Filing down the edges to fit into a new box

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Filing down the edges to fit into a new box

I am not a very nice person. In fact, I am downright horrible. When I was in high school in the United States, I was part of a clique of girls who were notorious for being somber, cynical and mature beyond our years.
We believed we were far too enlightened to be burdened with normal high school woes. We prided ourselves on thinking deep thoughts, unconcerned with trivia like makeup or the latest celebrity break up.
We spoke with arrogance and a Parnassian flair. While other kids our age were holed up in their bedrooms wrestling with some video game contraption, we were hot-headedly debating things we considered important, like Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” We turned our noses up at anything and everything. Complaining was a habit, criticizing a ritual. At the core of our verbal onslaughts on the pass and putrid was a cherished secret weapon ― sarcasm.
We were quite mordant, reveling in the bliss of a well-executed jab. Every word, it seemed, came out caustic and ironic. And me, I was the worst all, a termagant even.
Eventually, I bade farewell to my friends and flew here to Seoul to pursue my studies. I was prepared to make adjustments to a new environment. But I was not prepared for the shock, soon realizing that sarcasm does not work in Korea. I have lived here two years, and I still have not recovered from that first sarcastic flop.
The letdown happened after I sat through one of the worst Korean films I have seen with a group of my Korean college buddies. My Korean friends, however, thought the movie was great. Of course, I had to let them know what I thought, with a smirk and a scathing remark. But my commentary was drowned in a sea of gaping mouths and blank stares. After suffering that humiliation, I vowed to never try to dice people with my brand of humor.
Sarcasm does not work here, firstly, because it does not fit well with the Korean language. Though I am fluent in Korean, I have never been able to pull off a sarcastic retort properly. Once out of my mouth, the sentence sounds dull ― and definitely not funny or witty. Sometimes it is offensive.
So, is this some sort of signal for me to put my days of unrelenting meanness behind me and be born again, kinder and gentler? Or should I consider this a call to action and deliver a little of my gritty edge to this goody-goody peninsula?


by Kim Hyun-jung

Ms. Kim attends Seoul National University.

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