They Call Me ‘괜찮아 보아’

As previously mentioned in the post where I introduced my host family, my host sister is the only one in the house who speaks any English, so the first few weeks I stuck to her like glue. She was my buffer, taking in their indecipherable Korean questions and fielding them to me in a mix of dumbed down Korean and very simple English. We had almost every meal together because I couldn’t understand a word her parents said. I spent most of dinner letting their conversations wash over me as I concentrated hard to use those metal chopsticks; occasionally my host sister told me the gist of the conversation, and with all the lively facial expressions around the table, it was impossible to feel excluded.

The first time I had to eat dinner with the family without her, it was like having the training wheels yanked off your bike way before you were ready. While you were on the crest of a hill, for instance. In the rain. Without knee-pads. I’d resolved to sit and eat in silence, but my host mother asked me about my day: what I ate, what I’d learned in class that day. Before I knew it, I was talking to her about how comfortable life was for me in Korea, how I actually quite enjoyed taking the bus, my experiences with Korean food, and who I missed most from home and why. Though I couldn’t catch everything, I was able to come up with an appropriate reaction to whatever she said. She surprised me by saying, “You listen and understand much better now than you did before.” And that’s when it dawned on me: Holy crap, she’s right. Weeks ago I probably couldn’t even have understood THAT. (Did I mention I didn’t have to focus on using my chopsticks? Another development she happily commented on.)

Gradually, my host family began to ask more questions about my preferences and how to accommodate me such as: “Do you want more rice? Water?” “Which banchan do you like best?” “Sorry we can’t afford to eat a lot of meat. You want to eat some, right?” To all of the questions my answer is 괜찮아요 (I’m good/okay/dandy) and to the banchan question 다 맛있어요.This mellow attitude of mine caught them by surprise and has earned me the nickname 괜찮아 보아. ‘No matter what, everything is 괜찮아 with 보아!’ as my host sister puts it.

Part of me wanders what they expected me to say. Perhaps something like, “I’m American! I need hamburgers! I need meat! Take this gochujang away and bring me KETCHUP. Vegetables? HA. Beneath me!’  The other part of me is just as surprised as they are. I’ve eaten squid, octopus, unidentified fermented vegetables, even watermelon (!!!!) without batting an eye. Usually I would have pasted a fake smile on my face and suffered through watermelon quietly, or chewed the octopus tentacle until I could spit it out discreetly, but I’m genuinely okay with some things now. I’m learning to let things be okay.  (This still does not apply to hot and humid weather….I’m not THAT chill yet.)

This new-found ability to kind of parse Korean (un)fortunately means my family actually expects me to respond to what they say instead of just answering questions.There have been some things I’ve understood that I wish I hadn’t. Some things that aren’t quite 괜찮아. One day on the subway my host sister kept motioning to two foreign girls on the train; one girl had her hand on the other girl’s shoulder and they were talking in low tones. I thought she was asking me what they were saying because they might’ve been speaking English, but I couldn’t really hear them and I didn’t really care, so I just shrugged. Later at the dinner table, she retold the whole event to her aunt, who then shared her own story about two guys were were wearing couple clothing on the train and sharing earbuds. The moment I connected the dots– why my host aunt’s story was relevant to what my sister said and what my sister meant in the first place– my host aunt turned to me and said in English, “Ugh, that’s disgusting! Isn’t it 보아?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I hoped that I’d misunderstood somewhere, somehow. In that split second when I was deciding how to respond, a myriad of feelings flashed across my heart, and I can only pray none of them showed on my face: shock, disbelief, anger, confusion. I almost wanted to kick myself for being surprised. I knew that homophobia (or denial of homosexuality altogether) was a very present force in Korea, but lulled into comfort by my food coma blanket, I didn’t think my wonderful loving host family would be included in that number. More than anything, I was heartbroken. The same woman who said to me in English, “We are all same under God. You. Me. Everybody.” was the same woman who fixed her face in such a gruesome manner to say “Ew, disgusting.” like she wanted to spit. Those pictures didn’t match up.

I guess I took too long to respond, and they simply moved on to another topic. The brief anger I felt dissipated as the moment passed and was replaced with a strange, warm calm: Compassion, maybe. Pity, perhaps. Love? I hope one day they can find it in their hearts not to be so hateful, and what better way to inspire that change than by showing them love and compassion? Sometimes I think back to what I could’ve said, but I can’t properly articulate my feelings on the matter in Korean. Even if I could, my opinion wouldn’t change their stance and I would’ve just alienated myself for nothing. There would’ve been an awkward rift between us for the rest of my time here. Though I felt a little prickly at the time for staying silent, in this case I’m glad I didn’t say anything; words spoken in anger have never really solved anything after all, right?

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