Monday, July 25, 2011


"You don't understand what I'm saying," my MIL said.  "I know he went out to play and spread fertilizer, but I want to know did he go straight out or did he wait a little while and then go out?"

She was right.  I didn't understand.  But it wasn't what she was saying.  I got that part.  It was what she was meaning.

You see, what she said was, "Is Father out playing or is he in the other room resting?"

My automatic response was, "Father isn't playing.  He went out to the field with the fertilizer."  You see, my mind is just totally western sometimes.  It never dawned on me that this was a question of when something was done, even though I have lived with my in-laws long enough to know their habits quite well.  Instead, I thought this was a question of what was being done.  Both choices seemed to assume that my FIL was not working, when in fact, he was working quite hard.  I wanted to make sure my MIL knew he was working.

But that's where my western mind made the big mistake.  IT'S OKAY FOR FIL TO PLAY!  It's expected!  It's healthy!  Only in my backward culture (and I am not being sarcastic here) is this an accusation. 

I can't tell you how depressed I was after this conversation--mainly because I know how hard we are both trying to communicate. 

You see, we leave for home in 17 days.  That's it.  17 days.  And there's still so much I would like to do with my in-laws and so much I wish I could say and so many ways I wish they knew that I do love them.

How do you tell your MIL that you're sorry that you have to take her grandchildren back, but that you're just not good enough to navigate the Korean system?

How do you tell your FIL that you believe in his son's ability more than your own?

How do you explain how grateful you are for what they try to do, even if you don't entirely understand it?

Of course, it's not the first time we have misunderstood one another. There was the infamous time before my oldest was born that my mother-in-law desperately wanted to wash laundry, which I understand by gestures and which I was trying to tell her would have to wait until our downstairs neighbor was finished.  That part was okay, except my MIL could not understand what I was trying to say (my Korean was not good enough) and I did not realize that the word she was saying was "laundry" and not "faster"--the Korean words are virtually the same to western ears--and so the two of us were reduced to frantic messes.  So when my husband came home 90 minutes later, he was greeted by an exasperated father and a mother and wife in tears. It was not our finest moment.

But then, we can misunderstand each other without saying a word.  When we first moved to Korea, there were many times when I just couldn't communicate what was happening.  My parents-in-law would tell me something, and I would be completely unable to respond.  I was so angry at myself and so frustrated.  How was it possible to have studied Korean, lived here for a year, and have been married for six to a Korean, and still not be able to say simple things? (Well, I'll tell you--no language book or class I've ever been in has provided socially appropriate phrases for things like, "Sorry, but I have to nurse the baby RIGHT NOW," or "The baby is completely out of oufits because he peed through his last one and I haven't yet learned to function in a country without clothes dryers.") I was very clearly frustrated, often breathing heavily and sometimes even leaving the room.  But later, I found out my in-laws were worried that I was angry with THEM. I was so ashamed.  Not only was I unable to find the right words, but in my inability to speak, I was accidentally hurting the people who were trying their best to help me.

And let me tell you, trying your best to help is not always helpful.  Like the time I wiped and put away all the dishes for my mother-in-law only to have my sister-in-law wash them again because the towel, which was totally dry and out the way we westerners keep our dish towels out, was "too dusty and dirty," and should be rinsed first.  Or the time I put up the squid where it was cool only to have it come crashing to the floor when someone used what was below it.  Oops!

Will the four years I spent learning Korean customs which are so opposite mine make up for the two in which I snapped at poor Eugene for putting wet silverware on the table?  What is poor taste in America (didn't you even have time to dry the dishes?) is considerate and cleanly here (see? These are newly cleaned--no dust).

I don't know the answers only that whatever the solution, it is not a simple one.  I only hope each day brings us closer to understanding.

1 comment:

  1. We never really think about all the potential barriers to communication that stretch way beyond language. Good luck navigating the minefield :-).