I’ve been wanting to write something about the irony that when I began learning Korean, I had to rely on body language to communicate, but now that my Korean is good, my body language is a liability. My facial expressions and the way I gesture gets me into trouble by adding strange and unintended nuance to what I’m saying. And because my Korean is good, people react unconsciously to the gestures and think I’m angry or disturbed or acting very mannish. It doesn’t happen all the time, but enough to burst my little bubble of Korean-speaking confidence. This is another essay (actually just one version of it-- I’ve written about 20 drafts and this is somewhere in the middle) that I’ve been trying to work on, but it seems to be going in a bunch of different directions so I haven’t finished it. Some drafts end up talking more about power, some about anger and frustration, some about the way that language is taught, some about how our bodies do communications duty for us, consciously or unconsciously, every day. I’d appreciate any comments, here or by e-mail...
The noisy garrulousness of my two boys has become supplemented by the noisiness of body language. I’m teaching 10-month old Max some baby signs to help him communicate as he delivers his first misshapen words and Aiden is learning a little sign language in school. “Mommy,” he informed me with perfect seriousness, “Some people can’t talk, so they use their hands.” To my little boy, who speaks perfect English and Korean, as well as a “little bit of Shanghai and Tokyo,” and who is almost never quiet, even in his sleep, silence must be the most frustrating and confusing state of being.
Aiden, highly vocal, struggles to make meaning out of gesture as he practices his sign language. Max, on the other hand, substitutes his ever-handy chubby pointer finger and a universal “guh” for pretty much any request: point and “guh”: I want that. I want to go there. Feed me that. I want to be held. I watch the boys as I’m studying my Korean vocabulary, and suddenly I see myself now, and at the beginning of my journey learning Korean.
On my first trip to Seoul, when I met my future in-laws, I communicated so much with smiling and bowing that my face and back were almost always sore. Not having the means to understand the conversations around me, I focused on sitting up straight and keeping my knees together. Out on the street and away from the in-laws’ gaze, I quickly became fluent in pointing, nodding, and raising my eyebrows. Luckily I had more than my pointer finger at my disposal; calculators, maps, dictionaries, and drawings become new appendages, as indispensable as my right thumb. The crux of a conversation became distilled into one momentary gesture – the wave of a hand, a sudden smile of recognition, the shake of a head, a look of confusion. So much of my emotion, experience, and consciousness became unsayable, inexpressible. My education, the subtle nuances of my personality, were erased. I had no choice but to communicate with my body, but because I had no language, all was forgiven. Like a baby, I could only communicate crudely with the tools I had.
Now the situation is different. The other day I was striding around the city, realizing I had been studying Korean off and on for almost 10 years and feeling finally smug and confident in my life here in Seoul. I stopped to buy fruit from a man on the street near my apartment. But between his dialect and my head cold I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was saying. I furrowed my brow to show my confusion and said, “네?" He responded, but again I couldn’t understand. I furrowed my brow and frowned and said “네?" again. To my surprise, he became agitated, defensive and angry, and yelled something at me. Baffled by this whole exchange, I ran home to call my husband.
“Oh yeah, that’s really offensive,” he said.
“What is?” I asked, exasperated.
“When you scrunch up your face and say ‘네?’ like that,” he said, like it was obvious. “To a Korean you look like you’re angry or in a bad mood or something.”
“What???? Why didn’t you tell me before?” I said, thinking, geez, how long have I been walking around offending people without knowing?
“Well before, people couldn’t understand what you were saying. Now your Korean is good and you have problems with nuance.”
The problem, I realize now, is with body language. When studying Korean in the States all those years, I was focused on grammar and vocabulary, sentence structure and levels of politeness -- I learned to speak and forgot that communication is about more than language. Now, like Aiden, I need to learn how to speak with word and gesture.
When I think about it, I learned Korean in two distinct cultural milieus: with Korean Americans, and with my husband’s geeky Korean friends.
