Friday, June 24, 2011

Different Pictures

"Mommy," my big son addressed me as he came into the room, "How can I be eight-and-a-half now when I'm really six-and-three-quarters?"

"Eight-and-a-half is your Korean age," I explain. 

Technically, this is not quite true.  Ages here are simply integral; there are no halves or three-quarters.  Since everyone adds one year to their age on New Year's Day, Koreans simply say the whole number.  "We know it is summer and you turned eight six months ago," they might explain. "But so did everyone else.  You are simply eight."

"No," my big son explains.  "I didn't grow that fast.  I am still six-and-three-quarters."

Amazingly, our little exchange here goes to the heart of the issues we, and many international/cross-cultural/inter-racial families, face:  We see things differently.

Now, seeing things differently is really not a surprise.  Everyone knows about cultural differences.  No, the problem is this:  Once we explain to others the picture in our own head, our expectation, we expect them to adjust accordingly--and, naturally, to accept our "normal" view of the matter.

Perhaps one of the best examples I have of this different pictures is the notion of "salty." 

Koreans are always telling me about American things that are salty:  pizza, cheese, chips.  True these things are salty.  According to http://oto2.wustl.edu/men/sodium.htm, per 100 grams of cheese pizza, there are about 702 mg of sodium. One hundred grams of cheddar cheese has 620 mg, potato chips 1000 mg.

But Americans might have a thing or two to say about Korean food.  According to a Korea Times article published in November of last year (http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/04/117_76787.html) Korean men consume three times the WHO guideline for sodium intake and Korean women 2.7 times.

The point is not to point fingers (clearly there are salty foods consumed on both sides of the Pacific Ocean) but to point out that each side sees very clearly the problems of the other side, usually without acknowledging the problems of their own. 

Finding a happy medium is never easy.

Take the example of "clean." In America, we constantly eat with our hands: sandwiches, pizza, chips, cookies.  We have an entire class foods labeled "finger foods." In Korea, this is "더럽다" or "dirty."  There is hardly a worse insult here without dipping into profanity.

On the other hand, Koreans constantly eat after one another, drinking out of the same cup and sharing side dishes out of the same bowl.  Of course, just like Americans wash their hands before they eat, Koreans take some precautions not to spread excessive germs in the process.  But it still seems pretty yucky to an American.

So what do you do?  One Korean wife of an American soldier I know accepts both restrictions, neither eating with her hands nor sharing a cup or bowl.  I, on the other hand, currently have two small children and family on both sides who seem completely unwilling to bend.  I tend to turn a blind eye to both and figure that I don't see people dropping dead because of the infraction on either continent, so I will just let it go in my case (of course, not around my immunosupressed mother, but that's another matter entirely).

Is there a good answer?  Or do we just need to settle for any answer?

"Yes," I respond to my son. "You are still six-and-three-quarters in America.  You are eight-and-a-half here.  When we went to America, you were seven here.  You didn't shrink and become five there.  You stayed seven here and five there.  When Koreans see you now, they think eight-and-a-half.  When Americans see you now, they think six-and-three-quarters.  You are still you, no matter what they think."

"But what do I say when they call me something different?" he asked.

Truth be told, I would really like an answer to that question.

In the meantime I say, "You know who you are.  All you can do is tell them who you think you are and who you want to be.  You can't make them believe it.  After that, you just have to let it go."

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