Sunday, April 22, 2007
Korean Bluntness Will Never Bore Me
A young woman with the English nickname of Catherine stood in front of me, her head only a bit above mine, even though I was sitting and she standing. The teachers and students from the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Chuncheon, South Korea were on our way via bus to a weekend summer retreat.
I was sitting by myself, deep in thought. By “deep in thought,” I mean, I was in a staring contest with a tablet of notebook paper, hoping that I would win and the words for my next column about life in this country would suddenly appear without my having to think of anything.
Someone less familiar with Korea’s ESL students and their struggles with adjectives might have been emotionally wounded by Catherine’s words. However, anyone who has taught in Korea even a couple of months has heard the students say something like, “I don’t like that movie, it makes me very boring” at least once. Furthermore, she was a pleasant distraction from the writer’s blockade I was attempting to break through for one more week.
Catherine had come to see what I was doing and ask if I wanted to join the students playing some games that youth here enjoy while we waited for our bus to arrive at its destination. It was very thoughtful of her, and her knowledge of English was extensive, though her application of it was imperfect. It wasn’t long before I decided that I would make her my girlfriend. Eight months later, her speaking has steadily improved, and I have learned a thing or two about how the Korean mindset affects the words that come out their mouths.
Describing a Korean student who has recently started speaking English as “shy” would be akin to calling Dick Cheney “kind of stern.” When foreigners walk on the streets, the children, and sometimes even the young adults can be seen whispering to one another, hoping that they can put all the courage they have amongst themselves together, so one of them will actually be able to say something. Finally, the least diffident among them will say “Hello,” the foreigner will say “Hi” in response, and their whole group will cackle riotously.
A Caucasoid such as I is especially intimidating in cities where foreigners visit rarely, such as the eastern port town of Gangneun. The hardened Korean men who own the shops there in front of the Sea of Japan have graying hair and red, wrinkled skin from a life of sea and sun, yet their hands tremble and their voices are muted when a tall America enters and attempts to buy a beverage from them.
This initial caginess stands in stark contrast to the statements they will make once they’re comfortable with the language, some of which seem so candid as to induce cringing.
If an American is among friends and he/she appears to have been beaten mercilessly with the acne stick overnight, he/she can count on friends not to bring it up during conversation. Likewise, if there’s one in your circle of acquaintances who has fallen behind on their exercise program and their wardrobe is working a bit harder to keep all of their abdomen out of the public eye, none of them talks about it in public. We all know it’s there, and mentioning it won’t make it go away.
However, I’ve found that once Koreans learn to speak English, they will discuss each other’s physical imperfections as if they were yesterday’s weather.
Since I came to Seoul to begin work in our textbook development office, I and a few other foreigners have been under the supervision of a Korean woman named “Christie.” Christie spent some time in the UK, and so she regularly supplies us with distinctly Korean thoughts in a British accent, especially when we go out to lunch together.
“She’s very cute,” she will say about another employee within earshot. “She just has a lot of pimples.”
Discussion will then turn to our hobbies outside of the office. Lately, mine have included a gym nearby where I exercise with a burly South African teacher named Henry, whom Christy is familiar with.
“Henry’s very muscular,” Christie will say to me. “Robert, you are not. You are very slender.”
A statement such as this is enough to send my Anglicized standards of gracious discourse reeling, and she hasn’t even delivered the knockout: “Except for your stomach.”
Catherine has explained to me that this is not so much a degrading comment, just an observation that I was thin, but not excessively so. Poverty and malnourishment were widespread following the Korean War, and so now they are very sensitive to weight loss. They frequently say to each other and to foreigners, “You are losing your weight,” and not with a tone of admiration in their voices.
“Christie speaks English, but she’s still Korean,” Catherine said.
Even so, from now on I’m making it point to sit up straight and inhale whenever we eat together.
If I ever learn their language, which statements of mine will they consider outlandish? I’m somewhat eager to find out. One thing I do know now is that learning the intricacies of a new culture is never boring, even if I am sometimes.
I had a vague idea you were in Korea. It sure looks like it's interesting.
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