Why I'm Obsessed with Asian Languages and Culture: My Happily Never Ending Journey

Why I'm Obsessed with Asian Languages and Culture: My Happily Never Ending Journey

Published On: 02-03-2014 12:58am

Comments: 1 - Hits: 0

Updated/Revised as of September 30, 2016

February 3, 2014

I am taking Japanese 1 online through Ball State University this school year. I have a niche with Asian languages. To me they are so elegantly spoken and written. Plus, the grammar and sounds of Asian languages is consistent throughout all of them, so once you learn one the others are much easier to grasp. Honestly, Asian grammar make more sense to me than English grammar (although I still know English grammar more fluently).
Some background on my border-line obsession with Asian languages and culture:
As a young child my family was quite poor. My mom was constantly going back to college to get degrees hoping she could use one. She began as an English education major and completed her masters in it while taking care of two toddlers pretty much on her own. Over the years she accumulated a bachelor's degree in Digital Design and another master’s degree in Earth Literacy. My amazing mother always struggled to find a steady job and was constantly stuck working in food service. Sometimes she would be called in to substitute teach at the local elementary and junior high schools, then would work late into the night at a fast food joint. This schedule was exhausting to my mum, so she ended up quitting her food service job. There were no jobs available as a full-time teacher like she hoped for, but because we lived in an apartment people filled with people from other countries: Russia, India, Korea, China, Japanese, and many more. Mom ended up tutoring the children in English (this was always their hardest class). She had the most tutoring jobs teaching Asian children because of their honorific importance in schooling among their cultures. Over the near three years of living in the apartment buildings on Crawford street in Terre Haute, IN my mom made many Asian friends, all of which who had kids my age. In the apartments I had a best girl friend who was Russian, a "boyfriend" (we were 7/8 years old so he wasn't really, but we called each other that any ways) from India, a plethora of friends who were from South Korea, and a few friends from Japan. It was the most amazing experience in my entire life. I remember spending mornings before school and evenings after school sitting in Chinese restaurants being asked by the Korean mother what my brother and I what we were hungry for (yes, giggle, you'd be surprised how many Chinese restaurants are not actually ran by Chinese people). We even got to help wrap homemade crab rang goon when we were there after school  (the handmade ones are always wrapped like this):



As a child, I remember going to my friends apartments and feeling like I was in another country. It was the best culture shock ever! We had dinner about once a week with a foreign friend and the Asian meals were always my favorite just because they were so different. There would be one large bowl of a main ingredient in the middle of the table (like noodles, meat, and/or soup; all meals included more rice then you could imagine), then surrounding the huge bowl would be at least a dozen tiny bowls filled with sauces, vegetables, fruits, and anything else you could add into the main ingredient. We would all sit on the floor (usually on pillows) around a low table and eat from all the dishes at once. It was quite chaotic. They didn't own a single fork in their house, only spoons and chopsticks. They encouraged us to learn how to eat everything with chopsticks, but didn't mind if the kids gave up and started sticking their fingers in all the food! I became a master of eating food with chopsticks and one of my mom's friends even gave me a pair for my birthday, along with wooden hair sticks, which are longer and thicker then chopsticks with pointed ends. 
The girls let me try on their clothes from their foreign country, a Japanese mother even let me try on her wedding kimono. My mom’s best friend, a beautiful Korean mother of two girls whose husband was still in South Korea, let me try on one of her hanboks, a traditional Korean dress worn at many special events.

Wedding Kimonos:


Wedding Hanboks:


Out of all the different people I've met from all over the world, I have found no other peoples who were always as consistency kind among their peoples as the Korean and Japanese. Even if I made a mistake- butchered a word from their language with my "American accent", held chopsticks wrong, put on their unique styles of dress on backwards (all of these I've done), they always did nothing but encouraged me and delighted in the fact that I was interested in their culture.
I grew up having slumber parties with Japanese girls who would bring over subtitled anime shows/movies to watch all night, which really improved my reading skills and helped me to pronounce their languages right. I played house with Korean kids who were always "cooking" exciting foods I'd never heard of in their play kitchens. I loved every minute of this culture-engrossed child hood that didn't last long enough.

