Mom, why can’t I understand them?
I met my husband’s family early on in our relationship. Only a few months into the courtship he was headed down to Busan for something or other and he was going to stay at his sister’s house. I asked if I could go to meet his family and he took me and didn’t mention until we were at the door that Korean families don’t usually meet girlfriends and that his conservative family would probably ask if we were going to get married soon. We met and as my Korean conversational skills were pretty low at the time I played with my husband’s one year old nephew for most of the trip while he explained a few times to his confused family that we weren’t getting married, his western girlfriend just wanted to meet them.
His sister had a son only a year old and was pregnant with a girl. I would visit many more times after that and we always stayed at her house. I would usually play with the kids and read the children’s books, which were on par with my level of Korean, with them. At the beginning of every visit they’d be nervous about me and my husband and have to try and remember who we were, but by the end of the trips they were always distraught that we had to go. It’s been five years of visiting a few times a year and they still have no idea that I’m different.
I adore that to them I am just a part of the family, but that doesn’t stop them from making blunt statements about my Korean skills and my blue eyes.
This trip down to Busan for Chuseok, after the ceremonies were finished and my husband’s sister’s family came from her husband’s family home, we were all playing on the floor making animals and rockets out of origami. I was talking to my husband in English and our niece whips her head around and stares at us and says in Korean:
Niece: What are those strange words and sounds that you’re making?
Husband: It’s English.
Niece: English? What is English? I can’t understand any of those sounds. It’s very strange.
Me: I’m not Korean you know.
Niece: Mom, why can’t I understand them?
At this point we all started to chuckle and changed the subject. There’s no explaining English and Korean or Korea and America to a four year old who has no concept of where she is and where she comes from. She doesn’t even understand that she lives in Busan and we live in Seoul yet. A little later we ended up in a staring contest and she got really close to my face and asked me why my eyes were blue. I told her they just were. That’s how they were when I was born. She can see differences and hear my language differences but that I could be different myself hasn’t crossed her mind yet. I’m just a part of her family.
This episode reminded me of our trip to Jeju Island last year for Chuseok. My husband and I joined his sister’s family for the trip and we stayed in a house together. One morning after breakfast I was ready to get moving, as were the kids, but no one else was so I told them to get their shoes on and we were going to play outside for a bit while we waited. While we were jumping around and looking at the plants, my nephew found a bug. He was nervous and screamed and I went over to see what was going on. He pointed at the bug and said it was scary. It was a cricket though, so I explained it wasn’t scary and caught it. He was in shock that I would touch such a thing. Once he saw me hold the bug of course he wanted to hold it, I let him and eventually, as many kids do, he killed it with his over abundance of love, but before that happened he wanted to know what it was. You have to remember all of these conversations are in Korean…
Nephew: What’s this bug called?
Me: I’m not sure.
Nephew: You don’t know what this bug is called? Is it a (insert any bug name you’d like here as I didn’t understand him but assumed he’d know what it was better than me)?
Me: Sure, it’s a _____.
Nephew: Isn’t it scary?
Me: No, it’s not scary. Just wash your hands when you’re done playing with it.
A little later my husband came out to join us…
Nephew: Look at this _______ we found!
Husband: That’s not a _________, that’s a cricket.
Nephew: It’s a cricket? Aunt Hallie said it’s a _________.
Me: Well, I told you I didn’t know what it was.
Nephew: You’re an adult, you should know what this is. Uncle knew what it was.
Me: I know what it is in English, but not in Korean. Ooops!
Nephew: I love my cricket.
There are these small instances when we are together in which they wonder aloud at why my language skills aren’t perfect, but neither are theirs, and why my eyes are blue. Every time it ends with everyone happily explaining that we are just who we are and it’s okay that we’re not exactly the same. I love that my Korean family has accepted me the way they have and that they are teaching their children that my differences aren’t so different or bad, they just are.