Saturday, January 21, 2006


Everyone Should Have a Korean Niece

My last column was intended to employ a literary device involving called “foreshadowing,” in which the writer leads up to plot developments destined to occur sometime later in the story. In that case, how my 4-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew used to react to me was intended to introduce how I’m perceived by Asians of a similar age bracket now that I’m living overseas.

However, an 800-word column couldn’t fit both subjects so well, so I improvised, allowing me to write another week without the inconvenience of coming up with a new topic.

Anyway, during my Italian trip in December I accompanied about 20 Koreans, some of which I got know during that week. However, there was only one with whom I was able to share the watershed event of Western popular culture and watch as it instantly took effect on her life.

The instant I said “watershed event in popular culture” you ought to know what I meant: the “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” jingle.

She was nine-years-old and the daughter of one of the members of the Korean choir I was tagging along with. I was told by her mother that her name in Hangul translates into “beautiful diamond,” but since Korean is really hard to say and even harder to remember once you’ve figured out how to say it once, I’ll call her “Erin,” the nickname they devised for her to accommodate clueless foreigners.

She and her mother were part of a group that spent most of the time together during the trip. On about day three of our vacation we toured Venice, and we began plotting a trip for frozen dairy desert. Erin already speaks English at an intermediate level, so when she deciphered this plan she announced her approval in words we all understood: “Ice cream!”

“I scream,” I said, pointing at my personage.

“Ice cream?” she replied.

“You scream,” was my rejoinder.

“You scream!”

“We all scream for ice cream!”

And so it began. These words would never be far from our ears the rest of our trip. An interesting thing about the Hangul is that they have no articles; no “a,” “an” or “the,” and so many of them compensate for this by indulging it fully once they learn English. This often results in sentences that are translated into English as “The Jesus is coming again” and “He likes a tea cold.”

In this case, Erin said the words “I scream, you scream, we all scream for the ice cream!” eagerly and often throughout the week.

On day six of our expedition I was asked if I had been sorry that I taught her those words.

“No,” I might have thought to answer but didn’t, “I’m leaving tomorrow and returning to Suncheon. I’ve taught her something she’ll remember and enjoy but now I can leave while she terrorizes everyone around her with it, including her mother.

“In a way, I guess that makes me her uncle.”

It’s easy for a Westerner to acquire honorary nieces and nephews here in Korea. Pastor Moon, the director of my institute here in Suncheon, has a very young daughter with another one of those really hard Korean names and a more clueless-foreigner-friendly nickname of Susan.

I was rather surprised to hear Pastor Moon tell me the other day that Susan talks about me often when I’m not around. “The other day,” he began, “my daughter said to me, ‘Uncle Rob said…’” and proceeded to make the throat-clearing noise. I was surprised on at least a pair of levels: one, she’s not even begun pre-school yet and she’s a master impresario, and two, she calls me uncle even though our interaction so far has involved me waving at her while she clutches her mother or father’s legs in what appears to be terror.

Every now and then I don’t feel too far removed from their age so it’s always a revelation to hear how I appear in their eyes. It brings out a sentimental streak in me; I always can’t wait to have one of those of my own.

And by “one of those” I mean a Korean child. My only regret is that I have but one year to find a Korean wife.

All of these blogs will be a book some day. mark my words.
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