I read an interesting post on Kimchi Mamas about a woman dating online. She was troubled by Asian Fetish Men responding to her ads.
As a white woman who has become interested in Korea 3 years ago, I worry that I walk that line between being genuinely curious and open to new experiences and being creepy because I am obsessed by all things Korean.
Whenever I meet a new Korean online, I get asked the question of why I am learning Korean. I don’t have a good answer. I often feel self-conscious about this strange interest in Korean culture and people. Let me try to explain. (babble really …)
I watched Korean dramas for an entire year before I met a single person in America who shared my interest in Korean dramas. I didn’t talk about Korean dramas with my friends and family, because I knew they would never “get it”. Finding Dramabeans.com was a blessing as I realized there were other white middle aged American women who liked Korean dramas for their romance, and so I wasn’t totally alone.
If I thought I was marginalized as a kid for being interested in science fiction, that was nothing compared to being the white woman who now likes learning about Korea.
I sometimes forget myself and start talking about learning Korean to strangers who ask why I am carrying around a Korean language textbook to read at lunch. To me, learning about Korea has been this world-expanding experience that has taught me so much. Yet the glazed eyes as I start to bubble over with enthusiasm for what learning Korean has brought to my life quickly reminds me. This stranger can not relate. They do not care. They think I am weird to be learning Korean.
OK. They have a point. I am weird. Learning Korean as a hobby is something I would have never been able to imagine 3 years ago.
So why am I learning Korean?
Before 2012, what I knew about South Korea could fit in a thimble. I am embarrassed how little I knew. I had never met a Korean in my life. Mostly what came to mind was the Korean War, rice paddies, and M*A*S*H. Then I saw “Boys Over Flowers”.
Being a well read and educated person, my tremendous knowledge gap about current day Korea was horrifying. I immediately wanted to rectify the situation. Even with subtitles, there were mysteries in the way the people reacted. I could not comprehend it. I was overwhelmed by places I had never seen, clothing, music, and culture. I had never even heard KPop.
I was a blank slate. I didn’t have negative connotations. I didn’t have positive connotations. Here I had unearthed a subject about which I was completely clueless.
I made the decision to investigate. To research and delve further into Korean culture as a way to educate myself about an Asian society. I was determined to rectify my shame of knowing so little about modern day Korea.
I had studied Tai Chi for a decade. I had an interest in Japanese gardens and architecture. I had even taken Taekwondo for several years. Yet until Korean dramas came along, I had never thought about Korea. It was a place far away that had no impact on my life.
From the very start, the Korean language was part of my attraction to Korean dramas. It was like a puzzle. Korean language tickled my ears. I quickly picked up that the word order was different. My ears perceived Korean as English softly spoken that I couldn’t quite make out. I was baffled by sounds. I couldn’t remember or say the main character’s name Koo Jun-Pyo (이민호). Everything about that first Korean drama confused me, and so I watched it over and over again.
I thought my interest in Korean drama would be short lived. 3 months was my initial guess. I had gotten an interest in English dramas, and watched only English dramas for 3 months. That had sated my appetite for seeing the width and breath of English drama. I gobbled up everything from science fiction, to classic comedy, to police drama, to period pieces, to documentaries, to romance, to history, to talk shows, to stand up comedians, to mysteries, to travel shows, to gritty foul-mouthed series “Misfits”. I watched shows spanning 50 years of English tv. I learned a lot about English culture. Then the obsession passed, and English drama returned to just “one of my interests”.
In contrast, my Korean drama watching took over my life. There was SO MUCH. Three months of drama watching, and I was marathoning Korean dramas 16 hours a day. A day without the sound of Korean in my ears made me irritable.
Korean drama addiction took hold.
As anyone who has suffered from Korean drama addiction can attest, it leads to staying up late to watch “just one more episode” until your eyes are gritty red. I couldn’t wait to discuss Korean dramas every Friday on Dramabeans Open Thread with other Korean drama addicts. Korean dramas were more than just mild entertainment. They struck an emotional chord in me. I fell in love, over and over, with Korean men in dramas. The feeling of falling in love was magic. Waiting eagerly 12 episodes for one kiss was exactly the kind of romance I wanted. So long Hollywood and American TV, I have found this wonderfully safe world of Korean dramas where I can have love dished out every day.
My drama interest lead to other things like reading about Korean history, culture, music, and language. There was so much to learn. It was a rich environment that yielded many rewards. I tasted many things, like an endless buffet.
I started learning some Korean words because I was so eager to watch Korean dramas that I couldn’t wait one day for the subtitles to be written and was watching raw episodes. I had no plans to speak Korean, just to listen to it on TV shows. I thought I was missing subtleties in my dramas by not being able to discern banmal (casual) vs. formal speech.
I wasn’t planning to study consistently. I didn’t want hard work. I just was intensely curious. I wanted to play. I wanted to have fun. I wanted to dabble.
I had never learned a language to the point that I could speak it. Here was another of my intellectual feelings of shame, that 4 years of Spanish in high school and I couldn’t speak Spanish. Trying to dabble in teaching myself Spanish and later German as a hobby over the years never got me very far. I did not know how to self-study. I knew nothing about learning a language. Again, another blank slate.
A pivotal decision was to join Interpals.com and find a Korean pen pal. Chulmoon was the first Korean to approach me on the very first day I joined, and we have been pen pals ever since.
