Meeting Little Brother.

I've never been one, since I've been in Korea, to focus more on my personal life than my job. I think this blog has made that pretty clear. But things have been shifting lately. Not in the sense that I have put work on the back burner, but just that things are becoming more level. My actual job is still just as lovely as it ever was, but there are (ahem) parts of it which are not what they once were. I used to have a really fulfilling social life as part of my job. Now, I sort of just have coworkers. Two of my co-teachers are still people I feel very close to, but they've got family concerns of their own, and are not dominant players in my life outside of work.

Over this winter vacation, I became really close to some lovely people who have made Korea suddenly feel more like home. Smalltown took off, of course, and had been someone who was like that to me before, but things changed when he got a missus who fucking hated me. But no -- what I mean is, I settled into a close group of girl friends. And went and got one of them boyfriend things, to boot.

So the weekends are going too quickly these days. This weekend, the S.O. came out for dinner in my dong, which I have only allowed to happen so far once before, because it's too awkward running into the students. It's weird, because I didn't think anything about traipsing around all over the place with male friends before, but now I feel like I actually have something to be guilty about, and that changes everything. But we went to a quiet little place to have samgyeopsal and, given that we were close to my house and I was with the S.O., who I trust to take good care of me, I felt comfortable enough to let myself go a bit and get a little tipsy, which I very rarely do. It was his first time to see it, other than New Year's Eve (which is another kind of exception, altogether), but he's disappointed to find that Drunk Liz is really not much different from Sober Liz, other than just being really nervous and finicky about the fact that she's a bit drunk.

Yesterday morning, I woke up a full 3.5 hours before him and fucked about baking bread and cleaning until I couldn't take the boredom anymore and went to wake him up. I am a very light, very short sleeper -- six hours, most of the time, and I'm right as rain. In this case, it was only five. He's a.... well, he's a man. Given that he had no reason or cause to get out of bed, I suspect he could sleep straight through to the apocalypse. Anyway, I poked and prodded and complained about being lonely and bored in the very best 애교 I could manage (which, it has to be said, is still not very good) until he got up.

Then, it came time for him to roll out and meet his brother, who was up visiting for the weekend, at the station. The S.O. went back and forth about taking me to this meeting a couple of times, because he's the kind of person who follows his instincts without really thinking about things very deeply, but then always comes back to thinking about things more deeply, because he worries about the other people involved. It's something about him I've been getting used to, from both sides. He originally thought there would obviously be nothing better than having me come with him to hang out with his brother. Then he realized that he only had one night with his brother (who does not speak English, has never met a foreigner, and has no real tangible desire to do either) in six months, and that it might be better if they just hung out on their own.

I was secretly relieved, because I already had a commitment last night which I didn't want to face down the awkwardness of being put in the position of choosing over something of a degree of importance to the S.O. which I couldn't really gauge. Like I said, I've been happily single for a long time, and part of that is putting a strong value on your friendships. Your friends, especially in a "foreigner" situation, are like your family, and you don't start ranking your commitments to them as lower than those to your S.O. But I was aware of how that could easily be misconstrued, when viewed from the habits of Korean culture, where S.O.s often trump all else and what it can mean in Korean culture to be introduced to family. These are the things that we are having to deal with in our relationship -- not so much a difference in deeply rooted cultural values, but the little cultural signifiers that represent what those values are. It's like learning and navigating an additional second language. Luckily, the S.O. is an extremely rational and easy-going man, and it's usually me who ends up getting upset about such things.

At any rate, while I was sitting in my kitchen sipping coffee in my pajamas and the S.O. was getting ready to head out, he came out of the bathroom fidgeting with his tie and stared at me for a minute. "Why don't you come with me?"

Awesome. Thirty minutes notice to get myself showered and presentable for the first meeting with his family, not to mention the night out with friends that was to follow. But what was I going to do? Say, no thanks -- I'd rather stay here and do my hair?

Once we picked up his brother and made it to the restaurant, it became clear that this was not going to be the kind of situation where everyone is just magically oblivious to all of the awkward social factors involved. There were just too many of them -- family meeting the girlfriend, language barrier, and the kind of nervousness that I've gotten used to just being a part of first meetings with anyone in Korea. Americans kind of go out of their way to seem ridiculously comfortable and friendly with people straight away upon the first meeting, but in Korea, it's been my experience that behaving that way is a little taboo. There's a kind of respect that's implied by acting nervous. What was odd to me was, as the older person in the situation for the first time, being sort of on the other side of that nervousness. Ultimately, yes, I was there to be tested out by the brother, who has connections back to the entire family. But, technically, he is the younger party. The onus was on him to maintain the proper manners in the situation. And I was to be the one who would set the mood and move things toward a more casual atmosphere.

