehensible to me and at a pace so fast that I’m blinded by anxiety. I offer a series of unconvincing nods and turn to one of my more language-capable friends in the back, or, failing that, I sink further into my seat.

I am American and the taxi driver loves it. He adores my nascent Korean — unlike the ajusshi from the other day — and vehemently denies my comment about having poor pronunciation. As we drive away from Hongdae he slows down his speech, simplifies his diction and allows me to get out a few basic sentences.

I get out of the taxi in Mapo, emboldened and more optimistic about my next ride. Maybe they’re not all irritable ajusshis incapable of understanding the disconnect between appearance and upbringing?

But then I walk into a convenience store or kimbap restaurant, fully dressed in my disguise, and gear up for my next performance, anxiously awaiting the reaction.

I respond, “교포예요…” (“I am a Korean living outside of Korea…”) to the taxi driver when he asks me why I was in Chicago earlier that month.

He looks at me proudly. We had spoken Korean the whole way over to my apartment. In his mind, I am a good Korean. The ability to speak Korean not only credits my parents, but also fulfills the expectations native Koreans have of us living outside the country.  He praises my parents for being wise and “true Koreans.”

As I open the door to leave, the taxi driver says one thing: “Koreans needs to be able to speak Korean, regardless of where they live.”

At least I made this man proud. But it doesn’t last for long.

My host mother at the grocery store: “She can’t speak any Korean. She can understand everything but can’t really speak anything.”

An anonymous ajumma: “She should study Korean.”

I sigh; I am fully aware of what happens next. The ladies talk and glare. They look at me like I have done something wrong, like I am a disappointment. I am humiliated and embarrassed. I have not spoken a word and already the dissatisfaction is written over their faces. Had I done something wrong?

During my stay in Korea, my school has asked me to pretend to know no Korean. So, I have been burying away my instinctive Korean responses and replacing them with unnatural, slow, usually fragmented English phrases. For what? To be the ideal Native English Teacher Who Cannot Speak Korean.

I am one person living two different lives. At home and school, I am an American that cannot speak very much Korean. Elsewhere, I am a Korean who speaks excellent English. People’s responses to my different characters are drastic. Yin and yang. Here, I am two separate characters — but together, they make up who I am. I am not a light switch that turns American to Korean, or vice versa. I am simply who I am. I am a Korean American.

Twinkie. That’s what they called me back home. “Banana” would be the more fitting term in Korea. Yellow on the outside but “white” on the inside—white meaning “American,” of course. On the outside, a muggy yellow complexion, hair and eyes inked onto me like a sketch and the stereotypical small Asian stature. Yet my tongue spills out the English language, giving voice to my identity as an American, giving the lie to my attempts to blend into a Korean crowd.

It’s silly, but I am on edge every time I speak English in public because of glaring eyes; whether it’s because I’m envied as a cop-out Korean who has escaped serving military duty or I’m that American who carries the stigma surrounding foreign English teachers. So what, then: Do I play to the public by using Korean?

The flipside is equally ridiculous. When I speak Korean to those who know me as American, they are truly amazed. Why? Because I look “Asian” but I certainly don’t look “Korean” with my tan skin and round eyes: a mismatched combination for any Korean. So while teaching at an all-girls’ school, the text messages and phone calls flooded in when word got out that I knew Korean. Oops.

Sometimes, though, I use my foreigner camouflage as an ace up my sleeve. Once I reveal my language competency, I can no longer get away with using the “foreigner card,” which lets us avoid conflicts by playing dumb. Navigating between languages feels like a card game — which suit do I play next?

In the end, I pick and choose, maybe even mix and match which language I use. Throw in a little Korean here, some English there. Keep people on their toes. At the same time, I’m reminded that I’m caught in this mix of language and culture juggling too. Welcome to the life of a Twinkie — er, banana.

Whenever my host sister and I go out to eat, I let her place the order. Today, we stop for post-dinner coffee. Mocha latte for me, milk tea for her. The barista behind the counter confirms, “Tea for you, and a latte for your 언니 (an older sister)?” My host sister finds it funny that everyone thinks we’re so closely related (“It means you also look like a middle school student,” she insists), but she plays along: “Yes, please.”

