3.30.2011

The language barrier.

I'm sorry. You're going to have to forgive this. To help explain it a bit, let me just say that INP has been on self-punishment for a long, long time for being attracted to psychopaths. As in, knowing full well that they are psychopaths, and attempting to form a relationship with them regardless. The young years. The years when everything already feels pretty dramatic anyway, so why the hell not try to make it with a total shit-flipper? At some point in my very early 20s, I worked out the fact that that wasn't exactly going to work for me in the long-run, given that I'm not actually a psychopath myself and/or on a self-designed collision course with destructive behavior.

Pre-dating the psychopath period was the "oh, he's there and not that bad!" period. Which was, although I hate to admit it, even to this day something I consider to be even worse. It's possible that it even directly caused the psychopath period.

What I'm trying to say is that I have woken up to suddenly find myself in a guess what could be considered my first proper adult non-insane serious relationship. I say "woken up", because I honestly didn't realize that there were parts of life that I wasn't experiencing. That sounds thick as fuck, but I've been one of those pleasantly single people. I've always had very close male friends, and I've been on a fuckload of dates, so it's not like I was completely naive about 'the way the other half lives', so to speak. I just didn't ever feel like I was missing anything by not being in a relationship. Mostly probably because the 'relationships' that came before were so ridiculously inept that my view of what one was, or had to be, was extremely skewed.

But yeah. Not only is it the first proper relationship as a full-fledged adult, it's also a bi-racial, bi-cultural, bi-lingual relationship. I know. Give me a fucking award for originality. This is the K-blogosphere we're talking about here. But there's been some talk on the interwebs recently (ahem) that has got me thinking about why, even though this is my first little go at this, and there's a fuckload of it going on all around us, I might still do well to discuss it a bit. From my own perspective. Do you know why? Because I'm going through it for the first time. A lot of you will probably find this to be somewhat 'cute', in the way that I find photos on blogs explaining what kimchi jjigae is to be cute these days. But we all have our little idiotic starting points, don't we? Welcome to mine.

First I'll talk about the things that have been an issue so far, and then I'll get into the boatload of things that haven't, and why I think that is. Settle in, chil'en.

First up, the infamous language barrier. I want to explain that the S.O.'s background is a little different from a lot of the men I've met in my time here (which I'll get into more later). The man claims he's from Busan, but his nature and a few things he's said here and there have led me to believe that he's not actually from Busan proper. For example, his high school buddy came up to visit this weekend and he was telling me over lunch on Sunday how his friend was "so nervous" to go out to a proper bar in the big city for the first time. Like, just a bar in Sinchon. He's also made comments on occasion when explaining his thinking (or occasional lack thereof) on certain issues, about how he's a 'smalltown man'. When we go out and I've got on whatever thing it is I've got on, he'll sometimes make a comment about how he's "proud" to be seen with me. Because I'm a foreigner? No. Because I'm a "New Yorker". I've explained a few times that I am nothing of the sort. I am very much a Texan. But he means the style. It's 'big city style'.

He has lived abroad, but not in the sense that his parents sent him. He spent a year in Australia working as a janitor, and another year basically squatting and eating cup noodles while studying and working at a bar in Japan. His English did not come from hagwons or an expensive university -- it is largely self-taught, and therefore things tend to get particularly iffy in writing. Which also happens to be where I have a lot of trouble in Korean, because my language-learning has been primarily via environment, rather than the classroom.

So bad things happen more often when we text than any other time. For example, this weekend he got spectacularly drunk with afore-mentioned high school buddy at afore-mentioned 'big city' bar and started texting me, out of nowhere, in Korean. To make, of all things, plans for the next day. As I've mentioned before, I can largely understand general concepts and context in Korean. But being a native English speaker with a complete lack of specific awareness in Korean, except for very individual phrases, I get easily confused about subjects and objects when they're not there. Or how to imply specific meaning correctly in general terms.

Here's a good example from yesterday: "만약 빨리 마치면 만날 수 있을까?" Now... here's the problem. We were both working late. I know the essential idea is, if [we] finish quickly enough, do you think we can meet? But, is the implication that I might not finish in time, or that he might not finish in time? As in, should I hurry up and do what I have to do, or is he saying not to get my hopes up? Or is his meaning just really that general? So, I usually end up either just letting it go and waiting to see what happens, or defeating the purpose by texting back with all these questions in English to clarify. Awesome, right?

