Last Friday turned into one of the longest language exchanges I have ever had. While my head was spinning at the end (for more than one reason, since it involved a fair amount of beer) it was also one of the most fun exchanges since we got around so many aspects of our cultural differences. We usually tease each other saying that our heads hurt after a meeting, but the next day this was most positively true for both of us.
A while back I had promised to introduce my LP to the Danish traditional dish involving a version of fried pork similar to 삼겹살, which is served with boiled potatoes and thick white gravy with chopped-up parsley. It actually tastes waaay better than it sounds, and when done right it looks something like this:
We ended up eating, drinking, and talking all night and once more I discovered how much my Korean improves when I have a drink or
six two. I don’t advocate binge drinking by any means, but if you have a language partner to meet with regularly, I suggest that you set off time for a casual Friday beer once in a while. It helps relieve tension so you can speak more freely. At some point during that evening, I had gotten myself into an awfully complicated explanation of something quite abstract in Korean, and when I paused to figure out how to correctly tie the ends together on a sentence I was encouraged with a “Don’t think – just speak!”. While I usually advocate that people think before they speak, the opposite may in fact prove more helpful when having a language exchange.
As always when we share a meal together, the differences in culture are highlighted. Following Korean dinner etiquette, we were politely pouring beer for each other, turning our heads to the sides when we drank, and even though we have become very good friends, we still haven’t given up on the titles. Using titles instead of names is an extremely important part of Korean culture. While terms for “you” are rarely used (except between very close friends or lovers), Koreans prefer to address each other in the third person. In this case I remain either 선생님 (teacher), 교수님 (professor), or if the tone gets a bit more intimate, 샘 (a cute abbreviation for teacher). In turn I call him *name* + 씨 (Mr.) or I sometimes add the word 선생님 (teacher) to his name if I say it in a context where he is teaching or correcting me. From a Western perspective this can seem extremely odd, but in a Korean context it actually feels very natural. It subtly highlights the hierarchical distance between us with me being older and a full-time university employee, and him being a student. Therefore we obviously use the polite language to each other, although I have succeeded in making him drop the honorifics when he addresses me.
As part of our discussion that evening we evaluated each other’s teaching styles, which vary tremendously – probably also because of our cultural differences. In an almost “good cop/bad cop” way I see myself as the pragmatic and patient teacher, while he’s definitely Korean in the sense that if something’s not right – it’s most certainly wrong. He also never drops the teacher role for too long. Right after our dinner, he suddenly flipped through my intermediate Korean grammar book and started quizzing me in various grammatical structures asking me to make sentences with different patterns. When I, to my own relief, answered all of his questions correctly, he nodded acknowledgingly and then said: “Well done, but I also don’t think this is very difficult. You should know this!” Ahh, how I love that Korean honesty! Needless to say this was one of the situations where I used the word 선생님! The golden remark of the evening was when he announced that if all my teachers in my entire life had been pushing me as much as he is pushing me now, I probably would have gone straight to Harvard. Whether this statement is a tribute to my talent or his own teaching skills remains unknown.
If you are more interested in learning about the culture shocks a Western girl can face when first meeting the Korean culture, I recommend watching this hilarious 세바시 video (entirely in Korean). In this video an Italian woman tells about her first years a Korean daughter-in-law. It is awesome for so many reasons. First because it highlights so many interesting cultural aspects, second because it shows that if you work hard you can become fluent in Korean. Although her accent is strong, she is speaking very fluently, and she has lots of humor. Enjoy!