There I stood impatiently in the front of the line, in the cool scent of chocolate chip cookies and steamed ham. Behind me are a middle-aged woman with bruise-like dark circles and a professional businessman in a typical white suit yapping to his dangling wireless earphone, all of us trying to get a sandwich at a fast-food restaurant with the hefty air of “healthy living”.
As a Korean who’s lived most of his life abroad, I carry an awkward foreigner’s accent when speaking in Korean. I slur words, stutter, slip in unintentional th’s and sh’s like a snake. For me, even the mere act of getting a sandwich in Korea is a ticking time bomb – behold, the world of Konglish, Korean English.
“What bread would you like?” The employee says mechanically, not looking up from the cashier. I’m eyeballing “Italian Herb” on the menu. It’s written in Korean as an English loanword, and, as a rule, Konglish butchers every English vowel sound into its own syllable; behold, “Eeh-tah-lee-ahn” (not that bad) and “Herb” as “Huh-boo” – one syllable sliced into two.
“What type of cheese?” The employee asks me while she eagerly eyes the next customer. “Shredded Cheese” spoken in Konglish is pronounced “Shoe-red-dit chee-joo”, chopping the monosyllable “cheese” into two. The syllables must be refrained from a natural flow like a formidable wave at a bulwark.
Every item on the menu is Konglish, not a single native Korean word, no refuge in sight. My heart beats quickly as I prepare my tongue – a panic attack inbound, I’m compulsively aware of every syllable dropping from my mouth, trying desperately to hide my awkward accent.
“Shredded cheese.” My tongue slips. The employee stares at me in pure contempt. My cover is blown; I should not have spoken at all.
The ability to speak English as a Korean is a show of luxury and status, a historical remnant of rapid Westernization in the country, and English loanwords have seeped through the cracks of Korean nationalism, into K-pop lyrics and, why not, even sandwich menus. A store front would not be complete in Korea, would not be as lucrative, if not written in English loanwords or have a laughable slogan – but permissible to the general Korean public – like ”Cafe The Awesome”.
It is a ridiculous cultural phenomenon: the patriotic identity of Korea that burns pride in its citizens, to the point of attempting to exterminate all foreign loanwords – where is it now? The fierce tiger has been substituted by a plush teddy bear of consumerism, tagged with stupid English loanwords, each letter of the foreign alphabet prized like a jewel.
Many Westerners mock the stereotypical Asian accent, on TV and in conversation. No harm done, however: Asians imitate Americans; Americans imitate Asians. Many Koreans often rile up with triumphant emotion when, in the middle of a conversation, in the spark of imaginary glory, they utter an English phrase like “I bee-lee-boo in you!” or “No puh-row-bull-em!” But the keen person sees beyond the conversational veneer and notices worrisome nervous symptoms: a mildly panicking voice; a defensive showcase of “literacy”; a mocking laugh hiding mixed feelings.
We ignore these nervous symptoms, but they are the imperceptible ticks that are provoking the political atmosphere, such as the economic war between the U.S. and China, and an identity crisis in Asian Americans. I am born Korean but I am not a Korean, and although it is acceptable for a Korean to imitate a foreigner, it is repulsive for a foreigner to imitate a Korean. We nervously laugh and throw in some slightly racist humor, but mockery stems from problems left unspoken.
“Here you go,” the employee says irritably. I take my sandwich and quickly leave.
Jinho Yoon is the managing editor of The Woodstocker.
Edited by Archita Aggarwal