When small talk is a really big deal, actually.

I don’t know how I manage to get myself into these situations, but I do think it’s a sign of personal growth that I can cheerfully go along with the flow, these days, and take them as they come instead of getting flustered.

So, for a variety of reasons I won’t bother going into, I ended up going out for dinner with a Korean couple and their two young children tonight. The couple spoke less English than I speak Korean, which troubled me somewhat, and the kids spoke no English at all (I often rely on children for communication with their parents!). But, erm… you don’t speak English, and I don’t speak Korean! I said in a desperate mixture of English, Korean, and universal sign language. The dad smiled cheerfully and shrugged. The mum simply looked blankly at me. Come on, you’ll eat with us! said the dad in Korean, obviously not seeing any problem. I could only laugh and accept.

And so it came to pass that I sat there on the floor and ate dak galbi and had the sort of conversation that would, less than a year ago, have had me panicking and cringing and flushing in embarrassment and forgetting how to speak either language. Nowadays, I apparently just get on with it and see what happens. For your entertainment, I’ll show the parts of the conversation that were Korean in bold, with the rest being English.

Dad (gesturing at a side dish of unusual-looking chunks of meat): You must try this.

Me: What is it?

Dad: (something in Korean I couldn’t understand) It is… uh…. chicken… (pause while I politely picked up a piece of the meat and raised my chopsticks to my lips)… uh… stomach? No…

Although it was now much too late for me to put down the meat without appearing horribly rude, I couldn’t help noticing that he wasn’t quite gesturing at his stomach. And so, with a churning stomach, I found myself chewing politely on something that could have been anything from intestines to bowels to a nice chewy rooster penis. Mmm, delicious! I lied, waiting for their pleased gazes to turn from me for just a second so I could gulp down some water before my “just a piece of chicken, just a piece of chicken!” thoughts disappeared completely.

Dad: So you like to travel to lots of countries?

Me: Yes. I love to travel.

Dad: Where have you been?

Me: I go, uh, to Asia I go Korea, Japan, China – to Europe I go France, Switzerland… (long list of countries, mostly in English, but with “euh” at the end of them to make up for the fact that I don’t know their Korean names)

Dad: But you only speak English? Don’t you speak other languages?

Me: Yes, I do, um… France speaking… Spain speaking little… and study Korean but is… um, very difficult, sorry, I don’t know ‘difficult’… but I want to learn. I try!

Dad: But how can you travel in all these countries without speaking their language?!

Me: It’s OK. Person… erm, in touristy… places, have some little English. And I have… phrase book (brief break to mime phrase book).

Dad: And you travel alone? But why don’t you have a boyfriend or husband?

Me: Because I… um… erm… I don’t like man.

(Brief pause as I belatedly realise I have used the verb “don’t like” instead of “don’t want”, and can’t actually think of the verb “don’t want”, and the couple are now trying to decide whether I have just offended the dad by declaring a hatred of males, or whether I have actually outed myself as a lesbian at the dinner table. Neither would be particularly advisable, in Korea.)

Me: Um, I mean, no… no, I like man, I LOVE man!

(I believe that the problem is now that I have used a verb that is too strong in the other direction, and the uncomfortable looks are growing.)

Me: No, I mean, man good, man OK… but there is no manI am OKbeing single. Just me – happy!! (insane smile to demonstrate happiness of single life.)

Dad: (Looking confused but trying to move on) Are you a teacher in your own country?

Me: No. I am a teacher… only… Korea. I am a book.

Dad: You are… a book? Book?!

Me: Did I just say I was a book? That’s not correct, obviously… um… book no. I write book? I want… book… to write? Oh!!! (Suddenly remembering a sentence I half-learned at Korean class last week) My dream is to be a writer!

(They’re mightily impressed by that, and I almost pass out on the table from sheer mental fatigue.)

Dad: Would you like to drink some soju together with dinner?

Me: Oh, dear lord, yes. YES. Soju, please.

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6 thoughts on “When small talk is a really big deal, actually.

  1. roseski says:

    That reminds me of when my French teacher took me to dinner with her husband… neither spoke a word of English and I was so flustered I forgot all my French!

    I just remember apologising profusely and repeating “my French is so bad!” with a nervous giggle!

  2. Good on you Hails!! Getting into those kind of situations is the best form of personal growth. I know what you mean about mental fatigue though. It’s exhausting trying to get something across when you don’t speak the same language.

  3. erin says:

    haha…i almost peed on myself i laughed so hard reading this part:

    (Brief pause as I belatedly realise I have used the verb “don’t like” instead of “don’t want”, and can’t actually think of the verb “don’t want”, and the couple are now trying to decide whether I have just offended the dad by declaring a hatred of males, or whether I have actually outed myself as a lesbian at the dinner table. Neither would be particularly advisable, in Korea.)

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