When we moved when I was nine years old, I cried more than I ever have over anything in my entire life. We decided on moving out of the city to a "big" house on three acres of land, but stubborn little me told mom I hated every house we visited because I didn't want to move out of our barely 500 square feet apartment. Of course, it wasn't the place I actually cared about. It was the community; the mashed-up community of people from every side and corner of the world. Even with how different all of my neighbors were I have never felt the same sense of a closely knitted and healthy community as the one I was a part of in the apartments.
Sadly, the chapter ends with me moving miles away (which I was used to, I just got too used to being in one place for so long) and falling out of touch with each and every one of my friends in the only place I've ever felt comfortable enough to call home. However, the story doesn't end there!
In 2011 I was re-introduced to Korean culture by a college friend of my dad and stepmoms, who at the time was learning the Korean language and taking Asian history classes. I fell in love all over again, this time diving head first into Korean television, food, music, and even the language. My family and I took Korean through the Terre Haute Korean school at a local Korean Baptist church. Once again, I felt like I was back home with the friends who had become my family. Our teacher was Soon-Hwa (meaning "the galaxy" in Korean); she taught English in South Korea and came to America to teach Korean! I excelled in this class faster than all my fellow students and after less than a school year I could read, write, and pronounce all of the 40+ characters in romanized (written in English letters for pronunciation purposes) and hangul (Hangul is the name of their character system. I can translate over 100 words and know a few handfuls of sayings and greetings, but am still nowhere near fluent). Because we didn't finish our whole textbook by the time class ended, Soon-Hwa continued to meet with my mother (who was taking the class with me) and me at the public library until she left for the summer to visit home.
I didn't get any school credit for this class because of where I took it, but I never minded because the experience itself was worth it. 
At our graduation party/ceremony I made the delicious, traditional Korean dish kimbap to share, which everyone found very amusing since our Korean friends all brought pizza and cake. 

Kimbap I made for the celebration... delicious kimbap....


The big characters in the very middle of our certificates are our names in Korean.

My little sister, Ariel, hates getting her picture taken... so I distracted her!


Not the best picture of me, but what I hold in my hand is the fruits of my effort!


My mommy, so happy she finished this class with her daughters!


Anyways, when I came back to Grant County I quickly discovered that I couldn't continue my Korean studies. Luckily, a local college offered Japanese. So, I am supplementing my Asian culture joys by learning Japanese (which I must admit is much more difficult then Korean, just in the fact that there are over 4x as many Japanese characters than Korean).
Plus, my Korean class was free for my mom, little sister (she was in the kids class), and me. In fact, because the church was administering the lessons and paying for all of our textbooks (the teachers were volunteers, but all certified instructors) the church received money from the county because they were spreading culture without charging the students. Quite a symbiotic relationship!
Anyways, even though Japanese difficult and costs more then I wish to acknowledge, it's worth it just for the experience and the chance for me to do what I've always loved, and missed so much when I left the apartment, once again.


Added June 6, 2014

The last project I did in my stained glass class was the whole reason I took the class. I made a South Korean flag window (details about the size and glass can be found in my gallery). I could not find any patterns for it online, so I made an original design for it. I wanted my love for language to show in this flag, so at the top of the flag is the word, written in Korean characters, for their flag.



Added September 30, 2016

Well, my childhood dreams are about to come true. I have finally been approved to study abroad in South Korea. All of my childhood experiences, my knowledge of Korean culture, and tenacity to love a people so unlike the people I was born among will be put to the test, examined under a microscope. “Are you excited? Are you ready?”- these are questions I am asked daily. Of course I’m excited, I’ve wanted nothing more desperately in my whole life than to study in a country I’ve put so much care and effort to get to know intimately having never walked along her lands. As for if I’m ready, I still haven’t found any breathing room to exhale after holding my breath for so long waiting for this opportunity to come my way. Now that this opportunity has opened its doors, I’m charging through to the other side to learn, experience, and most importantly grow.



Reader's Comments

By Guest on 04/09/2014 @ 11:19pm

Fascinating story, Kate. You are so gifted, you should write a book, a novel or something. I'm trying to learn Japanese also. It's so hard, but I just adore the Japanese culture. They are so well-mannered, so respectful, we should learn a lot from them. Your mom looks a lot like a Korean:) Roxana Socaciu

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