one big happy family

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Coming from a big family (mom was one of six kids, dad was one of seven), I've never liked the whole "honorary family" system. I have 22 legitimate aunts and uncles, plus 31 first cousins. I certainly don't need extra aunties & uncles. Now I live in a culture that uses the honorary system for everyone.

Take for example the terms "aunt" (ajuma) and "uncle" (ajashi). Although some Koreans have tried to tell me that it's actually a different word, any woman over a certain age, especially one who is married and/or has children is an ajuma. (There are specific terms for a maternal aunt, paternal aunt, etc.) While having lunch with some of our high school students, I was a bit horrified that the girls kept calling the waitress over with, "A-juu-mmmaaa." (She didn't mind at all, of course.) Likewise, the middle-aged man who works at our apartment building is commonly referred to as "ajashi."

Last time we were here, I protested against all attempts to label me an ajuma. Now that I have a child, it's just something I have to accept. At the children's birthday party we attended recently, one birthday boy's mother instructed him (in English) to "thank auntie" for the gift we brought, even though that was the first time we'd met.

The honorary labels extend to older people and children. People clearly old enough to be grandparents (men with grey hair and women with short, permed hair, whether grey or not), are called "grandfather" (haraboji) and "grandmother" (halmoni). Children's relationships with each other get complicated. There are separate terms for a boy's older brother, boy's older sister, girl's elder brother, and girl's elder sister. All younger siblings are "dongsaeng," which is what the three-year-old boy Liam played with last week called him. There are some little girls at the playground that act like Liam's big sisters, so I've started referring to them as "nuna," (boy's elder sister).

But the ultimate illustration of how far this "one big family" philosophy truly extends came yesterday. We went to a restaurant near our first apartment, which we used to visit often. The owner remembered us and was delighted to meet our child. I asked for a small, empty bowl to put some of my rice in for Liam. When she realized what I wanted, she brought me a separate bowl of rice for him, then instructed me to add some of the broth from the cold soup served as a side. Matthew and I started to feed Liam, until "auntie" pulled up a chair and told us to eat. She would feed the baby. (I should mention that we were the only customers in the restaurant.) So she stuffed Liam full of good rice, and scolded Matthew when he gave Liam too large of a piece of food.

Sometimes it's nice to have an auntie around.


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Catherine! Sounds like things are going great in SK! That is so funny about the whole honorary family thing...we were at a thai rest. tonight and my brother in laws friend from L.A joined us and yelled out to the owner,

"hey Harabohji!!!...can we get some more water please?"

I was he did'n't!

I love the post on Liam being a rockstar! I can see all the teeny girls giggling and coming up to him! =)

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