Thursday, December 14, 2006

Special Two-Question Edition

Dear Korean,

A while back I helped a Korean get elected to public office. His Korean supporters were constantly amazed that a normal white dude would be willing to help him. Any thoughts on the older folks and their white worship? What gives? These were all wealthy successful businessmen who ostensibly bought into the bullshit American dream story - why'd they care so much that a white guy would help (read: be paid to) get one of their own elected?

Spicy BBQ

Dear Can't-be-All-that-Spicy-if-You're-White BBQ,

Why the white worship? Two words: Korean War. In the minds of the generation of people who went through the Korean War, the fact that Americans (which is equivalent to white people) saved them from the incoming bbal-geng-i ("commies") never, NEVER leaves their mind. You have to keep in mind how primitive Korea was at that stage, when the older folks were mere children. (At 1953 when the Korean War ended, Korea was poorer than such economic powerhouses as Paraguay, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. Per capital GDP? Around $35.) In their minds, white people saved them and brought Korea to modernity. Even to this day, the only thing that a homeless man in the streets of LA has to say is "I fought in the Korean War" for the Korean Mother to hand him a $20 bill. In the minds of older Korean folks (especially those who came to America), white people were elevated to the all-knowing, all-powerful demi-god status, and it would indeed be a shock if one of such demi-gods lowered himself to help out the primitive and backwards Korean people.

This white worship, by the way, led older generation Korean Americans to emulate the white people and try to out-white the white people in all aspects. One of the results of such effort is that older Korean Americans are probably the most racist people in America. But more on that later.

-EDIT: Dec. 17, 2006, 2:30 a.m.- It just occurred to the Korean that the Korean War was the first time when racially integrated U.S. troops were deployed. But black soldiers in Korea were relatively few, and it was not enough to overcome Korean people's strong prejudice against them which would develop later. But that's a topic for another day.

Dear Korean,

Hi! I want to know why so many older Koreans refuse to learn english? My mother-in-law is very sweet but my husband and I can't talk to her unless one of his 6 sisters or brother are around to translate. What is the deal? Is she just saying that, but really knows what's going on?

Confused Whitey

Dear Pale Beast of Burden,

In the words of Chris Rock, the Korean will not hit you, but will shake you real hard and scream, "what the hell is wrong with you woman???!!!" No one refuses to learn English, like no one refuses to become a millionnaire.

But if the Korean ended at that, you would not understand why. So I will try to calm down and go through the reasons one by one.

1. Learning a second language is HARDER THAN ALMOST EVERYTHING.

Let me put this in numbers. In any language, people generally use roughly 6,000 different words and idioms/expressions to carry everyday conversations. If you want to read a newspaper, you have to at least know about 10,000 different words/expressions. (A medium-sized dictionary contains about 100,000 words.) Have you ever memorized 10,000 different things in your life? Even 6,000 different things? And then you have to arrange them in the right order (the order that you are not used to) to make sense.

All of this comes so easily and naturally when you are young, so most people take language learning for granted. (Before 10 months and 16 months old, a child usually learns about 50 words a month. Try doing that if you have spare time.) But it is, in fact, extremely difficult to do, especially if a person is advanced in age and has to work all day, as immigrants have to do (since, obviously, Americans won't do it.) In the room that the Korean used to use in LA, there are dozens of boxes full of flash cards with vocabularies written on them. There are about 8,000 cards in all. The Korean was 16, still young, and had nothing to do after school. It took 5 hours a day, every day, for a year. And it was the most difficult thing that the Korean ever had to do in his whole life.

2. You always sound stupid in the second language.

Again, language comes so easily when you are younger. Even a 7-year-old can construct a sentence in a flash. But if you tried to construct a sentence in a foreign language when you are past 20, you would be slow, and often wrong. And you know you are slow and wrong, and you see the listener getting frustrated. And you know perfectly well that this is something that a 7-year-old child can do, but you can't fucking do it. It's humiliating. Do you think a Korean mother-in-law will risk appearing stupid to her daughter-in-law? Not a chance.

3. The silent period.

Despite all this, I'm pretty sure that your mother-in-law understands more than she lets on. The linguists have something called "the silent period," where a child becomes quiet before she becomes a total chatter box. Under natural development, this occurs between age 2 and 3, when a child acquired around 2,000 words. This process has been known to happen for second-language learners as well. It basically happens because a person during the silent period would understand about 1/3 of what he hears, which is not quite enough to form a response to.

Whitey, the Korean is certain that you had no ill intention when you asked that question. But whenever people ask "Why don't immigrants just learn English?" (like this idiot,) it just INFURIATES the Korean because the Korean personally knows how difficult it is. So please be nice to your mother-in-law, although I am sure you are nice to her already. And for crying out loud, just learn some Korean. You are younger, and she outranks you.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Ask away at


  1. You forgot to ask her why, marrying a Korean man, she refuses to learn Korean!

  2. Bravo to your response to Whitney's question! :D It's very well put. I've totally experienced the same thing you had, but at a younger age. ^_^' I'm now trying to pick up some East Asian languages in my spare time, and trust me, it's difficult and clear as mud! xD

    I really enjoy reading your blog entry! I've Vietnamese, but I really enjoy learning about other cultures and customs. Keep it up! :D

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. 1. honestly....cry a little more. OMG i've never heard any man bitch and whine like a little girl more in my life.

    2. Seriously, quit making excuses!!! you are making learning a 2nd language sound like rocket science! Of course no one said it's easy and I agree with you that the girl should learn korean too since she did marry into the family. But what I'm angry about is your endless excuses for learning the language of the country you are living in.

    3. I am also speaking from personal experience. I came to the U.S. when I was 12. It took me 6 months to start speaking rather fluently. But it took a lot of dedication but you know what helped the most? is not surrounding myself with only my race. I went to a school where I was the only asian person so I HAD to learn and I'm thankful that happened. Let's not talk about old people learning a 2nd language for a second. I've met plenty of people , mostly koreans ironically, who came here when they were young and who still can not spit out a sentence in english after living in the u.s. for many years. So what's their excuse? is it because they are too dumb? I don't think so. It's because they don't care. They don't feel like they need to learn english even though they are living in a country where english is the official language. It's because they only hang out with other koreans and they feel no need to involve themselves with the rest of the society.

    4. I completely agree in this case that Whitney should put in the effort to show that she wants to have a good relationship with her in laws by learning korean. It is true that younger people should always show respect to elders and in this case the elders shouldn't go out of their way to learn english just for her. But honestly I believe no matter how old you are you should learn the language of the country you are living in and i don't think that's unreasonable at all. at least try.

    5. nothing is too hard! it just takes some effort. The way you are going about this is almost making it sound like Korean people are not smart enough to learn English. You know that's not the case so let's quit whining.


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