So I nudged the S.O. and told him to order a bottle of soju with our food. He laughed and asked me if I was serious, because I'm not much of a drinker (especially in the middle of the day). His brother, however, very much is. I said yes, that I was very serious, and then waved my hand over the table and said, "기분...." and made a face to communicate the rest for me. Little Brother laughed, and the S.O. informed him that we would get along, because I was really good at holding my alcohol for a woman.

As we sat and waited for the food, there was a lot of nervous, awkward silence, and Little Brother squirmed uncontrollably. The S.O. laughed and said that it had been a really long time since he had seen Little Brother embarrassed. He had already clocked on that I wasn't going to have much trouble following the conversation in Korean, but hadn't yet settled into the idea that he wasn't going to have to speak English. In the midst of one of these loaded silences, the S.O. looked up at the restaurant ajumma and said, "Aunt, please bring us the soju quickly!"

I was surprised to see that Little Brother holds his hand over his chest as he pours for the S.O. They are not so very old -- the S.O. is 26, American age, and Little Brother is 23. And I've seen this protocol breached between 형 and 동생 of older ages. But I think it probably goes back to the fact that they are from a smaller town, and thereby probably a bit more traditional. Also, it's probably a key factor that they don't really move in foreigner circles -- like I said, I was the first foreigner Little Brother had ever met. Sometimes Korean customs can go out the window when foreigners are around, and everyone's engaging in a more Western atmosphere. That was obviously not going to be the case in this situation.

I'm not kidding when I say Little Brother literally set his glass down on the table from taking the first shot, and immediately turned to me and said, "So why do you like this person?" indicating his older brother with a nod of his head. We all laughed and mood immediately was set for the rest of the day. I probably went a bit too far taking Little Brother's side on all issues and engaging in a lot of fairly successful bi-lingual team teasing directed at the S.O., who kept joking that he would just leave us alone to enjoy each other's company and who, I think, even got genuinely sulky at one point about it. But when he texted me later to tell me that I had done a good job, that Little Brother had said that I seemed like a good person, and to say that he was happy with me and how kind I had been to his brother, I texted back that I knew I had taken his side a little too much, but that there's nothing worse than spending time with a couple who make you feel like an outsider. Making a divide between brothers from the other side, in my opinion (and own personal experience as a real 누나) is the quickest way to set yourself up to be an enemy for the duration of the relationship. It apparently hadn't really occured to the S.O. that that's what I was doing, because he texted back that I was really smart and that that was the thing that he liked most about me.

Overall, it went really well. I think the language barrier hit the S.O. in a whole different light, though, as I knew it was likely to as soon as I did meet any members of his family. He really struggled trying to balance the conversation back and forth in both languages, and it was hard for me to watch him go through that and to know that, as usual, things I had already expected and thought about were setting in for him for the first time. And, as usual, he tried to take the blame, stating more than once that he was shit at English and getting frustrated with himself. That's the worst part for me, is that he's so hard on himself in light of things that are so plainly entirely my fault and responsibility.

But he had already taken that to task, earlier in the day, when, back at my flat we were sitting looking through his team's basketball forum, and he was exploring my reading level in Korean. He pointed to one message and told me that if I could understand it, I was actually quite high level. I did understand it, save for one vocabularly word, on a purely informational level, and he was impressed, but I went on to explain that the context was completely absent for me. He didn't understand what I meant at first, but I went on to explain that, while I had absorbed exactly what was being said, literally, I was completely clueless as to the feeling behind it. I had no idea whether it was intended as a literal statement, or as a joke, or in a teasing manner, or what have you. I couldn't tell what the writer's intention was, because I only know most words and phrases on a purely "vocabulary" level.

He couldn't really grasp what I was trying to say until I gave the example of someone saying, "뭐 해?" vs. "뭐 하냐?" Those are expressions which I've heard and seen used in context enough times to understand the different feelings behind them, but if I had only ever seen them in writing, I wouldn't be able to tell you the difference. At all. Just the same as, "What do you think you are doing?" doesn't express the right feeling, when understood purely literally to a second-language speaker as it would to a native speaker who would understand the implication behind it.

He got it, then. And chided me a bit for expecting too much too soon. Literal understanding has to predate figurative. That's just the way that things work. And my literal understanding is coming along quickly enough. He scolded me a little for being a perfectionist and not having enough patience for myself. But it's harder for me now than it has ever been before, because I'm seeing the real-life consequences of my failure to get there quickly enough.

None the less, there's only one thing to do. The only way out is through, and bitching about the fact that there are still a thousand steps left doesn't accomplish more than just taking one. So I guess I'll just keep walking.

No comments: