Art of miscommunication
As any student can tell you, learning a foreign language is not easy. Communication between foreigners and Koreans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries often involved body language and a mixture of Chinese, Korean, French, Japanese, English and Russian. Naturally this method led to a lot of awkward but amusing situations.
One such incident took place at the American legation in Seoul. The American representative was entertaining two guests and desired three cocktails be brought out to him. Upon a slip of paper he wrote “bring three cocktails” and then had his Korean servant take it to the Chinese cook. The cook was fairly competent at spoken English but had a great deal of difficulty in reading so, as anyone would, he consulted his dictionary.
It was only after much delay, “during which the entire servant staff was out chasing the fowls around” that the much-perspiring cook proudly presented the American representative with “three tail feathers from a very indignant rooster.”
And, speaking of sweat, Horace Underwood, an early American missionary and considered fairly fluent at Korean, had his own amusing experience. Horace N. Allen, an early missionary doctor and later the American representative to Korea, recalled:
Underwood was “preaching to a mixed congregation, the men being seated on one side of the chapel with a curtain extending down the middle of the room, separating them from the women.
“He was very earnest in his rebuke of the Korean women, because they were so beset with the sin of covetousness, explaining that they could never hope to enter the kingdom of heaven unless they gave up that sin. Finally one old woman, unable to stand it (any) longer, arose and announced that it was impossible to rid themselves of this failing.
“This only served to bring forth a stronger condemnation till the old woman interrupted the missionary to demand some medicine for the trouble, if it was so bad as all that, since any one might know that this was a thing which faith could not reach. The missionary’s teacher thereupon arose and called his pupil’s attention to the fact that while he was preaching upon the subject of covetousness he had been using the word for perspire.”
Language wasn’t the only source of misunderstandings. At the Gwendoline Gold Mine (in present North Korea), a party was held by the Japanese and Westerners to honor the Japanese emperor’s birthday. Gifts were exchanged and then, in Japanese fashion, small cakes and candies were presented to children and the less fortunate.
The small cakes were white and square-shaped and appear to have resembled small stones. The English manager’s wife, wanting to be kind, tossed the cakes out to the assembled crowd of Korean children — the result was far from what she expected.
“(The children) are so accustomed to their own national sport of stone throwing that they thought we were throwing stones at them, and threw them back with great vigour and force. It was a long time before they discovered what they were, when they commenced to pocket them.”
Although more than a century has passed since the above anecdotes occurred, amusing situations still arise from differences of languages and culture. And, as it was in the past, the best way of dealing with these embarrassing situations is to try and not take them too seriously and regard them for what they are — amusing mistakes in learning one another’s culture and language.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.