Friday, November 30, 2012

You Just Don't Say "You"

"Tangshin-eun naui namja yeo (당신은 나의 남자여)"
"Neon naekeo ya! (넌 내거야!)"

Two words I frequently hear from the media, with two phrases I hear too many times.  The first one is from the (quite a romantic) song "Emo (애모)" and the phrase Ash Kechum shouts after catching a pokemon (Korean version of course).

     It's not a question of respecting Korean people's ways.  That's each one's choice.  But I'd rather stay out of trouble.  It's about not offending the person you're talking to so you can successfully express what you want.

     But I learned this lesson the hard way.  It is common knowledge (in Korea at least) not to say "neo (너)" or "neoneun (너는)" or any of those to say, "you," especially to someone of higher status.  From what I've seen, it is quite acceptable when used to someone of younger age, or lower status... or when you're angry.  I say "quite acceptable" because I only hear it amongst friends who try to act tough to each other.  As for "tangshin (당신), I hear it is equivalent to "neo" but doesn't have much negativity.  To me, it's still a grey area and I'd rather be safe than sorry.  After six months of staying here in Korea, I didn't know much about this matter.  But there are times when you just can't avoid saying "you" to the person you're talking to.  Right?  And that's when I got a bit of lecturing.

     At work (back then), I had a small talk with my superior when I ended up saying "neoneun" to him.  He made me repeat what I just said with a sarcastic smile, so I said, "neoneun... tangshineun..." and he got really angry.  I suppose my shocked facial expression was enough to calm him down and made him realize I didn't know what I did wrong.  His voice was deafeningly loud, but his final words were clear to me.

"You call me 'chuin-nim' or 'older brother' and not treat me like your equal!"
"I'm sorry, I didn't know"
"Anything else other than that is disrespectful!  Do you understand?"
"Now, I understand."

     So that was it.  From that day on, I took that word out of my vocabulary.  But that didn't satisfy my question: How then should you address another person without saying "neo" or "tangshin?"  I can't remember how, from whom, and when, I got my answer.  But I remember talking to an elderly.

"I know saying 'neo' to an older person is bad."
"Yes, it's like you're asking me for a fight."
"So how should I call them then?"
"You just did, you called me 'ajoshi (아저씨)' as you call your boss his title."
"But it's a headache 'cause there's too many chuin-nim in my department."
"Then use either his family name or his department/section before his title."
"What about my co-workers or the people I meet on the streets?"
"At work, you should know their family names.  If you call 'ajuma (아줌마),' all of them old ladies will look at you.  Outside, when you go to a restaurant or a barber shop, you're immediately addressed as 'ajoshi' or 'kogaegnim (고객님)' correct?"
"In a restaurant the owner even called me '사장님'."
"That's right.  If you're unsure of the title and age, use the common addresses.  Not 'neo' or 'tangshin' but 'ajoshi' or 'ajuma'."

     At my present work place, almost everyone calls me by my name, no matter how lengthy the sentence gets.  (for example) Instead of saying, "This is yours" they'll say, "This is (insert my name here)" despite the fact that they're saying it directly to me.  I suppose it their best way of giving me respect despite me being of lower status.  At the same time, they also say their title like "hyeong (형) or ajoshi" instead of "na/naega (나/내가)."  I suppose that's to make them sound a bit more relatable, which is a means of being polite.  But I don't think I could do the same.  It's too weird to address myself as the third person.

As for "tangshin (당신)" ...

     I suspect that word is taught at school.  I sometimes hear it uttered by fellow foreigners, TV drama series, or Korean songs.  Some might insist "tangshin" is okay to be used without offending anyone (I was told it was okay by an interpreter... a foreign interpreter).  I must be living in a unique part of the country, but in all my years here in South Korea, I have never heard "tangshin" come out of the mouth of a local.  Not even when they're angry (I definitely heard "neo" from many angry Koreans).  That's why I avoid this word and stick to names/titles.  It is quite an effort, but it keeps me at a safe place.

To anyone reading this: Have you ever heard the locals say "tangshin" on a normal conversation?

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