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