The other thing is, the S.O. has not had enough time to get used to the way that I speak Korean (my particular, habitual mistakes and what I actually mean when I make them, or when I am definitely saying something the correct way vs. where I tend to make mistakes and can't be trusted). The long and the short of it is, this weekend we were on a subject. That subject was: plans for tomorrow. I asked what time. He answered. I got lazy and instead of asking, "Where should we meet?" I just asked, "Where?" Specifically, I said, "어디?" I didn't say, "어디야?" because I had the specific thought that this might imply, "Where are you?" rather than, "Where should we meet?'

He thought I meant, "Where are you?" He answered where he was. I applied that answer to where we should meet the next day. Cut to Sunday afternoon, 2 o'clock (the agreed upon time). I text saying I've arrived, I'll meet you at exit 3 of the subway station. He texts back that he'll just meet me at my place. At my place was obviously not where he was on Saturday night. So, it was obviously not where I was at 2 o'clock on Sunday.

He felt like a total cock. Why? Because he always automatically takes the blame for things. But I knew that it was actually my fault. I know that I have issues with implying specifics in general terms in Korean. It would not have killed me to complete the sentence: "어디에 만날래?" Is that the exact right or natural grammar? Fuck knows. But I would have been able to produce this on the spot and he would've known exactly what I meant. But I didn't. And now we were working with a very small time window and an hour and a half apart with traffic.

Did he get pissed at me? No. Did I get pissed at him? No. Part of it is because it wasn't exactly clear whose "fault" it really was. To be honest, I did have the thought that when I was responding directly after asking "what time?" with "where?" that it should have been obvious. And then I realized that I don't fucking have a clue what is or isn't obvious in Korean. If something were really completely obvious in Korean, he would pick up on it. I made a mistake.

And that was important. Because I understood something for the first time, which is what it's like to really feel like the fucking idiot on the other side of the language barrier. I say stupid shit and make dumb mistakes in Korean all the time. I sound funny, I stumble over my words and I take forever to make sentences. I'm used to all of that by now. But this was the first time someone was truly put out as a result of my mistake. And that was a completely different feeling. And I suddenly appreciated the effort that he puts in and the blame that he's willing to risk taking most of the time, by being the second-language speaker in the dominant language in our relationship.

The thing is, we need to get used to each other. In both English and Korean. For example, I knew that when he told me yesterday that he wanted to "hear [my] fuck", he was not suddenly and inexplicably being incredibly base. What he meant was, he was at work and it had just become clear that he was not going to be able to leave anytime before 9, and therefore he had to cancel his plans to come out and meet me for dinner. He was frustrated and angry. And he thinks the way I say, "Fuck!" in frustration is particularly potent. He wanted to hear my 'fuck!'.

How did I understand that? The same way you understand anything that passes your S.O.'s lips in any language which has a particular meaning just for the two of you. We've established that understanding in language between us that is the same language of two intimate friends with a history of inside jokes. It's our language. It's sometimes Korean, sometimes English, sometimes English written in Korean, sometimes Korean written in English, sometimes English with Korean grammar, sometimes Korean with English grammar. And most of the time it doesn't fail us. And when it does, we are mindful of intention.

The thing is, it's not that different. Although we do have some cartoonesque mishaps from time to time within the realm of the practical, such as what happened this weekend, and while we can get a bit lost when each in an environment where outside people are also speaking the other's native language, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of emotional communication... it's not that different. Why? Because emotional communication is largely non-verbal anyway. Think about it: how do you know when your girlfriend is pissed off? Because she says, "I'm pissed off,"? I mean. If you're lucky. But no, usually not. When I'm hurt, I avert my eyes. When I'm angry, I narrow them. When I'm embarrassed or uncomfortable, I lower them, and cross my arms across my chest. When I'm upset, I speak quietly.

This is all a language he has to learn from the beginning with me anyway. And one I have to learn for him. When he maintains dead-level eye contact but suddenly shifts to an uncomfortable smile, he's trying not to tell me something. When he cocks his head to the right and looks up, he's pretending to have to think. When his eyes shift slightly downward, he's trying not to react to something I'm saying that he doesn't like or disagrees with.

This is all just the basics. There's also touch and tone and posture. It sounds ridiculous when someone throws out the line about communicating with "body language", but it's not that far-fetched, is what I've come to find out. The times I've gotten the most upset with the S.O. have not been when he's misunderstood my English or Korean, or when I've misunderstood his, but when he's failed to crack on to the meaning of my body language, or when I've misinterpreted his.

