September 5, 2006

Korean til my ears bleed

The weekend with the in-laws was fine. The problem was having very little emotional reserve for polite small talk. Conversation with Mom and Dad is fine, but we went to church Sunday. All in Korean. They pray before and after every segment of the service. When one says, “they pray” one might picture (if you’re white) a nice polite, “Thank you for your blessings, please take care of all the poor in the world” type prayer. But that’s not Korean prayer. If you prayed Korean style and had to pray the whole thing without taking a breath, you’d be passed out on the floor and blue with lack of oxygen. Which is fine once or twice, but by the fifth time I wanted to run screaming around the room stabbing random objects with chopsticks. Perhaps the 45-minute sermon didn’t help either?

I don’t know if its true of all Korean churches, but each one I’ve visited provides lunch after the service. For seating arrangements, the church breaks down by age and gender. Every other visit I sat with Mom K at the ajumma table (middle aged Korean women). This time the pastor’s wife said, “You young, you sit with young people.” She grabbed my arm and directed me to the back of the room and sat me in front of a young Korean woman. Fortunately the teenager (I’m not that young!) spoke English. Remember how I said I had no energy for polite small talk?!! What were they doing to me? It turned out she was about to start School of Visual Arts in NY as a graphic design major and I was able to give her all sorts of advice. Phew. That was easier than I expected.

Sunday night we had dinner with Chogun Imo and Imo Abaji (Jrex’s mother’s younger sister, and younger sister’s husband). I love that Korean has precise names for each relative. I had a mild triumph during dinner. As I happily wolfed down the Bi Bim Nyang Myun (spicy cold noodles), Imo Abaji passed his dish of the same to his wife and muttered something in Korean. Jrex leaned over and said, “He just said it’s too spicy to eat.”

After dinner at the restaurant, we returned to Chogun Imo’s house for the exchange of gifts. Mom K bought a huge crystal vase for me to give her “in case you forgot”. A logical assumption since this was the first trip we remembered to buy something. Gift giving is not my culture. I’m doing well when I remember Mom and Dad K much less the extended family! I tried to give Mom money for the vase and she wouldn’t let me. She also insisted on paying for dinner. When I mentioned this to Jrex, he said, “It’s ok. They gave Dad $500 for his birthday this year. Everything must be repaid one way or another.”

Chogun Imo barely speaks any English. With what little she had she still managed to tell me to try for children, that I was getting ‘too old’, that she likes babies and I should make some. At least now Mom K is more aware of the situation and so doesn’t jump on the pressure wagon anymore. I nodded and just kept saying, ‘I know. Yes. You’re right.’ Ugh.

My general policy when everyone is talking in Korean is to at least watch whoever is speaking and to emote when others do. Smiling, laughing politely, looking concerned. I decided to do this after watching people in group settings who don’t understand English well. They stare into space and mostly just look stupid. I have no desire to seem like the dumb American in the corner. Plus, this way, they aren’t sure how much I understand. (the answer is nothing. But based on occasional English words and facial expressions I can usually follow the general direction) I like to keep Imo on her toes! Revenge for random baby comments.

4 comments:

weigook saram said...

Great post! You know I can relate. I especially liked this line:

"My general policy when everyone is talking in Korean is to at least watch whoever is speaking and to emote when others do." Ha! That's exactly what I do.

scarp said...

I, too, have that policy - different language. Problem being that I am pretty sure there are times they think I understood what was going on when I didn't. Of course, there are other times when I'm really trying to fake understanding and they immdiately know I haven't the slightest :P

Lori said...

Oh man, what a day! I always hated being the only one in a group of people who had no freaking idea what was being said - in my case, it was Cantonese and I was a kid, but the feeling's the same.

I'm still trying to remember about the "what goes around comes around" school of gift-giving, which M.'s family also does. I'm not very good at it and always seem to forget what I'm supposed to be doing. Helps, though, that his mom likes cold, hard cash.

Lori said...

Oh man, what a day! I always hated being the only one in a group of people who had no freaking idea what was being said - in my case, it was Cantonese and I was a kid, but the feeling's the same.

I'm still trying to remember about the "what goes around comes around" school of gift-giving, which M.'s family also does. I'm not very good at it and always seem to forget what I'm supposed to be doing. Helps, though, that his mom likes cold, hard cash.