When I returned to the States after my first trip to Korea, I was very ambitious and decided to add a Korean class to my already-full class schedule. Little did I know that the class would be all Korean-Americans, who for the most part spoke Korean pretty well -- well enough to amuse the class with pull-my-finger jokes, drinking anecdotes, and bilingual jokes (why is Korean tissue bigger than American tissue? Because it’s 휴지(hugee)!). Although we were speaking a different language, we were all firmly planted in the same American college culture, with a mostly common sense of humor and common body of knowledge.
My other source of Korean knowledge came from hanging out with my husband’s mostly male friends -- Koreans (from Korea) getting graduate degrees in computer science. Their conversations were always of the formula: “blah blah blah compiler blah blah blah java [drag on cigarette] blah blah [shot of soju] C++ blah blah…” so even though I knew next to no Korean I could still follow what they said. In this setting, even knowing the somewhat tedious subject of their conversation (at that time, the hot topic was C++ vs. Java and which courses to take) I felt I had entered into a mysterious society of bows and gestures -- friendships were cemented over the proper positioning of one’s glass relative to another’s, turning one’s head to take a shot, all sorts of titles and names, and careful attention to filling someone else’s cup.
Korean, as a language, has a great deal of subtle expressions of formality and emotion built into it. KC’s officemates used to think that he never said goodbye, because his conversations always came to an abrupt halt. There was none of the “ok... long pause...well... sounds good... talk to you later... bye... bye” that you often hear signal the end of an English conversation. Korean intonation, which sounds mostly flat at first, is also very subtle and gives me problems. When I’m trying to sound definite and confident I end up sounding aggressive and defiant, especially for a woman, but that’s what happens when your formative language years are spent with a bunch of drunken guys who firmly believe in the merits of Java.
But gesture is equally subtle. My friends always complain that my mother-in-law never smiles or changes expression, and I think that most Americans’ initial impression of Koreans is that they’re emotionally stiff and hard to read. After two years here I’ve gotten used to this and was surprised, upon returning to the U.S., at how much people’s facial contortions irked me. Watching Julia Roberts, or even my mother, tell a story made my own face hurt.
The other day my father-in-law offers to help me carry something and I tell him, with serious expression, quinchanayo (it’s ok) firmly, with a rising second syllable, to indicate that I’m sure, but to him this intonation sounds aggressive and annoyed. Even though my accent is good my American inflection and facial expression imbues the sentence with an unintended meaning. Or, another time, upon finding out that my son’s taekwondo instructor had been changed, I directly translate, “Why didn’t you tell me?” to “왜 얘기 하지않으셨어요?" which, unfortunately, is a very rude way to phrase the question in Korean, although it’s OK in English. Even though my father-in-law is well aware that I am not Korean, he reacts unconsciously with a burst of anger, “What am I, your errand boy?” It’s at moments like these that I despair of ever being able to speak Korean truly well.
And the the frustration turns to anger. Defiantly, I think, “how Korean do you want me to be?” I’m not Korean. I’m doing my best. I’m American, and I’m a smart, strong woman, and I don’t need to conform to your stereotypes. I’ve come here to live in another culture, spent years studying the language, am raising my boys straddled across a cultural divide. Don’t push me. I don’t HAVE to speak Korean. I don’t HAVE to try to assimilate. I can easily be a loud, pushy American. Don’t. Piss. Me. Off.
Speaking Korean gives me power -- power to move freely in this place, power to win the respect of strangers. If I could master Korean nuance perfectly I could have more power. I could speak like a Korean woman, sounding submissive and plaintive at the right times in order to get what I want, but to get this power I would have to give up some long-standing sense of American feminist behavior.
All these adventures in learning Korean has made me realize that learning a language not just about learning words and grammar or even culture, but it’s about learning to conform to certain available roles and expectations. We all have a certain freedom within those roles and rules, but at some point, you hit unconscious habits and walls. Our bodies do communications duty for us every day, with or without our consent.