14. English speakers in Korea

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This paper interrogates the formation and the representation of the English-speaking subject in modern Korea. Who speaks English in modern Korea and why? The paper offers a literary-historical sketch of representative modern Korean subjects in both Korean and Korean American literature. These subjects, I suggest, open up a troubled history of Korean imaginaries of the English language. Whereas English first appears as a marker of colonial modernity, class privilege, and social striving in early twentieth-century Korean literature, it quickly turns into a much more ambivalent and compromising sign of political and national dispossession in the literature of the Korean War. The evolution of the representative English-speaking Korean subject from the male colonial subject to the female ‘yanggongju’ (western princess) who serves the American military personnel stationed in Korea demonstrates that, in the Korean literary imagination, English has always been deeply connected to national and collective trauma and dispossession, even as it continues to perform as a sign of globalized, elite identity. Recently, we have seen the transnational adoptee emerge in Korean American literature as a prismatic figure embodying, in particularly painful and ironic form, the contradictory identifications demanded by English-language use in contemporary Korea.


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