Diaspora Life
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Why I Need To Get an “English-Native-Speaker” Looking Face

Here it is brothers and sisters, for all of us who are a little bit lost, the grey-zoners.
For all of us who are drifting on the fringes of our native country and [insert country here], where our hearts really belong. This post is sort of dedicated to my friend Cecile.

Every time I spark up a conversation in English with an English-native-speaking person, I get the following response:
– Wow, you speak English really well. When and/or where did you learn it?

By now I  know how to deal with the situation neutrally and usually provide the following, diplomatic response:
– It’s a long story (If I don’t really want to talk to you anymore)
– It’s a really long story, how much time have you got? (If you sound like you’re genuinely interested to know why)
– I’m 1/4 Irish, 2/4 Korean, and 1/4 Alaskan (If I’m feeling particularly sarcastic)

To be honest, what I really want to say is this:
– [insert silent, mental sigh here] It’s because it’s possible for me to have English as my first language even if it’s not my mother tongue, and because I completed primary school in English, because I lived in an English-speaking country for six years and it’s where I still call home, and because my Bachelor’s degree in International Relations was taught entirely in English by tutors with credentials from universities like Stanford and Yale, and because I’ve been working as a translator and interpreter since 2009 and getting properly paid for the good work I do, and because I’ve been on an internship to New York, and because I’m starting an MA in Interpreting from an AIIC-accredited school. Would you like to see my papers?

Sometimes when I’m in a bad mood, I want to retort:
– Oh yeah, thanks, you too. Where are you from?

Other times, I feel sort of funky, and want to go with:
– [start talking in thick Indian accent] Because I’m from Chennai. And India f*cking rocks, b*tches! (I do consider myself  at least 20% Indian at heart)

Now, I know all very well that people who ask me those questions mean no harm. They’re just really curious, because it’s not everyday you come across a fluently-English-speaking-Korean, apparently (Which I find completely strange, because all of my close friends at university speak English fluently). I know, I know that in my head. It’s just that having to explain “my story” every time makes me tired, and frustrated, and I’d really like to tape-record myself with my “English language acquisition record form” and hit replay instead of having to recount my life yet again.

Of course you are curious. I’d be just as curious if you were a Caucasian-looking person with an American or British accent and you were talking to me in an non-English language (It’s amazing how being born to a lingua franca makes you lose the opportunity to learn new languages, and truly a sad feature of these countries’ public schooling. But that’s something else, and it should be discussed at length in a different post)

With my kind of story, it’s impossible to not be able to speak English. But apparently the world doesn’t see it that way. When I applied for MAs in Interpreting and Translating, all of the schools with programs in Korean-English changed my A language (mother tongue) from English to Korean – even though they had clearly indicated that “A language” is the one you should feel most competent in, and even though I had supplied all kinds of documents proving my English language proficiency and proof of residency. One very rude school in the UK made me needlessly submit all my documents, saying that they’d “be able to give a clear response only once we review all materials and documents furnished by the candidate”. I didn’t want to go through the hassle and asked them several months in advance whether I’d be eligible, because by this time I’d been turned down by at least 2 UK schools, and once I’d completed my application form, they sent me a one-sentence e-mail containing the words: “Candidate did not complete secondary school in English-speaking country, and is therefore not eligible”.

So, to get back on track, it’s not a compliment if you tell me “You have no accent” (What does this even mean? How can someone not have an accent?) or “You sound totally American – I’d totally not be able to tell”. It’s something I should be capable of doing, naturally. But once again, people, especially Americans, are generous with compliments and mean no harm. I know that. I know I’m a peculiar little case – Korean feeling more comfortable speaking English than Korean, debating better in English, and all. But still, all those little comments sounds like micro-aggressions to me. At least you haven’t called me a kyopo, so that’s a relief (calling someone a kyopo is saying that they speak both English and Korean badly – of course not all kyopos are like this, but that’s the prejudice, and therefore an insult).

Anyway, my conclusion is, I hope one day I can stop explaining myself and have people just accept me the way I am, an English-speaking Korean.

This entry was posted in: Diaspora Life


Internationally lost since 2000, Emily was born in Seoul, raised in India, and has been living and studying in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands since 2014. A translator and interpreter by profession, she enjoys talking and debating just about anything.

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