Danielle Buckley Park is an American girl with Tennesse roots living in South Korea. She spends her days taking care of her son, Jude, and coveting coffee breaks with her Korean husband. She writes during naptimes at Wonju Wife (http://tuesdaysborrower.blogspot.com/) and composes letters to her son at Hey Jude (http://heyjudepark.blogspot.com/).
The person doesn’t understand me. This is the first thing that could happen, even if my sentence is grammatically correct and as close to native pronunciation as I will ever get. This is most likely because the listener didn't expect his own language from this chubby baby-toting white woman.
The second possibility is more embarrassing and becoming more common. I am able to start a conversation with the woman next to me on the subway. I am able to answer her questions. I can tell her where I'm from, how old Jude is, his birthday. Yes, he has a Korean name. Yes, he is breastfed. No, his father is Korean. We met in England. We live with my in-laws, and we are English teachers. After that, the conversation comes to an abrupt halt as we run into less rehearsed territory. Since I've been able to understand and respond to everything up to this point, there is usually a lot of repetition in a louder voice because obviously I just didn't hear the question. Then comes the mortifying part: the part where I have to repeat, "I don't understand" a million times in order to bring this fiasco to an end.
The third occurrence is my least favorite. I greet someone and because I have done so properly and without too much of a ridiculous accent, the other person bombards me with a few paragraphs. They usually begin with an exclamation about how great my Korean is, even though I uttered only a single word, and then advance into who-knows-what because I'm not actually that good at Korean. I meet moms feeding their babies all the time in the nursing rooms of department stores, supermarkets, and subways. But after comparing baby birthdays and where we live, it's usually over.
This is my social life. The one I lead outside of the Internet and outside of the precious few and dear native-English-speaking friends I have. I have a few degrees in my own language, so this inability to express myself is unusual and disconcerting. Being unable to ask for what I want, or perhaps what my baby needs, is an insecurity I'm eager to overcome. I'm afraid, also, of looking like a complete imbecile. Every time I open my mouth in order to twist my tongue around this language, all these scenarios of being misunderstood and made to look like an idiot run through my mind, translating into a quaking fear, knocking the knees of my insides.
But at the same time, there is another fear sitting deep within the center of me - the fear that I will never fit here, find my place, or have an authentic conversation with the people around me. I am scared of the isolation and loneliness that already keep me and Jude in the house more often than not. I'm afraid he won't have any friends and my isolation will contribute somehow to his own. He will already have to fight for his place in this society as a biracial, bicultural child. I'm scared to death of not being able to communicate with his school teachers, that I might miss something vital. I'm worried that I won't ever grasp the fullness of who my husband is while he must always express himself in a second language. I'm also worried that if I don't learn this language, I'll never appreciate what he went through learning mine.
This nagging thought that I'm living half a life - that there is so much more waiting for me through the door of Korean - this thought is more frightening than looking like a fool. It's scarier than being judged and only understanding that the group of kids on the sidewalk think I'm fat and not being able to respond. It's worse than the feeling of indebtedness to the few Korean mothers who struggle through a half-English-half-Korean coffee hour to make me feel like I have a friend. I always feel like I take more than I'm able to give in those situations. It's more awful than uttering these strange sounds and being answered with arched-eyebrow, open-mouthed stares.
So I will continue to shove these weird and wonderful words into my brain between breastfeeding and laundry. I will keep smiling and having shallow conversations on the subway. And I will never stop listening to this language that my husband's heart dreams in and my son's mind will form thoughts in at least half the time. I will daily greet this fear of speaking Korean. I will shake its hand, bow my head toward it, and loudly give my best "안녕하세요." Because the best parts of my life could be waiting behind it.