Monday, December 14, 2009

Kinship terms.

It's kind of hard to translate the concept literally but these titles are used quite frequently in Korean. Actually, here's a great lesson on just that.

English can be quite direct at times. Whether that is a good or bad thing, indirectness is more favored in Korean. In English, we like to use names to be polite whereas Koreans prefer the use of titles like 선생님. Certainly there are times when Korean can express some of the most direct concepts possible, but on the whole, Korean functions in an indirect manner most of the time.

One such way to be indirect is the widespread use of kinship terms. Here's a brief breakdown of a few select terms based on gender:
Kinship Terms
These four terms are used widely and are quite important. In my case, they were particularly hard to adopt. Not from a pronunciation standpoint but from their implications. For example, I actually have two older brothers. Like for-real brothers. So, when I called someone 형, it felt a little unnatural at first. Like, dude, you're not my brother. I have two of them and you don't look like them. All you did was help me find some 만두 at the grocery - so why exactly am I calling you "brother"?

Well, that's the thing - the titles do have a place in the household in the literal sense. So if a younger sister is talking to her older brother, she will call him 오빠. No qualms with that. Actually, she will likely call her older male cousin 오빠 also. Again, no problem there. But what exactly does she call her boyfriend that is older than her? Oh man - you guessed it. 오빠. Here's where the lines get fuzzy. No, she isn't thinking of him like that but she is calling him the English equivalent of "older brother". So who is the sick one? The 외국인 who over-analyzes the meaning or the Korean girl who has some issues that would make even Freud wince? Sorry guys, this time the 90 pound Korean girl wins...but I'll be back.

She calls him this title out of respect. When she does, not only does his heart melt (anyone willing to fess up on this?) but he takes on the role of a protective older brother - a role where he is expected to take care of her, be kind to her, and (typically) buy her things. Sounds like a sweet deal, but what if they aren't boyfriend/girlfriend? What if they are just friends? Same name applies. There are some boyfriend/girlfriend specific titles such as 차기야 (think honey) but kinship and lovey-dovey terms aren't exclusive like they are in English.

So let's flip the roles. I'll take a chapter from my own book and paste it here.

Many of my Korean friends are women that are older than me. So, I call each of them 누나. I have been told that this title (much like 오빠, 형, and 언니) places the older person in the relationship in a particular role. Sometimes this role is desired - I have one friend that likes to be nice to me - she buys me sweets, food, drinks - pretty much whenever I show interest. I get a free meal and she gets the gratification of helping me out - she feels useful and kind. It's a way for her to show appropriate affection. I know it's a hard line to translate but this type of friendship is very common among Koreans. Frankly, if she were American, there would be only one way to interpret her actions. Among Koreans, it's not the same.

But what if the older person doesn't want to spoil the 동생 rotten? What if he or she has enough already and their plate and doesn't have time to be pampering someone? That's when age plays a decisively important role. In this scenario, one would seek out people of the same age - most commonly former classmates (all the way back as elementary and middle school!) as equal-level friends. In this relationship, the two friends can "go Dutch" and split the costs and responsibilities down the middle.

So pretend you are introducing yourself to someone new. When you ask their age, everyone is taking mental notes. Almost like mental friend-shopping. When the answer is desirable (pretend I want an older brother-type to show me around a new city) I immediately strike up conversations with him in hopes that he will help me out. But if he's younger than me, maybe I'll think (well he seems alright but I've got plenty of 동생 already) and be done with it.

So what if I "take on" a new 남동생? I know he will call me 형 but what will I call him? By his given name with a nice little /야/ at the end for flair :) . If his name is 성주 he would be called 성주야 but if his name has a final consonant (받침) then simply add an /아/ such as 유빈아.

I can say with certainty that only a small fraction of this type of profiling exists in America. By and large, it is uniquely Korean. It is an echo originating from Confucianism that demands strong importance on social hierarchy. This clashes with the American sense of equality and fairness. In the states, I can talk to anyone I want and make friends with whomever I want with only a few taboo rules in place. In Korean, the lines of terms are very clear - if they are older than you, you must call them this. When things work out, it is a well oiled machine. When things get out of whack, it's upsetting. Best advice is always play it safe and always play it polite with Koreans.

Pretend you are a male in your 20s and you are shopping in a department store and spot a shirt that looks nice. If you want to find out more about it (or to haggle) the best way to get the male store clerk's attention is to respect him by calling him 형. If you're quite a bit older than the store clerk, then the rules change...but not always...

It may seem daunting at first considering that age isn't always a determining factor in kinship terms. For example, I had the pleasure to be university classmates with a feisty Japanese woman (and fellow KC101 student!) that is quite a bit older than me but certainly still winning over hearts of young men from all over the world (치요카누나 - remember me kindly ;) ) Even though there existed a clear age difference, it was impolite to refer to her as 아주머니 - a polite title that I would have used had I met her outside of the university in a "normal" setting. But since we were both university students in the same level course, we were in the same social class - so in that case, she became my 누나 - a title that made me very comfortable and probably helped me feel that much closer to her. So in that case, age didn't matter as much as class . Granted, this isn't a super-common scenario but it was a real-life scenario that we must be aware of.