For the time being, the language barrier just really isn't an issue for us. Although the S.O. is not the world's best, and I certainly have a long, long way to go in Korean, we're doing alright there. Well. I say "we". Obviously, I mean me. For him, carrying the vast majority of the burden, I'm sure it's not nearly as straight forward. Sometimes, socially, it's a bit awkward. The S.O. learned most of his English by speaking with other non-native speakers and doesn't have that much experience being around native English conversation. He and I are fine, on our own. But when you throw other foreigners or Koreans with more fluent English into the mix, he can get a bit lost and easily confused, which I'm sure makes him feel left out and a bit stupid. As for me, I'm used to that in Korean, because this is the environment I live in. I'm left out and stupid most of the time, anyway. I don't take it personally. It's also hard on him to have to keep speaking English at the end of a fourteen hour work day. I don't blame him there. When I've finished a seven class day, he can't get me to speak Korean to save his life.

Which is why I'm studying Korean. Not because we have any issues communicating the really important things, or because our relationship lacks depth or meaning. Or because I don't want him to take advantage of me, or because he doesn't want me to take advantage of him. I'm not that kind of person, and neither is he -- therefore, no matter what other factors are involved, we are not going to have that kind of relationship. Basic, right? In fact, my Korean "improvement" is creating more problems than solutions at the moment. Because he's giving me a chance to get better, by risking my mistakes. But I'm studying because I simply don't feel like it's fair for him to carry the burden alone. He doesn't mind. And that would be fine if that were okay with me. But it's not. I feel guilty about it every day. Which isn't to say that anyone else should.

That's where we stand with that. Every day our communication gets slightly more Korean, to his great delight. Every day I get slightly less confused about how the fuck I'm supposed to know exactly what's going on without pronouns. But that's far less interesting and tumultuous than the fact that he's learning how to feel when I'm upset, and I'm learning how to see when he's uncomfortable. To be honest. Which is why that is the stuff of legends, in anyone's native tongue.

5 comments:

쏘냐 said...

My second-biggest fight ever with my BF was when I went to Tteukseom Resort instead of Tteukseom (and ended up getting chased around the parking lot by a mentally disabled homeless man while simultaneously screaming into the phone WHERE ARE YOU I WENT TO EXIT 5 AND YOU WEREN'T THERE WHY WON'T YOU HELP ME). Now bf texts to confirm our meeting locations at least like 5 times in advance, and always includes the subway line. *And* occasionally says "Don't go to Tteukseom" when we're meeting in like, Kkachisan. So. You aren't alone ^^ Locations are the worst hah.

Sidney said...

even though my own relationship has different beginnings than most korean-foreigner relationships in the rok (ie, met him in america while he was an exchange student at my school), i still just want to say that this "couple language" you're talking about only gets better with time! ^^ and the ability to immediately laugh off the mistakes you make also improves, which obviously helps make light of situations. coming from my own personal experience anyway.

keunseok's english is awesome & only recently have i been realizing i always take it for granted; these days we hardly ever have miss-communications. however, like your busan, he usually thinks he isn't that great when placed in a situation where there is a lot of people speaking english together. you'll have to ask other people who have met him, but i think his doubts are pretty baseless; he gets along just fine.

Adeel said...

There are a few people with whom I only socialize in Korean. These aren't passing acquaintances, but relatively meaningful relationships. When we talk, I have no problem absorbing what they say, but it can be a headache to think that I'm going to meet these people after work and talk mostly in Korean for three hours.

I now understand why some of my coworkers never speak to me unless they have to. It's a significant burden to carry, and you're much farther ahead than most for recognizing and doing something about it.

아만다 said...

But I'm studying because I simply don't feel like it's fair for him to carry the burden alone. He doesn't mind. And that would be fine if that were okay with me. But it's not. I feel guilty about it every day. Which isn't to say that anyone else should.
::

Beautiful post, and this part made me say, "Yes, yes, that's it." I've had multiple people ask me why I still study Korean when we don't live there and when Good Man speaks English so well. Good Man doesn't mind acting as a go-between with his family as needed--but I mind.

Wonder Woman said...

I love reading your blog. I would like to say that I've learned that shared values are what keep people close - not a common first language or demographics. I often have closer and longer lasting friendships with people who do not share my age, skin color, first language, fashion style, favorite food/music/movies/sports, etc., but almost always have the same value system.