Speaking the Language

Featured, Food and Drink — By on August 4, 2010 at 2:00 pm

My wife and I were enjoying dinner at a small family gathering in Ohio when the conversation brought me back to one in Korea. We’ve only been back for just over a month, so it doesn’t take much for my mind to wander over the Pacific. This memory was different, as it brought a new insight that challenged my perception of language and wouldn’t let go.

Before dinner my wife and I visited with a conservative distant great aunt and uncle who wanted to chat with the missionaries. This ended with a lot of conservative bantering (them) and a lot of tongue biting (us) as I distracted myself with the thought that the uncle looked like Gene Hackman. We respectfully disagreed when he asserted “if you’re here, you should speak the language.” I don’t know much about Gene Hackman, but I can’t picture him saying that. We started to argue that the US doesn’t have an official language, but thankfully dinner was served, saving us from the heat of battle.

At the dinner table, the topic of Korean food was mentioned. According to Uncle Gene, a stateside Korean restaurant’s menu is too honest about its items. What Koreans call sundae (pronounced soon day) is simply identified as ”pig intestine.” Given the opportunity, I inserted my favorite joke. “If they called it ‘hot dog’ Americans would eat it.” The joke was well-received, which returned me to the time it wasn’t.

The first time I told it was to a Korean friend who had just finished explaining how most Westerners don’t like sundae. Koreans helpfully tell Western friends what sundae is before the latter have the opportunity to partake. I figured she didn’t find my joke funny because she didn’t understand the role of ignorance in the American diet. At the dinner table, surrounded by Westerners, I started to wonder if there was more to the blunt culinary honesty. Food, like culture, becomes important to people, and the honesty sends a challenge or asks a question in the form of a message we often miss. “This is part of me. What do you think?” Something about knowledge does that.

My first boss and fellow teacher in Korea was an American who hated the food but loved the country’s history. He knew next to no Korean, but many Koreans in our neighborhood knew and respected him. For them, he knew enough.

My travels through Asia revealed an endless interest in American culture–restaurants, movies and music, to name a few. I have yet to visit a country where this is not the case. Many of these people wind up visiting or living in the US at some point. The result of this popularity shows many people arrive knowing more about American culture than it does about them.

Uncle Gene may have a point after all–we are all Americans, and we should speak the language. And many of these new Americans may struggle with grammar and pronunciation, but they are already speaking the language better than we are.

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  • My wife and I have been back from teaching in South Korea for five years and we often remark how much we miss the food. Thanks for sharing and making my mouth water at the thought of bulgogi and kimbap.

  • And, well said that we need to have a larger global vision for the significance of culture, language and cuisine. Some of the best conversations (and meals) I’ve had were in other countries with other foods with remarkable people.

    It is an education to be a foreigner in a non-English speaking country. I believe it is a must to feel the outsider to appreciate how much people really do adopt American culture as immigrants.

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