Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Meet the Fockers

It's a fact of living in a Korean family that there are times when you get summoned unexpectedly and at short notice. Korean Father had spent a day with some relatives and they had worked their way back to the family apartment, and it wasn't long before our presence was requested and required. So it was that rather late on a Sunday evening we had to drag ourselves away from our slumped positions in front of the TV, tidy ourselves up and make our way through the dark streets to meet our elder relations.

I hadn't seen these relations since the final ceremony marking Korean Grandmother's death back in May, so there was much curiosity as to the progress of my Korean language skills, and it seems, an expectation that I would now be able to converse fluently with them. They were, of course, to be disappointed. My progress with the language has been slow, and this has only been compounded of late by the vast quantities of time I am spending dealing with the problem of my Government preventing me from returning to live in my country with my wife.

One of the relatives is quite well known in his area for running a successful farm - I think he's received awards. His wife spent a great deal of time obsessing over my hands, which apparently look like they've never done any serious work in their lives, a fact I can't deny when they were compared to her own; she obviously works hard on the land. Ironic then, that it should be her husband getting all the public accolade.

And then, 'the talk' started. If you've spent any time in Korea I swear you can almost feel the moment coming, and I'm not even sure you have to understand any Korean language to recognise the body language that he's a senior imparting his great experience and knowledge to a junior. It only makes things worse that one of the little known effects of consuming soju is to confer vast intellectual insights on the drinker.

So we sat there, nodding our heads in fake shame as our relative reflected on my poor understanding of the Korean language, and the many ways in which this should be rectified. It was a hard lesson but one can not deny his expertise on the subject, given his considerable skills in Korean, even if it is the only language he ever learned. While I was largely oblivious to the specifics, it had what I refer to as 'a high Migug saram (미국 사람 - American person) quotient'. Or to put it another way, when a Korean starts a lecture containing multiple references to Americans, it's a fair bet they aren't singing the praises of the American Dream. The translated conversation was something along the lines of, 'I know 미국 사람 are terrible at learning languages, I don't know what British people are like, but you have to learn Korean quickly or else...' and so on. And therein lies another great truth about my existence in Busan - there aren't many people from my country here so I am the only British person many of them have ever met - therefore meaning that everything I do is not only invites judgement on myself, but judgement on my entire country. It's ironic that I am mindful of my position as a British ambassador here at the same time my Government makes war on me. I only wish I could speak Korean sometimes to tell them what a nasty and vindictive little country I really come from. Sorry, contrary to popular belief, it's really not the Hugh Grant stereotype at all.

My wife decided to break ranks with protocol and answer back. We had been very busy. There had been other priorities. As defences go, not the strongest but it happens to be the truth. This was not good enough for our self-appointed judge and mid-way into making yet another point about foreigners in Korea my wife unexpectedly stood up and announced we were leaving. It was unprecedented - a considerable breach of protocol. And a minute later we were in the elevator.

It took my wife a while to calm down - and I didn't really get the full story out of her. I get these 'foreigner lectures' from time to time but I don't really know what to make of them. I am a guest here and the longer it takes me to learn Korean the more I'm inclined to agree that perhaps I'm not a very good one. On the other hand, it touches on a certain attitude in Korea which I don't believe would be placated even if I spoke the language like a native, so while this relative signals his antagonism towards foreigners but with it waves the terms of his acceptance, I don't really expect to ever really be accepted by people like this. Anyway, I do blame myself for my slow progress in the language. If I had known I was going to end up being here for fourteen months rather than the three to six originally intended, I might have approached the whole thing differently. Now that my Government seems determined to make me live the rest of my life here, the language problem, and the foreigner problem, are things that I have to face up to more seriously.

Korean tags: 영어, 한국어, 한국, 공부, 미국인, 외국인, 영국


Anonymous said...

Even though your wife may have to endure other lectures from her own parents, she did the right thing in standing up and saying goodbye. She has "chutzpah." Here in the U.S. we are getting ready for the beginning of the holidays and many of us will have to endure the relatives.

Mike said...

Thanks. They'll probably blame it on my bad cultural influence anyway!

Anonymous said...

Sorry... not a regular reader of your blog, so I don't know the particulars of your situation, but I felt compelled to offer my $0.02 on your post.

My brother-in-law is Korean and has lived here in the States for nearly 20 years. He associates with Koreans almost exclusively, works with Koreans, and his English shows it. You can hardly carry on a conversation with him for more than five minutes without having to pause, uncomfortably, as he attempts to say something that his limited English simply won't allow him to communicate.

Aside from that, he's a very nice guy... hard-working, generous, unselfish, and even-tempered.

But I think when one settles in a particular place, one is obligated to make a certain level of effort to become acclimated. Learning the language would be an important part of that.

I like to think that had I remained in Korea, within five years I would have been reasonably proficient in Korean. Like you, I could have worked harder at it, but I believe that to be in a foreign country for a significant period of time and remain without language is simply unacceptable.

ZenKimchi said...

I really feel for you, Mike. I do appreciate what your wife did. In that same situation, I'd act like you and say that I'm the guest, and I'm a bad guest.

From a third person's point of view, it looked like the farmers wanted to toy with the white guy to make themselves feel superior.

Mike said...

Anonymous - I totally agree with you. When I thought I'd be here for between 3-6 months I tried to get the most out of being in Korea - seeing things, doing things - so studying wasn't the first priority, and then of course there was the wedding to deal with.

I made a concerted effort to study in the summer as much as my work would allow, but in the last couple of months most of my time has gone into fighting our case against the British Government. So my vocabulary has stalled at around 450 words. I really regret the huge quantities of time which I've had to put into our case - I suppose I could say I have no choice but the fact is there are serious consequences as a result of it.

I come from a region which has had so much immigration from South Asia in the last few decades that everything the local council does has to be translated into three other languages, because many of them are never going to learn English. I'm not against immigration at all but I'm a firm believer that it places certain responsibilities on the shoulders of the immigrant. Ultimately, I've learned enough Korean to get by but I haven't considered myself to be an immigrant here because I didn't intend to stay. Now, because of my Government, I'm facing up to the prospect of having to live here permanently and be an immigrant. So, if we lose our case, I'm going to have to make changes to my priorities, and a concerted effort to become fluent in Korean will be at the top of that list.

Mike said...

Zenkimchi - I think we probably know that's Korea all over - we're not always exactly great guests and they're not always exactly great hosts :-)

Gunther said...

hehehehe... been there before! I couldn't make out whether it was the old relative or wife's dad who was lecturing... if it was the old relative, ask about his farm, tell him how great he is and how you want to be just like him (through the wife) and then pour him some more soju (bat your eyelids too if you can).

Mike said...

Gunther - it was the old relative. My father-in-law just thinks I'm funny, but I'd say this is one of those examples of things which actually are best lost in translation. I think once I become fluent enough for him to really understand my thoughts and views on the world, he's might be reconsidering his opinion. There's a fine line between comedy and rebellion, and I don't know how long I can pull off the latter while making it look like the former once the language barrier disappears...

Anonymous said...

An old timers story.
My friend and I were at the Busan airport waiting to travel back to Seoul. while we were there we became acquainted with a group of farmers (men an women) who were on their way back to Chejudo. They had the well sun burned faces and wore corduroy pants, a sure sign of a poor farmer. Once we spoke what little korean we knew they started a rather lengthy conversation which I did not understand at all. The Chejudo dialect is hard to understand.
Anyway, they told us stories and even sang to us as well as gave us fruit and their addresses (no email in those days).
It was one of the fondest memories I have of Korea.

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