Friday, September 19, 2008

Dinner, Communication & Korean Manners

As we were leaving school yesterday, one of the teachers, who we've taken to calling “The Matriarch,” said to us, "7:00, my house, meeting." "Tonight?" "Yae. Park Jung Sun... your aparte... (Konglish [a mutant language made up of words taken from English and made to suit the Korean tongue] for apartment) go." "Uh, okay."

So we get home just before six and complain to each other for a bit about being told without notice what we're doing, not having any control over our lives and in general how easily exhausted we are these days. Then, being hungry five hours after our lunch of rice, potatoes and kimchi, we ran down to the neighborhood restaurant for some bibimbap before our meeting. We rushed back to our apartment and were picked up at 7 by our friend Park Jung Sun, her “mother, English Teacher, Samcheok Elementary School” and about seven small children, three of whom I was to sit with in the back of Park Jung Sun's little Hyundai.

After a quick nightmare fantasy about how we were going to be made to have conversation with these kids, we dropped them off on the way to The Matriarch's aparte, where we found spread before us a full-on feast, laid out beautifully across a traditional Korean table (6" legs, for floor sitting). Koreans, like, it seems, everyone outside the US, know how to treat guests. There were five dolsot bibimbap (hot-stone pot rice and vegetables), doenjang jigae (a soybean paste stew), kimbap (Korean sushi), fried pumpkin slices, all kinds of steamed veggies and kimchis... basically all our favorite Korean foods. Unfortunately, we had gotten snarled in a language trap earlier.

When we were parting ways with the Matriarch after school, Melanie asked “should we have dinner at our apartment?” The Matriarch can understand slow, classroom English, but not so much “everyday English”. I'm guessing she heard “dinner”, thought about the fact that she was about to prepare a massive feast for us, and so said “yes”. When I saw what she had done, I wanted to cry. We had just been kvetching about how how inconsiderate everyone is toward us, and here was a feast, vegetarian none-the-less, made just for us.

We met the Matriarch's husband, a Math Professor, sat down, tried to explain, she apologized, we apologized a lot, Park Jung Sun called her cousin that speaks more English and had him translate “you can leave food remaining”, I put some more bibimbap and doenjang jigae into my already very full belly, and we toasted over very sweet wine (Manashevitz style). They didn't eat much beyond the bibimbap, as Korean politeness dictates, and we felt terrible. Melanie's eyes watered periodically through dinner.

Once the intensive eating part had passed though, it was a great evening. They brought over a second table, filled with peaches with pink-marbled flesh, grapes, miniature bananas and Gyeongju Bread (pancakes filled with sweet bean paste), a specialty of the husband's hometown and ancient capital of the peninsula. We talked about whatever we could find the language for, looked at pictures of their kids, took pictures of ourselves (are they prouder to have western friends or are we prouder to have Korean friends?) and watched some baseball.

***digression warning***

Korean baseball takes sponsorship to a whole new level... where in the US teams are identified more less equally by their home town and a name, in Korea they are identified primarily by the company that sponsors them, secondarily by a name (always English), and almost not-at-all by the city they play in. So the game last night was Samsung vs. KIA. My favorite team is the Lotte Giants, because they are also “Giants”, because they play in Busan, my first home in Korea, and because Lotte makes these delicious chocolate-covered pretzel cookies called Peppero. As another example of the extent of corporate reach in Korea, November 11 is “Peppero Day” (Peppero are long and strait, hence 11/11), for which every child in the country buys cases of the cookies and gives them to their teachers and friends. Last time I was here I had a cabinet full of Peppero that lasted me well into spring. It's kind of like another Valentine's Day, except that they have two of those in the spring, but we'll get to that in time...

***end digression***

The husband took out an atlas and showed us around Korea, and then a newspaper, and we looked through the news together -- my favorite! We talked about AIG and the strength of the Korean market (three words – massive dollar reserves), what we thought of “Faline... uh, Alaska... woman...” I've been told over and over not to get into politics with Koreans, so I tried to tone-down my response as much as possible, but I seem to have a condition that prohibits me not expressing my social/political opinions. The most I could water it down, in simple English, was “I don't think she can be President.” When that was met with silence I remembered that they strongly identify as Christians and started wondering how much favor I had just lost.

All and all, it was a lovely evening. We were sent home with a massive amount of food (“Gift... Korean culture.”) and a determination to simplify our English even further when anything logistical is on the line.

This afternoon, The Matriarch pulled me aside in the hallway, apologized and said in perfectly polished English, "we would like to have you over for dinner again."

Assa! (Awesome!)


Andrew said...

you are being treated like royalty and very special. i would think the daily comunication will improve so you don't have to eat so much! interesting digression about Korean baseball. do they follow american sports at all?

Alice said...

Wow Michael. What a story!!! We take for granted how important those little tiny English words like "our" as in "our apartment" are! Is there anything you want us to send to you so you can give them some gifts from Colorado/America?

Michael Levy said...

As best I can tell, no, they don't much follow American sports... baseball to some degree because of the Korean players, so we'll occasionally see a Rockies hat around town or something, but I'm yet to see a game on TV or an article in the paper.

Great idea about the gifts Mom, let me think about what would be nice... we'll send a request soon :)