Thoughts on Not Fully Knowing Korean, on the In Between

I was never confident of my Korean language ability.

It wasn’t because of something someone said to me; rather, most Koreans would exclaim that my Korean was good, but I think that might have done with them knowing that I’m Korean-American and thus not expecting me to be able to speak in Korean at all.

No, I always felt like my lack in Korean was a handicap. I stressed out when I watched something without subtitles. I even remember watching a movie with my parents and reading the subtitles on a different screen, my eyes darting back and forth between the actual movie and my subtitles.

Recently, I’ve tried to intentionally not use subtitles. And let me tell you, it’s like an itch that I constantly want to soothe, but then I remind myself that when I’m talking with Koreans or watching a show with Koreans, I can’t pause that moment. I can’t pause life and make it feel comfortable to me, I can’t jot down vocab in the moment and force everything around me to bend to my Korean language proficiency. 

And, even now as I’m writing this, the thought is terrifying. The fact that I will be out of the loop, I’ll not get everything, I’ll be behind in the conversation while I cover myself with a smile.

And yet, I see how beautiful Korean can be, how the language can stretch and breathe like English does, how it can be a mine for puns, how it can carry so much in so little. I recently saw a post breaking down Rap Monster’s lyrics, showing clever nuances he embedded in the lyrics that can’t be translated into English. And I realized that even I could have caught some of those nuances if only I would let go of the subtitles and go into the scary world of being limited in my ability to understand.

But oh, how I despise not knowing. I feel weak, I feel less, I feel like I don’t belong. And to a point, I feel like giving up. It’s frustrating, being in an in between state where I know enough Korean to guesstimate around the topic but not enough to catch everything. Being where I know and can feel my lack of the language rise.

This is why I want to master the language and more than that, be able to create in it. Trust me, I’ve tried and then laughed at how terrible my Korean poetry was. As I wrote, so many things rose to the surface: grammar issues, how to end sentences, how to write a word.

But then I read Han Kang’s novel “Human Acts” and the English words carry so much to me and I wonder what it’d be like in Korean. Instinctively, I cringe because I know that I wouldn’t be anywhere close to grasping the colours, feelings, depth that I could in the English translation. And it hurts, knowing that I’m not getting the full spectrum of the experience.

In some ways, though, it’s like I’m getting a muted version of things. For example, when I listen to songs in Korean, I can understand more than my non-Korean speaking friends can. My heart flinches when I hear lyrics I can understand, whereas for others, they have to guess from the instrumentation what the words mean, or watch the facial expressions in the music video.

I don’t know where this post is going. I feel like it’s all a mush in my head. Like a dog chasing after it’s own tail, it seems endless but I keep chasing after it, this part of me that is built into me but I can seemingly never catch.


I wasn’t really meaning for this to be a gloomy post, but there it is.

It’s not the end of my story, though. I will be taking Korean independent study during my senior year and I’m applying for a Fulbright to South Korea.

In the midst of all that, though, I also need to keep reminding myself that being fluent in Korean won’t solve all my problems. Dear readers, this has been such a long thorn in my side that it’s gotten to the point where I believe that being fluent in the language will solve many things.

It won’t. I know that already, but I think it’s important to keep reminding myself. My status in the Korean language doesn’t lessen me; if anything, it places me in the curious space of the in between where anything is possible. I hope to use my position here, in now fully knowing, to create some cool things (wow the vocabulary dropped really quickly there, whoops).

After all, creations stem from where we are, physically and mentally and linguistically, don’t they?




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