When I was five years old my mother decided that I needed to learn more about the Korean language, namely how to speak it. She decided this after consulting with my father and realizing that my brother (at the age of nearly twelve) could barely speak or write in Korean better than I.
So that is when my lessons began. For the better part of the next decade, I spent Sundays and/or Saturdays in a classroom of other children trying desperately to learn enough Korean to please our parents. Wait, I tell a lie, none of us wanted to learn Korean. We all knew that the only place we could use Korean was either at home or at church. No, all we did for three hours a week was try to stay awake long enough to go back home and fall back asleep. Fast forward to now and I just want to kick myself.
Usually, when I meet someone new I can carry a conversation relatively well. We might chat about the weather, my job, or what plans we may have for the weekend and no one’ll be the wiser. Then eventually the subject will turn to something else or maybe I just get to the end of my language rope and I’m forced to tell them the truth. I am a Bolivian Tree Lizard.
The truth is that I’m not even a very good Bolivian Tree Lizard, my pronunciation of the Korean language needs work and the faster I speak, the worse I sound. Even my colloquial grammar and vocabulary needs work. In essence, I tend to sound like a foreigner. But usually, for anywhere from five minutes to an hour, I can pass as a native speaker. Really it depends on how comfortable I am with the conversation vs. how much talking I’m actually doing.
The humdinger is that sometimes my cover will last longer, maybe even days. I’ve actually fooled several people into just believing that I’m from some other part of Korea with a slight accent that may be remote (not on purpose). And then a day will come, inevitably when it all catches up to me. Someone will sneeze or we’ll be out at dinner and I’ll break character. Whether it is saying “Bless You” without an accent or ignoring some local custom, something will happen. And at first it may pass, they may rationalize it to something else like a brain tumor. But eventually they realize that it’s not all adding up and they ask, “Where are you from?”
I sigh (because I’m tired of having to explain rather than because I’ve been caught) and reply, “I’m from the US.”
The horror on their face may fade or they may still be a little wary of this seemingly normal Korean individual sitting before them when they ask, “How long where you there?”
And the reaction to my answer is always the same from taxi drivers to friends and/or distant family when I tell them I’m an American citizen. Their face goes utterly still, usually they don’t even blink. It’s as if they’ve turned away for a moment and turned back to realize that I’m already eating one of their wings. Or as if five minutes earlier when I excused myself to go to the restroom, I had really just been mobbed by some sort of ‘brain slug’ alien. Perhaps maybe even a ‘Hypnotoad’ (let the Matt Groening references go on).
The strange thing is that the sword cuts both ways and foreigners who reside here don’t know that I’m American just by looking at me. For the most part, I’ve adopted the fashion and lifestyle here well enough that I don’t stick out in a crowd (except for when I’m talking on my phone). I’ve heard it from other Korean Americans as well that when you live in Korea for long enough, you don’t feel like you fit either side of the coin. As far as Korean Nationals are concerned, you’re a foreigner albeit one who has a better understanding of the language and culture than most. But to other foreigners you’re somewhat of a semi-citizen because of the benefits that same understanding nets you.
I don’t know if it’s some cruel joke or maybe just a fitting hypocrisy that coming from a land where everyone looks different, it’s in the country where everyone looks just like me that I’d have the hardest time fitting in. In reality I’m not a “Bolivian Tree Lizard”, I don’t try to fit in but rather have just adopted some of the culture and fashion due to the prolonged exposure. I’m sure that someday when I return to my home (California) I’ll have to re-adopt some of the idiosyncrasies and re-learn some of the customs that I’m bound to have forgotten.
The question then becomes how long can I stay here before the customs and cultures rub-off on me enough to turn me into someone who speaks with a perfect American accent yet bows instead of shaking hands when he meets new people?