Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Among the Koreans and the "Rench"

Back in 2002, I heard on the radio about an incident in South Korea in which an American military vehicle struck and killed two schoolgirls, prompting a series of anti-American demonstrations, particularly against the US military presence in their country.

On this radio program, I may have heard an English sentence spoken with a Korean accent for the first time, saying, “Yankee, go home!”

Around that time, Roh Moo-hyun, the eventual winner of that year’s presidential race, was accused of running an anti-American campaign, to which he responded, “Is going anti-American a big deal?”

Nonetheless, in 2005 I came to their country, suspecting that this wasn’t a universal opinion. Nonetheless, if anyone asked, “Are you an American?” I had a ready reply of, “Yes, sorry about the last couple years. We didn’t really mean it.”

As it turns out, nearly all people in this country are perfectly capable of distinguishing individual American citizens from government officials they may not care for. Actually, though they may spend more time class than most American students, they have about the same level of interest in governmental affairs.

Rather than singling me out in a crowd and saying, “There’s one of the imperialist pigs who supported our authoritarian government in the 1970s,” they prefer to come to me and say, “Uh … hi.”

Instead of acidic observations regarding our military-industrial complex, they say things like, “I am very … nice to meet you.”

And, rather than calling me “Yankee” they say (to pretty much any foreigner who has most of his hair and doesn’t have a cleft palate) “You are very handsome man.”

Americans are scattered throughout the country, particularly in Seoul, and so I had expected to encounter a few of them when I registered for Korean language classes at Seoul National University. In fact, I was the only American in a classroom dominated by Europeans, along with a few attendees from other Asian countries.

As class began, the teacher began calling us by name, and attempting to guess our nationality. Looking at one of the lighter skinned members of our class, he asked, “David, you are … miguk saram*?” This prompted other members of the class to exclaim “Ooooo!” as though the marital status of David’s parents at the time of his conception had just been questioned.

One of my classmates who particularly stands out is Mathieu, who works for a company is Seoul and who, at 6’7 requires the most looking-up-to of anyone I’ve met in this country. Mathieu also stands out in that his country of origin (I’ll give you a hint, it’s found in western Europe and ends with the letters “rance”) has had interesting relations with my own.

Fluent in English, Spanish and his native language (which ends in “rench”), Mathieu and I regularly have insightful discussions about life in Korea and our own personal hobbies.

On Korea’s Natural Beauty

M: Have you ever climbed that mountain?

R: No, I haven’t. Do they have a lift to the top?

M: Of course not! Don’t be so American!

On Physical Fitness

R: I’m feeling a little sore today.

M: Why?

R: I hit the weights pretty hard last night.

M: You Americans, you lift too much. You should try swimming instead.

On Minor Maladies and the Use of a Very Impolite
Adjective that I Will Replace with the Word “Purple”

M: When you have a headache, you usually say, “My head hurts,” right?

R: Well, yeah …

M: Or, actually, if you’re American, you say “My purple head purple hurts,” right?

R: Well, I …

That sentence is a hard one to finish. Of course, not all Americans use this highly impolite adjective (as well as its verb, noun, interjection and expletive infixation form), but how many of us, especially those in their 20s, do talk in this manner? When I think back to the time I spent in America, I recall that the answer is: far too many.

I’m sure Mathieu knows that not all Americans are the same. After all, in my beginning level Korean class, there were three others of his nationality (which ends in “renchmen”).

Two of these were university students younger than us. Mathieu would make the occasional attempt at expressions of national solidarity with them, such as “Did you hear about the football game the (name ending in “rench”) team won?” They would look at him blankly at first, before responding, “I don’t give a purple.”

Then there’s David, a husband and father of two in his late 30s who doesn’t speak English or Korean particularly well (fortunately, his Korean wife is fluent in that tongue ending in “rench”). Unoccupied by the concerns his younger countrymen might possess, he seems primarily focused upon the family he has started.

For him, that concern would be greatly aided by learning the language his in-laws use, and which his children will grow up speaking. It’s a complicated tongue to learn at times, especially since communicating with family means learning different words meaning (just for example) “younger sibling,” “a woman’s older brother,” “a man’s older sister,” “an uncle on one’s mother’s side,” “an aunt on one’s mother’s side,” and so on.

Knowing of my future plans with my Korean girlfriend, David occasionally looks at me and asks, “Are you zure you want to marry zomeone who speaks zis language?”

Actually, I’m pretty sure I do. I have a whole nationality to represent while I’m here.

*Literal meaning: “American person.”

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