So now I had met a Korean. But I didn’t know any Korean language. I had gotten Tuttle’s flashcards for kids a year before, so I had learned about 60 words. Colors, numbers, family names mostly. Tree, flower, window, moon. I couldn’t make a single Korean sentence. But having someone to write to inspired me. Slowly, over the next few months, I came to realize I actually wanted to learn the Korean language.
Another Interpal I met was a Korean business man who wanted to improve his English for work. I dedicated hours every day working on his English, as well as helping many others I met online with English. There was little time for me to study Korean, because I was overwhelmed with people who wanted to learn English. For the first time, I realized that being a native English speaker made me popular. I was thrust into the role of being an English tutor, which I felt completely unprepared for.
I also discovered, much to my shock, that many of these men who contacted me saying they wanted language exchange, also were looking for something else. I was not looking for romance. I just wanted to learn language. I was totally flustered when men confessed their love for me. I was always straight-forward about only being interested in language exchange. I was flattered. I was pursued. I fear I broke a few hearts.
Real life Korean men are different from dramas. I experienced culture shock. I threw out everything I thought I knew about Korea from Korean dramas and started over again learning one person, one friendship, one conversation at a time.
After a few months, I cut back on the English tutoring, limited myself to only speaking to Koreans, and carved out time in my schedule for Korean studying. I signed up for Korean Digital Academy. Here, I finally got a place where I could speak Korean out loud with a native Korean teacher in a small online class.
Once I actually admitted to myself I was now studying Korean, the coursework took up a lot of my time. I started a blog to capture the process. My brain overspilled with ideas.
I meandered around the internet trying to figure out how to learn. I read books. I watched videos. I installed software. I was on information overload. I was very scattered. I was still filled with burning curiosity for all things Korean.
It turned out that studying the Korean language took so much time that I didn’t have time for Korean drama watching anymore. That took me quite by surprise. I thought the whole point of learning Korean was to make watching Korean dramas easier. I had to question myself why I was learning Korean, if not to watch Korean dramas.
The new answer was I was learning Korean because I wanted to communicate with these Koreans I had met online.
It has taken me many months to find a routine for studying. Thanks to Rob Julien from Korean Digital Academy, I now have a study system that works. I have pursued many different things in learning Korean. What works for me is Korean Digital Academy, Memrise flashcards, Glossika, and chats with Koreans. There are many other things I want to learn, but being too scattered is why I made so little progress, expending lots of energy.
So now that I have explained all that, how do I explain to a new Korean I meet why I am learning Korean?
It is not because I have a fetish for Korean men, although I admit Korean drama has given me an appreciation for handsome Koreans. It is not for romance. It started because of Korean dramas, but to say I am learning Korean because I like Korean dramas feels very empty and incomplete. Learning Korean language is an intellectual stimulation. Learning how to learn and how to teach is satisfying. Yet to say I am learning Korean simply because I am curious seems an inadequate answer too. I did start this to rectify my lack of knowledge about Korea. But there are many countries in the world that I lack knowledge about, so why Korea? Writing to Chulmoon has been a strong motivation for me to learn Korean, but he complains that I burden him by making him a reason. I fear being a burden to all the kind-hearted Koreans who have helped me as I learn. Certainly a part of the answer of why I am learning Korean has to be the people I have met (even though I have never met any of them in person).
At one point, this past year, I was seriously investigating the possibility of going to Korea. I thought I could teach part time and study Korean while in Korea. It was a partial motivation for my desire to learn Korean. I gave that up after the events the last week of September.
How do I explain my continued interest in Korea? I have no plans to marry a Korean, become a foreign bride. I am not going to be a teacher in Korea. I have yet to meet a Korean speaker in my area. I will probably never be able to afford a trip to Korea. It is a stretch of my budget to go to New York City once a year.
Yet I remain interested in Korea. Not in a creepy way of obsessed fangirl or Asian fetish guy. I just think there is still more for me to learn. There are so many aspects to Korea and language learning that I have not explored. Learning Korean has introduced me to new topics for research. It has brought me new ideas. I really respect new ideas. Old brains get stuck in ruts. We know people who think and live like us, and rarely step outside of that zone to discover other ways of viewing the world. It is why I like international travel so much, and why I am still thrilled to be meet folks from around the world.
Why am I interested in Koreans? I will probably still answer that to new folks I meet that I discovered Korean dramas, and it made me curious about Korea. It is a simple answer. Yet it is not an answer that satisfies me. There is more to my interest in Korea. There is something special that has maintained my interest for 3 years now. There is something that makes me continue to do the hard work of studying the language that at this point I still can’t speak and struggle to write.
I remember when I realized that learning Korean was letting the language move into my brain and become a permanent part of me. I am a different person now. I am a person who knows more about Korea than I know about my beloved England that my ancestors come from. Learning Korean has changed me. A part of my soul is sympathetic to Korea. I described it to my Korean drama watching friend Carole as the fact that even though I have not a drop of Korean blood, I still feel like the Korean people are “mine” similar to how I feel about Englishmen.
In truth, I know very little about Korea. That is the humble truth. I have watched 100 Korean dramas. I have written Chulmoon for a year. I have memorized 300 Korean words and taken 2 Korean courses. I own 20 books about Korea. This in no way qualifies me to say I know anything about Korea. I have just scratched the surface. I probably have a lot of things wrong. Yet I am open to learning. I am curious. I sincerely care for my Korean friends. I want to make more Korean friends.
If you read my blog, you are probably a person who is also interested in learning Korean. How do you answer the question? Why you are learning Korean? I suspect there are many answers to that question. I would love to hear yours.