When I was a baby, my first words were hi, mama, daddy, and um-ma (Korean for mom). Ever since then, I grew up hearing and speaking both Korean and English at home. I spoke Korean with my mom and English with my dad.
But I was painfully aware of the fact that this was not the norm in my hometown. You see, I lived in the south. In the south, as well as much of the United States, the dominant, or universal, language is English. Of course, in my hometown, there were small pockets of people speaking Spanish or French. Personally, I knew very few people who knew another language, and they weren’t biracial like I was. In short, I didn’t know anyone who was like me, bilingual and biracial.
Besides my identity as a mixed race person in America, I also spoke a language other than English. What’s more, it wasn’t Spanish, French, or even German. It was a language that not many people in my hometown knew. But that wasn’t so bad because often my mom and I would speak Korean in public. We would secretly love the fact that most likely the average person would not be able to understand us. It sometimes felt like our secret language. That was pretty cool.
But as I got older, I started to resent the fact that I was able to speak Korean. Sometimes when a teacher called on me to answer a question or to read a passage out loud from a book, the other students would snicker behind their hands and laugh. I would sit there confused, not sure why they were laughing. I would sit there, not wanting to participate anymore just because the other kids were making of me. This is the moment when I even wished that I only knew one language like my classmates.
It also didn’t help that taunts and annoying gibberish words would follow me around school. Sometimes kids would “talk” to me in their version of Chinese and that was pretty offensive. It helped to reinforce xenophobia. But most of it was born out of ignorance. They knew very few people who were of Asian descent, much less someone who was half. These incidents made me not want to speak Korean.
But as I got older, I learned to ignore it. I learned to just put it behind me and not let it get to me. I was often told that kids make fun of other kids because of jealousy or family issues or anything really. It might not even have been about me, but more about them. They were making fun of me as a way to cover up some deeper feelings. Or maybe not. Maybe they were just vindictive and mean.
In either case, it took me a long time before I began to appreciate being bilingual. It took me a long time before I started to be thankful that I could speak two languages, plus the languages I would eventually learn at school.
Being bilingual is a pretty wonderful thing. Because I grew up speaking English and Korean from such a young age, both languages come naturally me. I am able to easily switch between the two languages with very little input. It’s amazing to me how I can do that. The other languages that I learned when I was older, the transition to switch back and forth is not as smooth, but it’s still doable. For those languages, I have to consciously tell myself ok, I’m ready to speak — though not exactly in those words. I have to mentally prepare myself for the switching of the languages.
Now, I wish that I had learned more than two languages at such an early age. When you’re younger, you don’t even realize that you are picking up a language. You are just listening to the words until eventually you are able to use them. It just happens, with no active studying involved. When you’re three or four, you don’t need a Spanish grammar textbook. All you need is to just to listen and to talk to people in that language.
Overall, my experience being bilingual is pretty positive. There were a few rough moments, but it was worth it because I wouldn’t be who I was without those moments.