When I first started watching Korean dramas, I was too young to be cynical.
I used to watch them with my grandmother on our couch. My Korean vocabulary was limited, so I couldn’t understand everything the characters were saying. But the plot points were familiar enough that I could follow along: poor virtuous girl falls in love with rich man, evil mother-in-law tries to thwart their marriage, cancer or a car accident yields a tearful resolution.
My grandmother always seemed to be doing something — washing the dishes, knitting, chopping vegetables. But when the dramas were on, she would wrap her arms around me and be still. We gasped and cried and yelled at the screen. When episodes ended on cliffhangers — the images on the screen freezing, their colors turning into pastels, a love ballad beginning to play — we shouldered the unbearable burden of waiting for the next episode together.
Last summer, I spent two months studying abroad in Seoul. After my grandmother passed away five years ago, I stopped speaking Korean, stopped watching dramas, and my tongue became less and less comfortable with the language until I could barely speak it at all.
While I was in Seoul, some of my Korean came back to me by necessity — I had to speak it, or no coffee, no taxi ride. I was not fluent, but I thought that I was at least becoming decent.
At the end of the study abroad program, my mother met me in Seoul so that we could visit extended family. I thought that maybe we could speak Korean with each other. But there were too many corners of the language that I could not navigate, intimate crevices that I only could have known had I grown up and gone to school in Korea. After a few tries, my mother and I both slipped back into English.
These days, I like to make fun of Korean dramas: the sentimentality, the overwrought soundtracks, the predictable tropes. They are perfect for Facebook memes, drinking games, and laughing at with friends.
Sometimes, though, I carefully surrender this shield of cynicism. Alone in my room, I inhale Korean dramas in quick gasps, furtively, like I’m afraid someone will walk in on me. They are my way into spaces that I will never be a part of — Korean cafés, schools, families. I watch as characters switch easily between speech levels and honorifics that I will never have to use, that I will never get the chance to use.
When I encounter an unfamiliar grammar pattern, I pause the drama and try to repeat the phrasing out loud. It feels like putting a huge gumball into my mouth, so big I can barely crack the edges and soften it to be chewable. I work and work my jaws until the phrase fits comfortably on my tongue. I spit it out and it joins a collection that I’m too embarrassed to show anyone else.
During one of my Korean language classes last summer, my teacher showed us a massive chart of Korean vocabulary words for family members. Where one English word suffices for a certain familial relation, two or three or more Korean words are needed, depending on if the person is older or younger than you, married or unmarried, related to you on your mother’s or father’s side.
My classmates and I gaped at the chart. How were we supposed to learn all of those words?
Don’t worry, our teacher said. You don’t need to memorize them. You’ll never need to use them. Even Korean people have to study what to call their new family members before they get married.
I wondered about the other vocabulary we had to memorize. Method. Receipt. City Hall. What is the best method for storing old books? Would you like your receipt with that? Which subway stop should I get off at to find City Hall? Why was I memorizing these words when I would never be in these situations?
Despite my reservations, I continued taking Korean when I returned to Harvard. But as I read theory and wrote papers and built friendships all in English, the futility of memorizing basic Korean vocabulary and grammar became harder to ignore.
I will never have the same grasp of Korean that I do of English. I will probably never return to Seoul for as long as I was there last summer. The time I spent speaking Korean with my grandmother becomes a smaller fraction of my life with each passing year. I am only half Korean and my children will probably be one quarter Korean, and my mother will tell them bedtime stories in English, and sing them lullabies in English, and we will love each other in English.
Why do I study Korean?
To turn on a Korean drama and just listen. To stop struggling and yearning for something more. To let the familiar sounds wash over me and let the unfamiliar sounds go. To be still, to be held.
— Magazine writer Nina H. Pasquini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @nhpasquini.