To understand what I’m talking about today, you’ll need a brief crash course in Korean. Ready?! OK.
In the Korean language, there are three main ‘registers’ or levels of speech – which one you use depends on your relationship with the person to whom you’re speaking.
The highest register – the most formal one – is used when speaking to a superior, generally someone you don’t know very well, and whose position commands your respect. Your employer, for example, or an older person you don’t know. The verbs all end with “-mnida”.
The middle one is polite but not formal, and is used most often in daily interactions in shops/restaurants/taxis, with colleagues, on the phone, etc. The verbs all end with “-yo”.
The lowest register is very informal and only to be used when speaking to children or friends. And “friends”, incidentally, means something different in Korea – you are only “friends” with someone if you were born in the same year. If someone is even one year older, they must be addressed as “older brother/sister”. (For this reason, one of the first things you’ll be asked when meeting someone is your age, and if it happens to be the same as the asker’s, you’re likely to hear “Ah! We are friends!” even if you are just meeting for the first time. This makes it nearly impossible to teach the meaning of the word “friend” in English classes, by the way!) In this form of speech, the verb endings are left off altogether.
So, for example, to tell people at work that lunch is ready (“there is food!”), I might have to do it in three different ways. To the grand and somewhat regal school principal, I should politely say “Eumshik isseumnida!”. To my director and those of my colleagues I don’t know very well, I should say “Eumshik issawyo!”. And to my “friends” (and the children, if I spoke to them in Korean), I could just say “Eumshik issaw!”.
It’s pretty insulting to speak to the wrong person in the lowest register, so – as a foreigner – you generally avoid it where possible.
Anyway, I realised for the first time the other day that although the cooking lady (who speaks no English whatsoever) uses the lowest register when speaking to me, she generally uses the middle one with all the other teachers. This was an unsettling and somewhat worrying discovery. And of course, once I realised it, the ending-less verbs started leaping out of every sentence at me like a taunt. Why am I being singled out? Why does everyone else get respect, and not me? Did I do something to upset her? How can I fix it?
Eventually, today, I mentioned it to a colleague. Have you noticed that the cooking lady speaks to me like a child and everyone else like they’re adults?! My colleague had not, possibly having more important things to occupy her mind. She listened out for it during lunch, however, and I shot her a meaningful look when the cooking lady said anything to me. Himdeulaw (are you tired)? she asked, patting my hand kindly when I came in yawning after class. Himdeulawyo (she’s tired), she explained to my colleagues when they looked over. Mashissaw (it’s delicious), she said of the large alien-like fruit she had just finished chopping, sliding a plate of it towards me. Mashissawyo, she said to someone else a few minutes later, offering them some of the fruit.
My observing colleague began to grin to herself, obviously amused.
Well? I demanded somewhat hysterically after lunch, grabbing her wrist and dragging her to the side. You heard it, right? It’s only when she’s talking to me! What does this MEAN?!!!
My colleague started to laugh. You are a child to her, she explained, not very comfortingly. My expression may have indicated that this explanation was unsatisfactory, so she hastily straightened her face and continued. Remember when we went to a wedding and there were four of us in the back of the car?
I do. We were squished in like sardines in a can, and I was next to the cooking lady, to her apparent delight. She spent a few minutes stroking my hair and arms and saying affectionate things, and then held my hand in hers for the entire journey. My time in Korea has dulled my “Jeez, this is weird” detector quite considerably, so my only response was a mild “What’s going on?” followed by cheerful acceptance when someone asked her and translated her response for me. She sees you like a daughter because you’ve been here longer than all the other teachers, and she wants to look after you because you’re far away from your family. She misses her family now they’re all grown up – you are like a substitute child to her. She likes how you appreciate her cooking and that you brought her back a present when you went to Ireland. She says she will cry when you leave Korea.
My colleague laughed again as she saw me remembering this. She just wants to be your substitute mother, that’s all. It makes her happy to fuss over you. She loves you.
And you know something? When you’ve had a rough few months with a lot of uncertainty and a bit of turmoil and loneliness, there’s something absolutely frickin’ beautiful about hearing that you’re loved like a child by the sweet, dignified, middle-aged mother hen who cooks the school lunches and doesn’t speak the same language as you. I did a sudden impulsive about-turn, marched into the kitchen, grabbed the startled ajumma around the waist, and gave her a bear hug as she shrieked in surprise.
Sarangheyo (I love you)! I told her. She laughed, and shooed me away with her drying cloth, trying to hide her smile.
I don’t care if she never says “yo” to me again.