Deborah Jeong, International Studies-Political Science ’21
As any bilingual individuals can relate to, there are certain phrases that the English language feels too limited to translate from other languages. As someone who grew up with a non-English language as my first language, it is inevitable that, at one point or another, such a phrase will come up in conversation and I will slip into Korean. Despite what the cranky administrators at my middle school believed, it was not (mainly) to gossip about the teachers to my fellow Korean friends but simply, an instinctual habit that was not, in any way, meant to be insulting.
People who hear me slip into Korean have a rather amusing variety of responses, the most popular being, “Wow, you can speak another language?” and “But you speak English so well.” It always baffled me, that even while living in a society as multicultural as the U.S., people seemed to view my bilingualism as an exotic ability. That’s when I further elaborate and let people know that I was actually born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States with my parents at the age of 2. Then the response shifts from bewilderment at my ability to speak English, to bewilderment at my ability to speak Korean.
Spending the better part of my childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, where there are not many Koreans, I only held onto my native language with the dreaded Saturday Korean Schools and, more than I would like to admit, my obsession with Korean Dramas. As there were not many other students with a similar background as me, I had always assumed that my knowing Korean was not that big of a deal. But it was after I moved to L.A. that I realized that especially from those who had immigrated at a young age, the degree of fluency in speech that I had retained, was pretty rare. The students around me who were actually fluent in Korean were mostly those who had come very recently from Korea. In between the recently arrived and the more “whitewashed” Koreans, I was a very odd mix – fully immersed in either “Korean” culture nor “American” culture.
And often times, when talking about when people immigrated to America, the labels of the different generations would emerge. First generation was the generation that was born in another country and immigrated to America. The second generation was the children of the first generation and so on, and so forth. As a child, I was always confused on what I which “generation” would describe me. In terms of rigid definitions of the term, I was a first generation, but this didn’t always sit right with me because other “first generation” individuals had a harder time with English and was more immersed in their native culture. But at the same time, I wasn’t a part of the second generation because I was an immigrant. When I expressed my confusion to my parents, my dad jokingly told me that I was in the 1.5 generation. As I gradually became more “Americanized” and adapted to the culture around me, he adjusted the number to 1.75, claiming I was American than Korean, now.
I suppose I am more “American” – 16 out of the 18 years I’ve been alive, I’ve lived in the United States. But as I began to fully embrace my identity as a Korean-American, I’ve found that the labels other people place on me because of my “generation”does not matter – because I can choose what I want to identify as. And embracing both parts of my identity – my heritage and my experience – seems to embody “get the best of both worlds” and I fully intend to do that.