“Tell her you got this especially for her” John said to me as he drove, pointing to the basket of fruit wrapped in clear acetate sitting on the back seat. “Remember when you get in, you have to bow to her. Not a half bow but the full bow… the traditional Korean way… with your hands on your forehead.” I shifted in the passenger seat, uncomfortably. “Then, she’s probably going to ask you questions about your ancestry, where you went to school, your goals...”
I was meeting John’s mother for the first time this afternoon and he was fervently coaching me on how to make a good impression. “While she’s talking, offer to cut her a piece of fruit from the basket. Cut the fruit in front of her so she can see how well you cut. Get an apple and make sure you peel the skin really thin so that she knows you don’t waste food. And make sure you cut it in even slices and lay it down facing the same direction so she knows you can present food in an appetizing manner....” John continued to lecture as I stared blankly out the window.
I had just started dating John, a Korean international student who had been in the States for about 3 years now. I was born in Korea, but I moved to the United States when I was five years old. I know how to speak, read, and write Korean and I thought I had learned enough from my family and watched enough TV programs to know about Korean customs. I guess I was wrong. You see, John and I had our differences. He didn’t speak perfect English, but I figured it was okay because I didn’t speak perfect Korean either.
But little problems between our differing cultures surfaced as we continued to date. When we went out to eat, I noticed he’d have trouble reading the menus. When he registered for a class he scheduled it with my free time so that he had someone to talk for him, like a translator. I accepted the fact that he couldn’t speak perfect English, but what was really frustrating was that he wasn’t willing to try. It may have been his male pride, but I think he was more embarrassed about the puzzled looks people would give him when he talked.
There would be times when he wouldn’t talk a single word for hours. It was hard for him to blend in with my Asian-American friends. Once, me and my friends were reminiscing about the 80’s. Things like Michael Jackson, Madonna, teased hair and those awful U-men cardigans. But while we were laughing away, talking about old times, John just sat there uncomfortably with half a grin on his face. I tried to include him in on our conversations by explaining what we were talking about, but by the look on his face I could tell I wasn’t very successful.
One night John came over to my house to pick me up for dinner. My brother’s friend Chris was over and they were talking in the living room. Chris said to my brother jokingly, “Man… you’re so bad… you’re a big pimp.” John overheard and replied in his most perfect English, trying to be protective of my brother, “No, he isn’t bad, he’s actually a good boy. And he is definitely not a playboy.” My brother and Chris stared at John in disbelief. Chris was so shocked he apologized to my brother for offending him. As for John, I knew he felt proud for sticking up for my brother. I know he meant well, but he just didn’t understand the language.
There were little things that I eventually became accustomed to. For instance, John and I always had to watch TV with the caption turned on and I had to be careful not to use any slang that he wasn’t familiar with. I had to speak slower. I always had to explain why we did certain things here, versus how they did them in Korea. I had to constantly recap the stories of the movies we just saw. But the toughest obstacle was trying to describe our feelings or thoughts to each other, trying to learn about our different worlds with our limited vocabularies.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a great time learning and experiencing new things with him. We were exposed to different worlds and we taught each other how to cope, accept, and learn in different perspectives. In fact, many couples I know have had successful intercultural relationships. But my relationship made me realize how little cultural differences can make a big difference.
I found that I had a lot more to learn and get accustomed to than I expected. I suppose a successful intercultural relationship depends on how accepting one is to the other’s differences and how well a person can adapt to new ideas, thoughts, and lifestyles. Either way, these relationships can be challenging. As you may have guessed, I’m not with John any more. Meeting his Mom went fine, but I have a feeling I cut the apple skin too thick.