Today was my first Korean lesson.
Actually, that’s a lie. It was my second Korean lesson. As I was explaining to Eun Seong, who was tutoring me in Hangul, the Korean alphabet: I’d studied Hangul once almost thirty years earlier.
It was at a Korean heritage camp – I’d been going to camp during the summer since I was 12, to escape my home. Summers away from school were unbearable. Not only did I have nothing to do, but my father had nothing to do as well, because he was a school teacher. So there I was, stuck with my abuser day and night around the clock, and no matter what I tried to do it didn’t seem like I could get far enough away for long enough. Not that he was after me the entire time, but that I loathed being in his presence for even ten minutes – I loathed watching his mannerisms, his relationship with my mother, his relationship with the neighbor women. He WAS a woman. In all the ways women have been denigrated to be historically: weak, self-centered, two-faced, calculating, pitiable, whiney…and he spent his summers manipulating situations so he could be close to me or force me to pretend I liked him. Unbearable. So I invented this brilliant plan: summer camp. Most kids – they get sent away to give their parents a break. Me, I BEGGED for summer camp. It was my sanitarium, my cleansing, my opportunity to regenerate and be myself for a week, to be my age with the normal simple concerns of someone my age, and only those concerns. I came back from my first camp a new person, and my parents liked what they saw enough to allow me to return year after year, despite the expense.
Korean heritage camp was the last camp I went to. I lived with my sister the following summer, and the summer after that I was living on my own. The only camps I was allowed to choose from were Presbyterian camps in our state and, as you may know, there are many Korean Presbyterians. The camp offered sailing lessons and traditional dancing and Tae Kwon Do, so it sounded interesting. For some reason, it hadn’t dawned on me that these were REAL Koreans. For some reason, I’d just assumed it was a camp to teach anyone about Korean culture. About a minute after arriving, however, I was surrounded by other Asians for maybe the third time in my entire life. Only this wasn’t just white adoptive parents showing off their Asian dolls at adoptee functions for an evening. No, this was being completely surrounded by other Koreans with the prospect of not seeing another white face for an entire week. I wanted to bolt and run, but then I looked at my parents and said my farewells, smiling and waving, wishing they would leave me there forever and not come back.
Anyway, the Hangul…Every morning after breakfast (we only ate western food at this camp) we would be presented with the Hangul phonics matrix of consonants on the left and vowels across the top. And we would all have to repeat it in unision, over and over again. So gka gkya gko gkyo gku gkyu gkoo gkyoo gkeu gkee, etc., where pretty ingrained in my head by the end of the week. We practiced lettering, and all the kids laughed at me because I added serifs to my writing, because my only reference was the brush script in front of me and it seemed to have serifs added. We went sailing after that, and after lunch we would sing traditional songs and go on to either dancing if you were a girl of tae kwon do if you were a boy. Then dinner. In the evenings, we would listen to pop music and sneak off and be teenagers and have bonfires, etc. The other children attending camp were not adopted, but they were a lot like me in that they spoke English, didn’t know much about Korea, and most of them didn’t care either. They were unlike me in that their parents were making them go, and their parents spoke another language and they ate different food at home. Most of them were incredibly gorgeous, wealthy, and destined for ivey league schools. In that world, I was the poor misfit, but they were nice and included me in everything for the week.
Oh yeah, the Hangul. So I was explaining to Eun Seong the problems I was having learning it again. It seems the matrix was burned on my brain and that is the only way I can find the sound of the letters when I try to read Korean words now. I have to literally repeat the matrix – which is cumbersome to do, of course. So words to me are the matrix all cut up and jumbled. I’ve tried on my own several times in the past year to learn Hangul again, which any idiot is supposed to be able to do in ten days or less, to no avail. But Eun Seong DID manage to find ways to help me recall the sounds individually, so my task will not be so blocked.
I moaned also about this memory problem I have and how disturbing it is. I talked about how I wish my memory was as good as when I was younger, like back at Korean heritage camp. I told her I could even remember those folk songs I’d learned, about six of them, from that one week thirty years ago. “Really! Like which ones? Sing one for me!” So I did. And Eun Seong couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She asked me, “Do you know what song you are singing?” I told her no, and she told me it was the Korean National Anthem. Only the portion I was singing was maybe the second or third verse. “Even most Koreans don’t know those!” I guess at events, they typically only sing the first verse. And I had every word down perfectly, and the melody down perfectly. And there we were together, singing the Korean National Anthem, 2nd verse and chorus, at Starbucks…
I don’t know why I remember those songs. I remember thinking they were really beautiful at the time, and I remember feeling like I knew some of them in a familiar way. Maybe I heard them as a toddler. I always dismissed that week at Korean Heritage camp as a bizarre mistake. But the me missing my culture must have been there with purpose. And the me that had been denied chose to remember.
My stupid ex. language exchange partner berated me for wanting to learn Korean. “It’s a useless language,” he said, “why waste your time on it? You can only use it in Korea.”
Yes. And I’m in Korea now. And it is the key to learning all I don’t know here. Useless to him. Worth everything to me.