Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).


05 February, 2007

In-Laws, Language and Polar Bear Genitalia

By Aaron
05 February, 2007

I am in what most married people would consider to be an ideal situation: I can't talk to my in-laws, and they can't talk to me. Or, to be more precise, we can talk to each other but, as they don't speak English and I don't speak Korean, we're forever trying to build that that tower to heaven. Our conversations are limited to such simple observations as "the gimchi is delicious" or "Na Young went to the district office" or "that polar bear has no vagina." You know, the usual small talk.

And small talk is fine, even necessary sometimes, but at some point a dutiful son-in-law has to knuckle down, buckle down and figure out how to communicate with the people who let him abscond with their daughter. That we live in Korea makes it even more incumbent upon me to learn this language that I've neglected for five years. Come March, then, I'll be enrolled in the Korean Language Program over at Seoul National University, where I'll spend 20 hours per week learning how to express the more complex thoughts bouncing around my head ("that polar bear has a vagina.").

A lot of folks who learn foreign languages seem to be under the naive impression that, once they learn the language, they'll be able to better understand folks from other cultures and to get beyond the disagreements and misunderstandings that arise from language barriers. This is wrong, and I'm afraid that I'm headed into this trap with respect to my in-laws. In my experience, learning other languages has merely allowed me to disagree more fluently with other cultures. Right now, my wife's family goes out of their way to be kind and gracious to me and I just try not to embarrass my wife in their presence. I'm worried, though, that as I become more proficient in the Korean language we'll just be more capable of discussions that turn into arguments that result in throwing the dish that had that delicious gimchi on it.

But that's the risk I run. As I said, I've been here for five years and while, as a mid-long timer (rather like a lieutenant in the military, I guess) that's a badge of some honor in the foreign community, it's a mark of shame when a Korean person asks how long I've lived here.
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"Five years? You must speak Korean very well."

"Did I say five years? I meant five weeks. Sorry, I don't speak English very well either."

Ultimately, there will be no shortage of subjects about which to argue with the in-laws: Dokdo, The Sea of Japan, Korean trade policy, World Cup soccer, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, etc. That I'm by nature an argumentative son of a bitch certainly won't help matters. Na Young, in fact, has already bought duct tape to shut me up.

Koreans are always shocked when they meet a foreigner who can read, much less, speak Korean. This surprise usually manifests itself in uncomfortable laughter on their part, rather like a moose walking up to you and asking for directions in English. In the event, you'd probably giggle, too, before telling the moose to hang a left at the next corner. But if you're like me, you'd give the moose directions and then, as the moose walked away, you'd turn to your in-laws and say, "that moose has no vagina."