Right now my wife is watching the Korean equivalent of American Idol, called Nanun Gasuda, or I’m A Singer. It has a few variations on the American version, most notably the startling fact that everyone on the show is Korean. At times it seems as if the Korean Wave is just American pop culture with an Asian face; one wonders how successful it would be if Asians actually had a place in American culture that went beyond darting over bamboo rooftops. Besides singing their hearts out, the singers also must occasionally endure bizarre gauntlet-like encounters in small rooms with various representatives of the country’s fast-talking comedians; the singers are also notable for not going totally overboard with plastic surgery, unlike almost every other celebrity in this country.
Although the show is entirely in Korean, A. just told me today that there are certain situations where she now feels uncomfortable speaking her first language—situations where no foreigners of any kind are involved. The statement astounds me. Although I’m officially an intermediate-level Korean student (and likely will remain so for several years), I can’t imagine preferring Korean, with its (alternately) slavishly deferential or imperiously high-browed verb conjugations, over nice democratic Shakespearean Queen’s English. That said, I still think it’s fun to speak, and doing so in front of other people rarely fails to impress them.
Now she’s shaking her butt and singing and checking on the baby, who has finally figured out how to sleep. What are these situations she spoke of? One involves posting videos on her blog, most of which concern different baby-related products, of interest to Korean mothers, who despite their Middle East-like status in this country still exert a considerable influence on most of its affairs.
A. doesn’t want to speak Korean in these videos because she has a strong, folksy accent, and doesn’t sound as sophisticated as someone from Seoul—a Gyopo I knew told me that various Southern accents in America are a rough equivalent to the various Southern accents of Korea, and that, like in America, most people on television sound like they all come from the same place (Seoul for them, various cities for us). Her English is so good that she loses most of her accent when she switches over from Korean. In fact she once told me how she was once speaking English in some class after she got back to Korea from Australia, and everyone was really impressed with her, and then totally surprised when she changed tongues back to her twangy Korean drawl. You’d just as soon expect George W. Bush to start reciting the poetry of Chairman Mao—in Chinese.
There’s another situation as well. Both of us are tutoring a rather wonderful young student who, thanks to the incredible wealth of her parents, has studied English in the Philippines for six months and attained near fluency in an impossibly difficult foreign language before middle school. A. tutors this student entirely in English and never speaks to her in Korean; after several weeks of this she realized that she was uncomfortable doing so, and when I asked her why she said it did have something to do with the inherently hierarchical nature of Korean.
A. respects this girl, likes her, enjoys teaching her, and was intimidated by her achievements before she started tutoring her. It’s strange to switch from the relative mutual respect of English—which is hierarchical as well, but much more obsessed with accurately describing the timing of events—to Korean, where the difference in ages would force A. to assume the linguistic position of wise regal wizard of truth. Her student would likewise find herself reduced from a friend to an ignoramus. A. would talk down, and her student would talk up.
Both parties seem to prefer the difficulties of a second language to the (seemingly greater) difficulties of the first. I’ve never heard of this happening before between two people who could very easily slip back into the seeming comfort of the mother tongue they share.
Still, regardless of language, hierarchy is something that seems inevitable to human culture, or at least modern culture. You’ll never hear someone with a strong Southern accent delivering a news report on TV in America, and it will be years at least before American movies featuring Asians who are human beings rather than caricatures become the norm rather than the exception. Similarly, how long will Korea have to wait before its Captain Kirk / Uhura kiss on Nanun Gasuda?