Monday, August 22, 2011

2011 Korea Summer Fellows - Being Part of a Korean Family

Many travelers to South Korea are shocked at how distinct and unique Korea is. I certainly was when I first visited in 2004. It wasn’t just the food or language, either. To me, Koreans possess a certain sense of “togetherness”, whether as a nation, a family, a group of friends, or even a group of students who have just met for the first time. My experience has been that Koreans readily speak their mind readily and respectfully, are intensely proud of their heritage, and are more than ready to share everything they have. Any time spent with Koreans is incredibly rewarding, insightful, and…well…fun!
My time studying in Seoul this summer was no different in that respect. It was different, however, in that I lived with a Korean family during these 3 months. I can honestly say that despite having previously lived in Korea for 1 year and in China for 2, I never felt so immersed, and later accepted, in another culture as this time.
While I often pride myself in having traveled extensively throughout Asia and having the experiential knowledge that comes with it, time and again I find myself humbled at the realization that when faced with aspects of other cultures that I feel don’t “measure up” to their equivalents in American culture, my initial reaction is often to discount, disregard, and be critical. I think it’s much easier to discount something one doesn’t understand as stupid, naïve, or simple, rather than taking the effort to step out of one’s comfort zone and view life through someone else’s lens and regard their perspective as equally respectable. I never knew that living day in and day out with a Korean family would teach me so much.
The first thing that stood out as odd to me was the importance of greetings, goodbyes, and the appropriate expressions that should follow, insamal. When in doubt, copy what everyone around you is doing, right? Well…the first night that the Father of the house came home from work and everyone dropped what they were doing, stood up, and went to the door to greet him, I was a bit slow on the draw. I thought that surely he had special news, brought something home for everyone, or something of great significance had occurred to elicit such a response from everyone? Nope. It was just Dad coming home! When everyone started greeting him (in Korean of course) with the English equivalents of, “Father, you’re home?” and “You went to work and came back!”, I didn’t know what to think. However, what was clear to me from the start was that it was nice to see a family so strongly together. Things got even more interesting when I noticed the different exchanges that took place when a family member left. Whoever was leaving would purpose to stop by every room and let everyone in the family know that they were leaving. They would say something like “I’m going to work but and I’ll be back later” or simply, “I’m going now!”. Replies would often be something like “Go well to work and return!” or “Work hard and come back!” Again, I was taken aback at the simplicity and sincerity of their words. This wasn’t just a routine. Similar exchanges take place before meals, after meals, and before going to bed as well. While I first thought that their greetings were almost comical, over time I came to see the sweetness of turning what would otherwise be a routine, mundane event in life, into something special and worth celebrating. Before long, I found myself making sure that I let everyone know I was leaving, which to my surprise and joy, brought the whole family to the door to see me off with warm smiles and good wishes. I now find myself wondering, “Why isn’t this commonplace back home?”
Another thing that took some getting used to was anything and everything involved with meal times. Anyone who has never been to Korea before might be taken aback when expected to sit on the floor and share spoonfuls from the same big pot of soup as everyone else at the table. While this wasn’t my particular problem this time around, getting accustomed to and eventually understanding my host Mother was! I still remember the feeling I had during my first couple of meals. I was enjoying myself immensely and munching along when Omma started telling me what to eat! “Try this! This is delicious!” “Try that! You really should try that! It’s from Grandmother’s home in the countryside!” “Eat more! Eat a lot! Really, eat a lot!” I definitely wasn’t used to obeying orders when eating! As an adult who has already lived abroad alone for several years, I didn’t exactly enjoy playing what in my mind was the part of a 5-year old kid. If I want to eat more of this or that I will, right? I can clearly see that that dish is right there, and yes, I already tasted it, and yes, it is delicious, thank you very much! Things escalated when Omma started actually putting things in my bowl for me! This wasn’t a one-time occurrence either. When I attempted to figure things out for myself, I didn’t come up with much. Perhaps she thinks of me as a child because I don’t speak Korean perfectly? Perhaps she didn’t know I had already eaten all those things before? Does she think Korean food is so out of this world for a foreigner, that I couldn’t possible know better? Well, thanks to the wonderful instructors at Sogang University’s Korean Language Education Center, I was able to ask my host sisters about this phenomenon. To my surprise, they told me this is how she showed care and concern for me. She only wanted me to truly enjoy everything as much as possible. To her, if she didn’t do all of the above it would be the equivalent of neglect, carelessness, or a lack of respect. Wow. Needless to say, I have since let Mama be Mama, gone for the ride, and gained a few pounds, too!
Yet another rewarding learning experience has been my, ahem, scholarly study of Korean drinking culture. Most of my learning has come from my host Father, his brothers, and brothers-in-law. After all, most of the rules of drinking culture are directly related to age. The younger must pour for the older first, never letting their glasses remain empty, and must never pour for themselves. When pouring one must support the bottle with both hands, and one must receive a pour with two hands as well. This is all easier said than done, especially since you’re expected to keep pace taking shots with the eldest male present and the drink in question is soju, a Korean alcohol that averages about 20% ABV. When I was first taught all of this, I was initially…scared. I can still remember a meal I shared with my host Father’s brother-in-law. He was knocking back shots like water between his vacuum-like gulps of food. I barely had time to take bites of food between pouring shots for him and others and attempting to do the same. It felt like work more than a meal, and I was practically sweating by the end of it! But I was happy. In my host Uncle’s mind, I had done him respect by seeing that his glass was never empty and that he never drank alone. The knowing nods of approval he gave me as we walked out of the restaurant were more than worth it.
Over time, as I learned and I adopted, I began to realize that I was experiencing the Korean “togetherness” I had so admired since the first time I visited Korea – and I wasn’t looking from the outside anymore. I can’t fully express the sense of reward I got from realizing that as my Korean host family and friends knew that I had learned more about the culture, they expected more from me - and I was able to deliver. For the past several weeks I’ve overheard my host family and friends saying to others, “It’s so easy having him. He eats, talks, and acts just like a Korean!”
I couldn’t ask for a better compliment.

Caleb R. Dependahl
Double B.A. Asian Studies and Chinese Language & Literature 2012,
Sigur Center 2011 Korean Language Fellow, Sogang University, South Korea

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