Casual questions gone wrong
A well-established, so-called opinion leader-ish gentleman was asking me this question in an aloof manner as if it was the most natural question that I bear all the obligation to answer. I’ve known him for about 4.5 minutes at a recent embassy function in Seoul. His first series of questions included “So you’ve been a news reporter for that long? Married? What about children?” I almost defined it as a terrorist attack of questions. Of course, those are the questions that many Koreans ask, usually to break the ice. No harm intended. Plus, I have a “thick skin” (as Koreans say) and am brazen enough to tackle those questions in style. But on that unusually warm evening in early June, I was rather in a cranky mood and I was anxious to get my second glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc. So here was my answer to Mr. Hamas, who was questioning the whereabouts of my house. “Me? I live in Korea.” (I hoped to say “On Earth,” but I was too timid.)
But we are talking about a man whose self-esteem is as high as Mount Everest. He counterattacked, of course. “Where? In Seoul?” Wishing to end the conversation fast and head back to my glass of wine, which a waiter had finally filled, I gave in and gave him what he wanted, saying, “South of the (Han) river.” I know, I am based in Yeongdeunpo, which is far away from the glitz of the real, posh Gangnam (upscale south of the Han River). But hey, I am physically based south of the river. Maybe this answer is not convincing enough for you, but at least it pleased my interlocutor - finally. He was all smiles and, this time, started to give me all the unnecessary, unwanted pieces of information about the fluctuation of the price of his precious and expensive home sweet home. What I remember is not the long list of zeros but the name of an apartment building where the annual rent is so high that he could buy the house that I rent. I was crying (inaudibly, in my heart) “I don’t want to know!” but to no avail. I could escape the conversation only after listening to all of the fluctuations in the price of his apartment since 2011.
And I couldn’t help but wonder. Was he genuinely curious about the location of my house? Did he really mean well when he said, “You must know you’re likely to give birth to a disabled child if you’re a mother over 35. You should hurry and become a mother yourself. After all, you should be patriotic.” Well, to say the least, isn’t it just sad to think that we have to give birth to children out of patriotism? I mean, I love my country, but a child should not be a duty, it should be for love. (I think I can hear my friends saying ‘She doesn’t know anything about children).
You may find that some questions Koreans casually ask seem a bit awkward or aggressive. As a Korean-Korean who’s never stayed oversease for more than two weeks, I understand very well that those questions are actually meant well. I used to ask such questions myself. For example, I used to say, in a carefree manner, “Did you eat?” to an American editor, when I was working at this English-language paper. I didn’t want to say “Hello” and asking “Did you eat?” was a common question in the early afternoon. After a month, however, that editor came over and asked, “Why do you want to know whether I ate lunch or not?” He was curious why I was curious. And another friend from a third-world country said, about the same question, “I thought you asked that question because I came from a poor country.”
Of course, this is a petty column based on my very limited knowledge. I should not over-generalize 50 million Koreans. However, I was thinking that maybe it’s time for us Koreans to come up with creative, politically not-so-incorrect and hopefully fun questions. What kind of questions? That eludes me now. Actually, at a recent dinner with sources, when I ran out of things to say, I found myself asking “So, where’s your house?” Maybe I am just too Korean to write this column.
* The author is an international news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo. She worked for eight years at the Korea JoongAng Daily.
BY Chun Su-jin