A Korean Deals with Sarcasm

The second time he came home with me, it was summer and everyone was more comfortable. Jae-oo knew where things were in the house and could get them on his own, though he still wanted me to help him find things in the kitchen, and my family was now comfortable enough to wear pajamas in front of him in the morning. With guards let down, it was inevitable that this would be the first time to really see if there was any discomfort between people without the fake ‘nice to meet you’ smiles on. The novelty of dating a foreigner had somewhat rubbed off and people were starting to act natural in front of him.

We celebrated Independence Day with fireworks as usual and hopped on a plane down to Dallas, Texas. One of my cousins lives down there and it was decided that we would have a cousin’s getaway with most of the cousins in attendance. Boyfriends were invited as well, mostly because the majority of cousins are female and if Jae-oo and our one male cousin old enough to come were coming they might need some other guys to hang out with. We ended up with a group of eleven people. The trip would be spent on a family ranch outside of Dallas swimming, playing games, drinking and catching a rodeo.

As I mentioned, the novelty of dating a foreigner had somewhat rubbed off by the second trip, though my family still enjoyed teaching Jae-oo somewhat unnecessary English slang. I wake up one morning and ask how he is and he tells me he’s “starvin’ like Marvin”. Well, that’s a completely okay response to the question, but really? Of all the terms he could be taught, someone in my family decided to teach him that one? That wasn’t nearly as bad as ‘whooty’ though, which really held on for quite some time in his vocabulary. At the time, there was some popular song with the word ‘whooty’ in it. I had never heard the word and couldn’t explain what it meant so they explained that it was a song about ‘a white girl with a booty’. Jae-oo came back to Korea that year thinking he could put any letters on to the front of –ooty to make up a different kind of girl with a booty. “Is that a Kooty?” he asked motioning towards a girl across the street, “A Korean girl with a booty?”, he asked laughing as he went. “What about Jooty? A Japanese girl with a booty.”

It was all fun and games until we actually started playing games. My family is fiercely competitive. There are the few people that don’t mind winning or losing, but once put onto a team the competitive nature takes over. I think most people are competitive, but my family takes it to another level. Each family has a game closet with just about every board game you could think of and we’ve played them all. We know just about every card game you could want to play and probably a few more. The favorites include euchre, a Midwestern favorite, Hearts, Spoons and Rummy. I grew up playing Scrabble and Backgammon with my grandmother and she never once ‘let’ me win. Board games like Cranium are a perfect family team game with everything from charades, singing, Pictionary, and facts to acting. On this particular trip down to Dallas, this was the first game chosen.

Jae-oo has seen my competitive streak often enough in Korea, but I don’t think he had yet seen it in a situation with like-minded competitive people. In Korea, his friends never get together to play games. I’m always trying to get them to, because that’s what I think is fun, but they don’t like to look awkward or silly in front of each other so it’s rough. If you can’t be awkward or silly in front of your friends, then who can you be awkward and silly in front of? I had to be the goof and do every round of charades one time for his friends because they didn’t want to look dumb, so I did. With my family, that’s not the case. The games are fast paced and a newcomer can be very easily overwhelmed, and not just because Jae-oo is a Korean was it difficult, but just the situation. Many a boyfriend introduced to my family has tried to quietly back out of these games once he realizes what it is he’s about to get into. Jae-oo was not so lucky.

One piercing memory from that first game together was of my sister making a sarcastic comment about Jae-oo needing to look everything up in the dictionary, or ask someone about every phrase on the Charades/Pictionary cards. Jae-oo didn’t realize how rude it was, but I did and it wasn’t until another one of my cousins said, “Can I take five minutes to go in the other room with someone to explain this to me too?” that I about leapt out of my chair. No one else in my family teaches ESL or spends that much time with entire groups of foreigners or people who speak English with different accents. Though everyone is pretty well traveled, they’ve been taught their whole lives, like most Americans, that we are the best and to be honest, traveling around the world has shown me that so many other cultures know much more about mine than I do about theirs. America has truly infiltrated the world, but there’s still a lack in pop-culture knowledge that we take for granted. How was Jae-oo to know that Saved by the Bell was a TV show? He tried to literally act out the words. Words and phrases like ‘cat’s cradle’, or IHOP, or Hot Potato can be difficult for a non-native speaker with no basis for these words to make sense. Sure, he could act out a hot potato, which is what he did and it worked, but some of them aren’t so easy. Why do sausage and gravy go together? For us this is a common breakfast item on any breakfast menu, but he was picturing German sausages and potato gravy and couldn’t understand why they were together as a clue.

I told my sister to shut her mouth and of course a whole thing happened. Jae-oo ended up upstairs pretty upset by the incident and felt bad that he didn’t understand so many of the words and phrases. I comforted him and told him it wasn’t his fault and next time we all get together I’ll try to get everyone to play a game that is more about numbers or strategy, like a card game, than words and phrases. He didn’t want to play anymore games was his decision. It took us quite a long time to convince him to play any game with us after that. He told me that he didn’t even know why I had gotten so upset with my sister and when I explained what she had said and then what my cousin had said he felt even worse that he couldn’t even tell when someone was being rude. He also thought that I started talking a lot faster when I was in the midst of the argument so that he couldn’t understand what I was saying on purpose, which was not the case at all. I think everyone starts talking faster when upset and arguing. It was in this conversation that he told me of some other occasions when he had done something and someone in my family had made a comment like, “oh, well of course that doesn’t go there” and moved it, or “why would you do this when you could have done that?” and he realized it was all sarcastic and became uncomfortable and needed a break upstairs away from everyone for a bit.

Later downstairs, after I had calmed down from the incident I hadn’t thought ahead of, I sat down with my sister and told her that sarcasm is extremely difficult for foreigners to understand and that Jae-oo can tell what she’s saying, but can be confused by her tone. My whole family is sarcastic and they don’t really think about how it sounds. I really had to cut back on my sarcasm when I moved to Korea, but they haven’t. I told her that I was sorry I became so defensive, but that I knew Jae-oo wasn’t going to say anything, even if he had understood, and that since I’ve brought him to be with my family and she’s in my family she needed to help support him not tear him down. It’s hard enough for him to be surrounded by English 24/7 when he isn’t used to it, not to mention extremely exhausting and adding more pressure by making fun of him for not understanding something doesn’t help. She hadn’t realized some of the comments she had made and hadn’t intended for them. It was eye opening for both of us and all of the cousins I think.

Since that trip, I’ve noticed how truly protective and caring everyone in my family can be. There have been more trips since then, and each time it makes me almost cry with happiness when I see my sisters standing up for Jae-oo like he really is their brother. They don’t hesitate to tell people where he’s from proudly or explain something to him when it’s clear he doesn’t understand. They take him aside and help him if he needs it and they stand up to other people that make obnoxious comments. It’s truly heartwarming every time and it makes me love my family even more for accepting him as much as they have and supporting us both.

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