Monday, October 3, 2005

Do you know Chusok? 추석 아시죠?

This is related to a conversation from Space Nakji's site, in which Anglophones not of 100% Korean ethnicity and Korean birth ponder why so many Korean-Koreans think so many "foreigners" don't know squat about even basic Korean things or participate in the most basic of Korean cultural experiences. In essence, the "Do you know Chusok?" line of questioning.

I'm going to come slightly to the defense of some Korean-Koreans who end up making these inane statements by stating that in some cases, it is a matter of a verbatim translation (known in the trade as an L1 transfer, as in a direct transfer from the L1, or 'first language').

As the lead-up to an important question about scheduling, one person I know asked me a few weeks ago, in English, "Do you know Chusok?"

"Of course I know Chusok," I answered. "I've lived here how many years? I even teach my American students about it!"

It was a pretty inane question coming from someone who not only knew that I had lived here a very long time, had celebrated Chusok, and even had mentioned to her that my birthday was around Chusok.

But then I asked her, for shits and giggles, to tell me what she had meant to say in Korean.

She was a little confused about what I wanted her to say, but I explained briefly, and so she began, "추석 아시죠?..."

So, "Do you know Chusok," should have been... would have been (if coming from a native English speaker), "You know the Chusok holiday coming up, well, I was wondering if you would be able to..."

In other words, completely different from how I interpreted it. We native English speakers do this all the time: "You know the McDonald's up the street? There was a shooting there because someone wanted an Egg McMuffin after 10:30 and they wouldn't sell him one."

When I start to say, "You know the McDonald's up the street?" the person listening knows that that rhetorical question is just a starter for more pertinent information. The person doesn't jump down my throat and say, "Do you think I'm an idiot? I've lived in this neighborhood for twenty-five years! Of course I know the McDonald's up the street! I go there all the time! You and I went there last week and had an Egg McMuffin, even! Do you think I'm senile?! Well, do you?!"

The more degrees away from native-speaking ability, the less this rhetorical starter can seem like a rhetorical starter. With a pause after the starter, bolstered by unfortunate non-native word choice, the rhetorical starter can easily seem like the showcase sentence.

Do you know Chusok?


  1. Inspired by Space Nakji, I'm going to start telling people I live in the border town between Foreigner & Korean.

    And by "Anglophones not of 100% Korean ethnicity and Korean birth," I was including the "full bloods" of Korean descent who are native English speakers or primary English speakers. Anyone who thinks and dreams in English mostly, who would find the "Do you know kimchi?" questions annoying.

    And kimcheemonster, I agree with you about the stereotyping, but my post here wasn't really getting into that so much. I'll write more about that later.

  2. Whether you by (sic) it or not, it is a fact that some people are offended by assumptions like these...

  3. Don't worry, Matthew. Yours is a common affliction which has been with us for quite a while. The social psychologist extrodiaire Berke Breathed first named the condition as "offensensitivity" but I'm having trouble tracking down the specific, uh, "publication" where he said it. (Y'know. Copyright and all that.)

    Back on topic, I think it's common for us Homo Sapiens (though I can't speak for Cephalopoda Teuthida) to take umbrage when strangers make assumptions about us based on our appearance, or when an acquaintance says something which indicates they don't know us very well.

    If this happens to someone enough, especially in a place where they've made a "home" (even temporarily) it becomes an affront to their sense of being part of the community. Some people clearly don't give a rat's ass about what anyone else things besides themselves and would find it ridiculous to be offended at the things that Space Nakji and Kushibo wrote about.

    Anyhow, going back, assuming I'm even half-right about why people might get offended then it puts a bit of a sad spin on the story that Kushibo told because his story shows that the person he was talking with assumed that he *did* know about Chusok, in other words, accepting him as an insider to that part of the culture. According to my theory that would be a "good thing"(tm).

    Two other thoughts occurred to me: first is that when one is a bumbler in a foreign language (speaking from experience), everything you hear and say is literal. Second, is that this whole problem could be solved if everyone ended the "rhetorical starter" with, "yes?" or, "right?" So, let's spread the word and start a revolution.

  4. Uh... substitute "thinks" for "things" in the third paragraph above. Shoulda read that more carefully...

  5. Yeah, and "extrordinaire" for "extrodiaire." Anyone want to try for more? I think I've embarrassed myself enough for now....


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