En route to Korean class, an older woman caught my eye at the subway station. It was in fact my roommate from the second floor.
We rode the train to our respective destinations while she asked about my parents’ age (she’s a year younger) and told me about the metro in Japan.
“I’m moving back in the summer. Come visit.” She talks to me in a mix of Korean and accidental Japanese so sometimes I just pretend to know what’s going on. (My usual M.O.)
In class my teacher told me, “I’m putting pressure on you because I think you can do it. I think you are a fast learner and a good study-er. In my teaching career, I’ve had just two people like you. One was a Japanese girl– she came in here learning the alphabet. She eventually passed the highest level of TOPIK, married a Korean man, and moved to Seoul.
“The other was a Canadian guy. He was dating a Korean man in secret and loved his boyfriend so much he wanted to learn more since the boyfriend couldn’t speak English. The parents never thought he was more than their son’s friend– you know two men sleeping in the same bed isn’t seen as gay here– but one day they found out and got so angry, they called the school where the Canadian worked and got him fired. He had to go back to Canada.”
I was shocked and had to know the ending to this tragic love story. “Did he go back to Canada alone?”
Damn, I was not prepared to get my heartbroken today! I feel so sad for both of them– that the Canadian lost his job, visa, and love because of selfish parents, and the poor Korean boy who was left behind with a family that doesn’t accept him or the people he loves. If he wasn’t disowned, I can’t imagine what other kind of mental torment he’s endured from his parents or community since then. Wherever they are I’m praying they are both well.
The Korean teacher encouraged me to keep going. “I think you have the potential to speak like a native.” I told her I want to get the highest level of TOPIK and that I want to get into translating.
Well, I’ve kicked around the idea.
“Oh really? What type of work?”
“I majored in engineering so technical translations.”
“Wow, that would be awesome.”
I hesitate to commit fully even though I’m halfway there. How can I move to another country and also continue improving Korean? Should I? Would it be worth it?
Politically, South Korea is very important to the US. New York Times recently moved their Asia Headquarters from Hong Kong to Seoul as South Korea has the highest register for freedom of speech in the area. South Korea is also an ally of the US and an important link between China, Japan, and North Korea.
Culturally and economically, Korean media has been expanding west for at least a decade. I used to have to stream Korean dramas on questionable websites that closed one by one and now Netflix has a whole category for K-drama alone. Parasite won an Oscar. BTS has been on every American talk show imaginable.
Commitment is hard and the world is ever-changing but at the same time I don’t want to miss an opportunity. So I’ll keep studying as hard as I can and reassess periodically!
There is an alley filled with street food and seafood near the school so after class, and after a thrift store and sock store found me, I ate roasted mackerel. There were at least ten restaurants serving this at the same price so I just chose the first one with customers.
I was still in a thrifting mood so I stopped in the narrowest store I’ve ever seen, further navigation made impossible by racks against racks. Two old women sat in the corner, rather two feet away, drinking instant coffee. I do this often enough that women watching me sort through clothes doesn’t faze me. The maze proved too much to bear but I asked one woman if she knew a good tailor.
I mispronounced tailor. Oops.
“Oh, yeah! There’s one if you go down the street and turn left. It’s by the hairdresser and supermarket.”
“What’s it called?”
“Oh. I don’t know.” She laughed.
I have a jacket with lining split up the middle and a beloved pair of high waisted pants I’d like to fix before tossing. Tailoring is apparently one of the few remaining facets of Korean life that is still cheap. So I hear. I’ll find out tomorrow…
I feel that I’m really starting to round a corner in Korean. As my language ability grows past intermediate, so does my comfort in daily life and acceptance into the culture. House Owner’s mom said hello to me in the kitchen without a second thought. Store owners talk to me like a local. Going to dinner with my roommates and speaking only Korean doesn’t even register as an event. This level is in another galaxy; it takes a rocket to get here from basic conversation.
Maybe this is what progress feels like. There has been a telltale shift in my heart. Y’all I really have improved, holy moly. How many years have I yearned to be bilingual, and now it’s actually taking shape?
Goals are within reach and so too are dreams I didn’t know I had. I’m holding something special, I can feel it.
Is this the real application of “life is what happens when you’re making other plans”? I would never in a million years guess I’d be learning Korean and yet here I am.
This Korean life is getting easier, and what an amazing thing to feel it at each step.