I, in the meanwhile, am always on the ready to apply my knowledge of Korean culture. Case in point: Those who are older tend to treat those who are younger. “I’ll pay,” I tell my host sister in English while rummaging through my bag for my wallet.

The barista, whose interest has suddenly been piqued, eyes us curiously. He ignores me; his question is directed entirely at the native Korean: “She must not be your 언니, then? I’m sorry.”

But by now, I have been a fixture in my host sister’s life for over six months. I can not only point out that my host sister’s favorite Korean idol group is TVXQ, but also rank its members in her order of preference (윤호, then 창민); I not only know that she wants to go to police academy after she graduates from high school, but can also recount how many times she has changed her mind before reaching this conclusion (too many, to be honest). The barista’s unnecessary apology makes me indignant. Does it matter that I speak English, even though I have black hair and dark eyes, side bangs and plastic frame glasses? “No,” I say in Korean, the language I learned from my parents even before I knew how to speak English. “She’s my 동생.”

She’s my 동생 — my little sister.

I am a spy.

I have been sent on a mission to foster better relations and understanding between South Korea and the United States. My training for this mission thus far: teaching for five months in a Korean high school, learning the Korean language, seamlessly assimilating myself into Korean society. My disguise, even simpler: bigger glasses, tighter clothes, pierced ears and crimson hair. Even going above and beyond the call of duty: dabbling in K-Pop.

On duty in Seoul, I witnessed this scene:

Two distressed American GIs enter.
Anonymous GI 1: “Dude, I have no idea where GoGo Bar is.”
Anonymous GI 2: “It’s gotta be around here somewhere.”
Me: “You guys looking for GoGo bar? Head out to the main road, make a right, and you should see it on your right.”
GIs exchange confused looks.
Anonymous GI 1: “Thanks dude. You’re the man.”
GIs exeunt.

I like to imagine an unstoppable wave of positive aftereffects from these seemingly minor and casual exchanges. Maybe the GIs were so impressed with this helpful, articulate Korean that their perceptions of Korea somehow changed. They take this experience back home, eventually becoming the generals who influence U.S.-Korean military policy.

Maybe their spirits were so high that night that the Koreans who interacted with them grew to understand them as more than colonial uniforms. Although unlikely, this scenario is not impossible. As an undercover American, it is my job to take every one of these opportunities to foster mutual understandings. Being a Korean-American makes me a double-agent: Not only do I promote a better Korean image for Americans, but I also do the same for America’s image in Korea. I am constantly vigilant because in Korea, I am always on duty.

In his picture book, “Tidying Up Art,” author and illustrator Ursus Wehrli takes an unconventional approach to analyzing some of the world’s most famous masterpieces. On one page, a Van Gogh painting of a cluttered bedroom. On the next, all the furniture is neatly arranged. A Paul Klee painting of various colored squares: Post-clean up, they’re organized by color and stacked in rows. The book’s a cheeky little thing, but it’s also kind of comforting, like Wehrli’s taking on the big, bad world of snooty art. It’s like he’s saying, “Don’t understand that painting? Just sort everything by shape and color. Divide and conquer, folks.”

But how to tidy up a Korean-American? People use all sorts of metrics: Bangs and Glasses vs. Strange Accent. Kilograms of Kimchi Consumed per Month. Length of Skirt. 눈치 (cultural knowledge) I Have vs. 눈치 I Clearly Lack.

In some ways, I’m already tidied up. I teach at a school for the blind. To most of my students, I am just a voice, no confusing Korean face attached. But the first time I heard my own teaching voice played back to me, I couldn’t believe it was mine. There they were: the ㄹs (l/r’s) that sometimes rolled just a little too far, the 성생님s instead of 선생님s (seongsaengnims instead of sonsaengnims), the inability to say the word 회의 (meeting) at normal speed. Englishy Korean bled into Koreany English.

Sometimes I sounded like two different people. It was stubbornly untidy, and strangely unsettling. And yet, in this messy moment of language shock, when I heard the two languages that were my first-turned-second and my second-turned-first melding together for the first time, it was ever so true. Its existence to me was truth — in all its untidiness.


Bruce Park, Esther Min, Laura Wilczek, Eric Horvath, Leslie Kang, Izumi Han, Andrea Sohn, Anthony Cho and Sonia Kim are all 2011 – 2012 ETAs.