Monday, September 17, 2012

The Korean Compliment

I've always has an ample supply of fleshy parts on my face. I'm not saying I'm fat. I just mean if I were in some kind of "stranded with others and food is all gone and dang we're gonna have to each each other now," people would start to see big ol' pork chops where my cheeks are. In fact, much to my mother's horror, I wrote about the very thing on another blog a few years ago.  If you've known me long enough, I've probably make the "okay" sign with my fingers, smiled, and put one of my doughy cheeks in the okay hole, daring you to poke it. I don't know why. It's just one of my semi anti-climatic party tricks. 
My cheeks are big.

So, imagine my surprise here in Korea when I was told for the first time (and it has happened several times since then) that I have a "small face":  "Teacher! You! Small face!" This is what I pictured--->, and as you may imagine, I began to argue that my face was not only normal-sized, but a little on the fuller side.
I didn't get it. Small face? Look. A student even wrote it down. (And, as a side-note, I'm also 5'4". Not exactly an amazon teacher.)
I came home and asked the former English teacher what in God's name it could mean to be told I have a small face. "Oh. Yeah. That's a compliment," she explained. "Korean people think they have big faces, so to be told you have a small face is a good thing." Really? Wait. What? Korean faces aren't big. And my face isn't small. What's going on here?

I was told to prepare myself for being told "You're pretty" and "You're beautiful" throughout the day. By students. Coworkers. The principal. Strangers on the street. 

And that does happen. It's kind of nice, actually. This kind of thing only happens at home when one steps foot into a nursing home. If the residents aren't stroked out or blind, mind you. Otherwise, it's easy to go around feeling pretty invisible or judged in the U.S. of A. Not here. 

But, then there's that other level of Korean compliments. The ones I don't really understand. The best I can do is assume it's something nice and reply with a Korean "thank you," which is one of the few things I know how to say. 

I just worry that maybe the conversation could sound a little like this:

Korean person (in Korean): Man. You are one white-ass honkey of a foreigner.
Me: Thank you.
Korean person: And dumb. 
Me (bowing): Thank you.
Korean person: And you've got bug-eyes.
Me: Thank you.

I've been told I have big eyes. Apparently, that's a common compliment, too. I picture this---->

 But that's not what it means, I'm told. 

The other day, I was sitting at a table of 6 students, helping one with an assignment. Before long, I was aware that one of the students, a girl, was gently but persistently pulling at my arm hair. 

"Um," I said, "what are you doing there?"
"Hair!" she replied. "Pan-TAS-tic!" Then she squinted and got within millimeters of my face. "Face hair! Oh! Pan-TAS-tic!"


Again...I pictured this. I heard ghoulish hairy-faced freak. But that's not what it meant. At least I think it wasn't. Dang it. 

I did a lesson where introduced kids to my life and my hobbies. Afterwards, I asked them to list 4 things they learned about me. Some of them did. "My teacher likes to hike." "My teacher has a sister." That kind of thing. But then there were a few others. Compliments, I think. It's hard to tell. I'll let you be the judge:
 "My new teacher is look like gohst."
Translation: You are one white-ass muthaf*****."
 "My new teacher is wonder woman."
Translation: She is scantily clad and has large bracelets on."
 "My new teacher looks like spokefast. My new teacher is strange."
Translation: I speak fast. No compliment there. And I'm strange.

 Wait a second..
 "My new teacher look like mouse 
+ My new teacher look like monkey."
I'm going to take that as a compliment here.
 I do like hiking. 
I'm not tall. I mean, maybe you're thinking "But she's taller than most Koreans." I'm not. By a long-shot.
 A compliment, albeit a slightly weird one.
 "My teacher is funny."
"My teacher is sexy." 
Stop at "funny," kid. Because the other is just plain creepy. 

A couple of nights ago I was passing a little shop on the way home from getting coffee. 

A certain pink nightgown caught my eye.

 It was a treasure of Engrish and nonsensical magic. I eyeballed it a bit, and then went into the shop. 

Once inside, the owner and I exchanged pleasantries and then he followed me a bit. "You are bery bea-YOU-tee-pul," he said. 

"Thank you." I bowed a little. Coming up from the bow, I spied another nightgown. This one was for children. It had little rabbit whiskers on the belly and some print above. I moved a little closer and read: 

"Little Pussy- My cute little animals are a treasure house of the most intimate and best"

I. was. horrified. My eyes widened like two spinning saucers. 
"Ah!" said the shop owner. "Your eyes! So beau-tee-pul! So

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