The other day my dad sent me a link to a website that he read about in the Korean paper called I Am Korean American. It was interesting reading about the different people who submitted their profiles. The site got me thinking about my identity. As a second generation (born in the US by immigrant parents) American, I always wondered what my life would have been like had my parents chosen not to emigrate.
My first language was Korean, but over the years my Korean has deteriorated. When I moved away from home my need to speak Korean pretty much disappeared. As the saying goes, use it or lose it. I’d like to think that my Korean has improved since my mother has come to take care of me, but I have nothing to gauge if this is true. I do know that I am now using my Korean on a daily basis, and I have watched more Korean television in the last year than I care to admit.
Even though my vocabulary is seriously lacking, and I’m unfamiliar with the majority of idioms, I consider myself to be fluent in Korean. I say this not because my Korean is terrific (it isn’t), but because it comes automatically. I don’t think about what I’m going to say or how I’m going to say something in my head before I open my mouth. Sentence structure and grammar comes without thought, and when I put my mind to it I can think in Korean. I also dream in Korean whenever situations occur where I would normally speak Korean in real life, like if my parents were in my dream and I was speaking to my dad.
With that said, I think my Korean is poor compared to many other second generation Asian-Americans I know. Growing up my parents were not strict about speaking only Korean in the home, and after much begging and pleading from my sister and I my parents gave in and let us stop going to Korean school when we were little. Because of this, English overtook my Korean pretty quickly.
The only reason I didn’t lose my Korean all together is out of pure necessity. My parents’ English is lacking compared to my aunts and uncles. I think this is because my parents never worked a job that required fluency in English, so they didn’t have the opportunity to interact with native English speaking co-workers on a daily basis.
What I did become a master in is Konglish. Korean and English smashed together. I find myself plugging in English words into my Korean sentences when I don’t have the vocabulary. I’m also a pro at turning Koren words into verbs and plugging them into my English sentences. There are just some words (in both languages) that just don’t have a translated equivalent.
In Korean, it seems there is only one adjective to describe food that tastes good. That word is mah-she-dah. Literally it means there is taste. The English equivalent would be tasty. But, there isn’t a word that means delicious, or scrumptious, or delectable, or succulent. When I asked my mother about this she said non-food-specific words like refreshing were used. She couldn’t tell me any words that specifically expresses delight in food. Any native Korean speakers out there know of such words? I wonder why this is so. Perhaps way back in the day Koreans strictly ate for survival, and it wasn’t in their culture to eat for pleasure. Who knows. I just think it’s odd.
There are a couple of other words that seem to elude me. I was trying to explain something to my mother once, and I couldn’t find a way to convey the word subtle in Korean. I described the concept to her, and she understood the meaning, but we couldn’t come up with a synonym.
The Korean word go-soo-ha-dah is also another one that doesn’t seem to have a synonym. The best we could come up with was savory or nutty. Now a days people talk about the Japanese 5th taste umami which seems to be similar to go-soo-ha-dah. When I looked up the definition of umami it referenced foods high in the amino acid glutamate like meat, seaweed and shellfish. Doesn’t seem quite the same.
Things like this make me want to learn all the languages of the world. Whenever people asked me what I would wish for if a genie came to grant me anything I wanted, I always chose fluency in all spoken languages. Wouldn’t that be so cool?