Friday, 5 October 2007

Meet the Parents

The Korean concept of family is different to the one I have been used to. Rather than a loose association of individuals, the Korean family is a single atom in which the lives of the members are tightly bound, and their identities defined in relation to one another. Thus the interests of one person are considered inseparable from the interests of their siblings, parents, and distant relations (or at least, the difficulty of separation is comparable to the difficulty of splitting the atomic nucleus, and with comparable consequences). Thus marriages are not marriages of individuals but of families. And thus, when I landed in Seoul to stay at Jin's family home I rather underestimated the symbolism and interest I would bring for her family.

Shortly after I arrived at their home on Friday a tiring 30 hours since waking in my home the morning before, Jin's father decided it was time for us to have a heart-to-heart chat, with Jin acting as an occasionally pained interpreter. He wanted to welcome me into the family Lee, he said, for since I had come to Korea with Jin I had become a part of it (although I myself had not noticed the metamorphosis). And as I was now part of the family, it was reasonable that we should get to know each other just as we know ourselves (ok, I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea). Given the obvious difficulties in communication, he requested I wrote a short 'personal letter', detailing my interests, future plans, views on marriage (arrgh!), and my own family atom (but no pressure, he assured me).

Six days later and we have got to know each other a little better in spite of the language difficulties. Jin's parents have learned to speak a little s-l-o-w-e-r and use simple words, and my Korean has improved somewhat. Jin's father bears some features which Jin describes as fairly typical of middle-aged Korean men – useless around the house, with a loud voice and commanding ego. Having said that though he is clearly making efforts to be friendly and make me feel comfortable. At times he is rather comical. Jin's mother is incredibly hard working, and the times she's not been busy in the house she's made a couple of trips into the mountains to pick chestnuts for the family table. Despite her having very forward attitude, typical of the Korean ajumma (middle-aged women), which can be intimidating to genteel English types such as myself, she is friendly and supportive too. Both of them love to moan at Jin (in particular, her mother was most upset when she let me help with the washing up, rather than doing it all herself (some aspects of Korean society are dangerously attractive to my kilesa)). Still, when we are all together the mood is usually relaxed and occasionally humorous. I have written something resembling a 'personal letter', and Jin now faces the unenviable task of translating my words.

Korean Lesson I: Personal Pronouns

One of the more confusing differences between English and Korean is the use of personal pronouns. All the words for I, you, we, he, she, etc. are there, but a literal translation of their usage is misleading. For a start, in Korean it is usual to refer to the person you are speaking to by their name, which in English sounds a bit crazy e.g. (to Jin) “Would Jin like something to drink?”. Also, to use “you” directly to someone older or senior to you is greatly offensive. I was unaware of this when I asked Jin's venerable mother on our second night here “너 알았어요?” (did you know?), and was greeted with a sharp intake of breath and reproachment by Jin. Fortunately her mother didn't understand me or else assumed that as I was using such familiar language I must be talking to her daughter, so disaster was narrowly averted.

When referring to someone in your family rather than saying “my sister” (brother/etc) you say “our sister” even if you are the only one in the room for whom this relation holds true. This seems to be related to the rather strong concept of family I mentioned earlier. This rule even extends to the rather polygamous sounding “our husband”.

Still to come...

- Some information on what I've actually been doing
- An essay on the state of Korean driving
- A petition for the forced immigration of European bakers

8 comments:

Pie said...

Ha ha ha ha ha
It sounds like you are alright there!

Pie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pie said...

From what you wrote, it seems that Korean Family is slightly different than a Thai one. I do not think my father will request my foreign girlfriend (which I would have loved to have but it is impossible now) to write him some sort of research proposal. But, of course, my whole family would be excited to know a girl who might one day become my wife. Moreover, even in a Thai family, gaining a likeness from other family members is an neccessary and sufficient condition for one to accomplish.

Pie said...

I hate the way this blog dealing with commenting!! I just wanted to edit it but I ended up delete the whole thing!! Arggggg!

Ant said...

Well, lets see, the Ancliff family atom...

"My name is Mark and I am a member of the Ancliff family who have a long and prosperous history in Her Majesty's great empire. Within our family there are a long line of tea-drinkers---a skill most important to empire builders. My father was a tea-drinker, and so was his father. My great-grandfather George was famous in the villages of Derbyshire for his strong brews. And his second cousin (once removed) was Head of Tea Preparation to Queen Victoria.

Thus, to penetrate the Ancliff family atom you should serve me regular cups of English tea---with milk of course!"

Now that should get you started...

Ant said...

Now I am wondering what I would write in a personal letter to Tam's family... :)

peachy said...

"My name is Ant and I am a member of the Harfield family who have a long and prosperous history in Her Majesty's great empire. Within our family there are a long line of tea-drinkers---a skill most important to empire builders. My father was a tea-drinker, and so was his father. My great-grandfather ??? was famous in the villages of ??? for his strong brews. And his second cousin (once removed) was Head of Tea Preparation to Queen Victoria.

Thus, to penetrate the Harfield family atom you should serve me regular cups of English tea---with milk of course!"

I think Ant should keep this for himself as he's in more desperate condition lol lol

Hems said...

Hello Marky, i am so happy to read your blog, you sound like you are being washed over with newness and change in such a way thats beautifully refreshing. Maybe it doenst seem that way to you, but i love seeing your pics and reading your comments. Especially how you compared the korean(well all eastern family systems) like the atom- very insightful and spot on..i hope you keep learning and embracing, keep yourself open, so you can recive it all.

by the way your car still is safe and i have am enjoying dricing it- still very locally. take care and give my love to jin :)))))))))))))))))))))))