I’ve come to realize I was a terrible daughter.
From the outside looking in, I probably seemed like the perfect child. I always made straight A’s and never got in trouble. My parents rarely had to worry about me because I was the prime example of a goody two shoes.
So how is it I’m a terrible daughter then? Well, let me explain…
As you all maybe know by now, I’ve been living in South Korea for the past six months. This is my second time living abroad, with the first time being my exchange year in Belgium when I was 17.
Before coming to South Korea, I thought I was prepared for what was to come. I mean, I had lived abroad for a year before, so how different could this be?
Sure, I didn’t know any Korean before moving halfway across the world. But I didn’t know any French before moving to Belgium either. I managed to become relatively proficient in French within half a year, so I was confident I could pick up Korean within the same timeframe.
After living in South Korea for half a year, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit my Korean still sucks. While my reading and writing skills have improved, my listening and speaking abilities are at a dreadful low.
I know my inability to learn Korean as quickly as French has a lot to do with my situation.
When I was an exchange student, I was completely immersed in my target language. I attended a Belgian high school and sat through (almost) all the classes a normal Belgian student would, even though I didn’t understand anything. Aside from the English, Spanish, and Flemish classes, all my other classes were taught in French. Then when I went home to my host families, they would conversate with me in French as well. On top of all that, I attended French classes a few times a week. Within this environment, it was easy to learn French.
My situation in Korea is different. Since I’m here as an English teacher, I obviously spend a lot of time speaking English. During my non-teaching hours, I’m usually in my classroom lesson planning. Other than during lunch or in the hallways, I rarely see the other Korean teachers or staff. After work, I go back to my apartment where I live alone. On the weekends, I hang out with other English teachers because I don’t have a lot of local Korean friends.
Although I’m living in Korea, I’m not exactly immersed in the language. It’s like I’m living in my own little English-speaking bubble here. I’m not trying to do this intentionally, but it’s how things tend to be when you’re an English teacher.
So by now, you’re maybe wondering,
“What exactly does this have anything to do with you being a bad daughter?”
By living in South Korea, I was figuratively able to “walk a mile” in my parents’ shoes. It took becoming an expat myself to understand how they felt as immigrants.
My family immigrated to the United States when I was a year old. Since I grew up in the U.S., I naturally picked up English with ease.
When I was younger, I was annoyed by my parents’ inability to speak English. Because they didn’t know English, they frequently asked me or my siblings to help them with various tasks.
As a child, I used to think to myself, “Why can’t they just learn English?” I was already so preoccupied with my own affairs that it felt burdensome to constantly help them do things because they didn’t know English.
Deep down, I knew it was hard for them to learn English, though.
Both my parents worked all day at blue-collar jobs that didn’t require them to interact a lot with others. After work, they would come home and speak Vietnamese to us. On the weekends, they would spend time with their Vietnamese friends. They were essentially living in a Vietnamese-speaking bubble themselves.
Even though my parents studied English often, their listening and speaking abilities didn’t improve much. I told my mom she would never be able to speak English if she didn’t practice speaking it. A few times, I suggested she try to only speak English with me at home. But of course, this didn’t last very long as she quickly reverted back to using Vietnamese.
As terrible as this sound, I actually started resenting my parents for not being able to speak English. I couldn’t understand why after so many years in the U.S., they still weren’t fluent.
Now, after my second time living abroad, I’m starting to understand their struggle.
Learning a foreign language is HARD when you have other responsibilities to prioritize.
When I lived in Belgium, learning French was easy because that was my sole focus. I didn’t have any obligations aside from learning French. My only job was to be a student. Everything else was already taken care of.
But now living in South Korea, that’s not the case anymore. My main obligation here is to be an English teacher. Learning Korean comes second.
Right now, I currently teach full-time. I leave my house at 7:50 a.m. and get home around 5:30 p.m. When I get home, I feel so exhausted I just want to crash in bed or unwind with some Netflix. Studying Korean, or studying anything for that matter, goes out the window.
I can imagine how my parents felt after working tirelessly all day.
My dad tended to relax by gardening after work, while my mom would watch TV. Even then, she was still studying in a sense because all the channels were in English.
I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to make language learning a priority when you have other things to juggle. It’s hard to get into a learning mindset when you’re already worn out from your priorities. Learning a foreign language isn’t the most relaxing thing to do after a long day of work.
Unfortunately, as much as I wished they knew English, I wasn’t helpful to them when they were trying to learn. When my mom was self-studying, she would always ask me to explain or translate things. I often told her to look it up in the dictionary or to ask my other siblings. Part of the reason I felt bothered was because I wasn’t good at translating. I wasn’t fluent in Vietnamese, so it was hard for me to explain things to her sometimes. The other part was because I felt my preoccupations were more important.
Now that I’m working in a foreign country, I understand how terrifying doing even the most mundane things are.
For example, picking up phone calls.
Every time my parents picked up the phone, they would yell for one of us to take it if the caller was speaking English. I got so irritated by this, I would tell them to not pick up the phone. If it was important, the person would leave a message.
Since moving to South Korea, I’m terrified of answering phone calls. In fact, I almost never pick up my phone anymore. Because of the pressure that comes with speaking on the phone, I can never seem to put a coherent sentence together. All I manage to mumble in Korean is, “I don’t speak Korean.”
Other things my parents would ask us to help with were translating mail or going with them to get paperwork done.
I now realize how overwhelming these tasks can be when you’re in a foreign country.
To be honest, the only mail I attempt to read are my bills. Sure, I could translate my other mail, but that requires a lot of time and effort. If I get mail that isn’t a bill but looks important, I’ll ask one of my Korean friends to help translate it.
Even something as simple as ordering food is nerve-racking, which is why I rarely eat out. Although I can order food in Korean, the thought of doing it still scares me.
Thinking back, not only am I ashamed of how unhelpful I was to my parents, but I’m also amazed at how much they were able to accomplish by themselves.
Both my parents uprooted their lives in Vietnam to move to the U.S. so my siblings and I could have more opportunities. They left all they knew behind for the benefit of their children.
Taking care of myself in South Korea is already hard sometimes. I can’t even fathom taking care of a family of seven in a foreign country where I can’t speak the language.
It took me a long time, but now I understand why my parents aren’t fluent in English.
Studying English was never their priority.
Their priority was to put a roof over our heads.
Their priority was to put food on the table.
Their priority was to make sure my siblings and I had everything we needed to succeed.
Their priority was us.
Studying English only came second.
The reason I wrote this post is to hopefully help people realize how difficult it can be to learn a second language. I know in the U.S., a lot of Americans complain about Mexican immigrants not being able to speak English. Ironically, most of these Americans don’t even speak a second language. It’s so easy to dismiss someone as being too lazy to learn a language when you’ve never been in their shoes.
Maybe these immigrants are like my parents, working tiresome jobs all day to support their families. Maybe they don’t have the time or resources they need to learn English. Maybe they’re trying to learn English, but it’s just so damn hard.
Since I was practically born in the U.S., I can relate to a lot of second generation immigrants. I know a lot of others like me have to act as translators for their parents. I know it can be frustrating at times bearing this responsibility.
I hope sharing my experience will help other second generation immigrants understand their parents’ struggles.
So that concludes the story of how I came to realize what a terrible daughter I was. If I could go back in time and speak to my younger self, I would say,
“What you’re doing can wait 5 minutes, or 10 minutes, or however long. Help your parents out when they ask for help. They’re doing everything they can for you, so you should do everything you can for them.”