[Viewpoint]You are what you speak

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[Viewpoint]You are what you speak

I take rejection pretty well. A generally optimistic person, I tend to think, “Everything happens for a reason; it’s their loss.” But that changed when I visited my own people in South Korea last summer. I had to deal with rejection - and scorn too.

There were, of course, the few who were surprised and awed that I was a Korean born in New York and living in America.

Even then, what they complimented seemed superficial: my dark tan, my “American” clothes, my perfect English.

I think I look like them, yet they can pick me out of the crowd.

I was getting my hair done at a neighborhood salon in Seoul. The owner started making conversation in Korean.

“You’re so lucky that you’re from the States,” she said.

I nodded in agreement.

“But I noticed that you can’t speak Korean very well.”

I felt my face flush. I wanted to explain to her that, excuse me, Korean is not taught in schools in the States the way English is in Korea and other Asian countries.

But I held my tongue because I didn’t want to worsen my reputation, adding “rude” to “illiterate.” I gave her a fake smile. Perhaps she saw the steam coming out of my ears - she stopped talking and concentrated on my hair.

I remember watching the Beijing Olympics baseball game between the U.S. and South Korea. My great uncle, a pretty comical character, asked me who I was cheering for.

“Korea, of course!” I replied, half lying and half not wanting him to start rambling about how inferior American athletes are.

“That’s my girl. I remember when you were younger, you cheered for USA during the Olympics like it was your job.”

I told him that I had changed over the years and that I was rooting for both countries now, as a loyal Korean-American should.

He bet me I would end up moving to Korea after I graduated from college, and find a job here. Sure, the economy in South Korea is doing better than in the United States, but he was trying to make the point that Korea was not just better, it was way better. Halfway through our conversation, he interrupted me and asked, “Can you even understand me?”

Korea won the game that night, to my disappointment.

The previous summer, I had come to Korea to teach English at an international school. My boss (whose name also happened to be Jennifer Kim) took deliberate advantage of this “foreigner.”

I was hired as a “foreign teacher” in my contract, yet I wasn’t given the same benefits as those accorded the other American and Canadian teachers. They came in late and walked out the door at 5 p.m. I was ordered to stay until at least 9 p.m. with the Korean teachers, and even to work on weekends.

While there were bright signs posted around the school that read “NO KOREAN. SPEAK ONLY ENGLISH,” the other Jennifer Kim was quick to inform me that my Korean was not up to her expectations. She herself could not complete a full sentence in English. I noted this at her conferences with the English teachers, which I was asked to attend so that I could translate for both parties.

Here’s a tip for the other 400,000- plus Korean-Americans reportedly planning to visit Korea: Brush up on the language - a lot.

And it wouldn’t hurt you to stay out of the sun for a month before you go.

[This column is reprinted from NYULIVEWIRE of New York University on mutual agreement.]

*The writer is a third- year student majoring in Broadcast Journalism and Cinema Studies at New York University.

by Jenni Kim
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