The Korean family I’ve been spending time with are lovely people.
The little boy calls me 누나 (“noo-na”), which is the word for big sister. In Korea, people don’t use real names very often, instead calling each other by the term for the relationship – big sister, little brother, uncle, cousin, and so on. Friends often use these terms, too, calling each other “big/little brother/sister” even though they’re not really related. I like it – it seems quite sweet and affectionate to me. Plus it’s useful for someone like me who can never for the life of me remember Korean names. So now, without even really noticing it happening, somehow I have a Korean 남동생 (“nam-dong-seng” – little brother), 엄마 (“awma” – mum), and 아빠 (“abba” – dad). It’s all a little surreal (especially since awma and abba are no more than about 12-14 years older than me), but quite good fun.
Not having a language in common with your “parents*” is somewhat challenging. We use the translator dictionaries on our phones a lot, when nam-dong-seng is not present or unable to translate for us. Other than that, the conversation in the car or at the dinner table is entirely in Korean. I’m still at the stage where I’m pretty much just listening intently for the verb in each sentence in the hope that it’s one of the 40 or so that I’ve learned, and then trying to guess what’s being said based on that plus hand gestures, facial expressions, and the reactions of the other family members.
Awma keeps giving me stuff. I constantly find myself amazed and humbled by the generosity of the Korean people. They will give you food they’ve bought for themselves, practically drag you by force into their homes for snacks and drinks, buy you thoughtful gifts, and regularly donate useful items to you. I often feel a little embarrassed by all this attention, and try to pay my way or refuse presents when it seems like it’s getting to be too much. But as soon as I try to put money in the hands of abba or beat him to the restaurant’s cash register to pay for dinner, he shoos me away almost angrily, looking horrified at the idea of letting me pay, or even splitting the bill. When I shake my head in the typical Western “I can’t possibly accept this” way, and try to refuse yet another gift from awma, she looks so sad and confused that I hurriedly accept it and thank her as profusely as my limited vocabulary permits. They went on holiday to France over Christmas, and brought me back presents, despite only having met me a few times beforehand!
The generosity and kindness of these people, and of Koreans in general, makes it so much easier to feel truly at home here. It doesn’t matter nearly as much that I’m struggling to pick up the language, or that I don’t have a clue what’s going on most of the time, when I have no doubt that people I barely know have such a desire to welcome me and look after me. Just yesterday, I was slipping and sliding my way home from school (on a Saturday! It seems that my school has no concept of a snow day, and we had to go in to make up for the day we missed due to snowy roads during the week), and made a dramatic, all-coughing, all-sneezing entrance into the corner shop, where awma works. That’s where we met, actually. She told me off for buying a packet of crisp-like snacks, using hand gestures to indicate that I was already quite fat and that these weren’t the solution. Anyway, she was very concerned by the fact that I was struggling to breathe, and there was no way I was going to attempt to explain to her that I was allergic to the dry air and suffering from sinus problems as a result. 추워요 (” chu-wah-yo” – cold!), I said instead. She gave a loud exclamation and disappeared behind the counter, rummaging through a shopping bag and emerging with a beautiful pair of red leather gloves, snapping off the plastic tag, and holding them out to me. I didn’t have the heart to show her the perfectly fine pair of mittens that were stuffed into my pocket, so after an attempt at refusal (met with another offended and hurt gaze) I meekly held out my hands and allowed her to put the gloves on me. She watched me proudly as I slid off into the icy evening, like a mother sending her only child off to his first day at school.
It’s really nice. It’s also a far cry from how I felt on my last day in China, cheated and angry and disappointed and betrayed. Sitting in that cosy living room as awma makes dinner and nam-dong-seng cheerfully chatters away as he shows me pictures from his holidays, with abba awkwardly but determinedly trying to ask me about my home country using the ten words that make up his entire English vocabulary, I feel safe.
I like it here. For a country and people that, a few months ago, I knew next to nothing about, it’s doing a pretty good job of impressing the socks of me!
*The Parents need not feel threatened by any of this. The Korean ones are very nice, but they’re not The Parents. And anyway, they don’t have Kat the Cat.
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