Not Lost In Translation

Можете ли вы говорить на русском?

No, I can’t. But I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.
Guess what that says. It’s Russian and it means “Can you speak Russian?”
I love learning languages, cultures, differences. I am semi-quadlingual and I tried to teach myself Russian about 8 years ago because I feel deeply connected to Eastern European composers especially Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. I wanted to learn their language and culture but it was nothing like learning French or Spanish and I got distracted by polishing up on German which I remember almost nothing about.
I’ve been thinking about trying again after discovering my new neighbor is a fairly old Russian man who doesn’t look too busy.

Today I was walking home from work which is only 20 minutes away from my house. When I was just a block away from my house, an old lady on the street approached me.
“ExKuuuus me. Kahn you shupeak Rrrrussian?”
I live in a neighborhood of which largest demographic is either Russian or Gays. It wasn’t surprising that someone asked me if I could speak Russian but such friendly (sort of) approach was surprising as my experience with Eastern European people was exactly opposite of Hollywood people. (either you get it or not)
I hesitantly answered “No” but she said “well, Daht’s Ok. Kahn you help me”
I got off late today and desperately wanted a pint of Talenti and TV asap. But I’m a kind woman. I smiled and said “sure” with a nice smile.
She was holding a phone that looked like something I used in 2006: a simple flip phone with minimum function.
She said she just got a message but didn’t know how to check. I thought of my dear grandma in Korea and showed her how to go to inbox.
After a minute of guessing game of what she’s saying, I figured that she just got a voicemail but didn’t know how to check. I pressed the right button and handed the phone to her, asking whether she knew what her password was. – I said “four secret numbers, in case she didn’t know what password meant. After listening with an intense look on her face, she frowned and shook her head.
“I don’t hear. I…No message.”
I called the voicemail number again and found out, she couldn’t check the message because it was a pre-paid phone and ‘money is finished.’-according to her expression.
I tried to explain how to access voicemail inbox and the fact her password might be last 4 digits of her phone number.
Also, why she couldn’t check the message and how she could still receive calls even though she couldn’t call anymore until she puts more money on the phone.
I spoke extremely slowly with all possible gestures and easy words. But she frowned and shook head.
We were in front of all these stores that targeted and run by Russians. I suggested her to go into one of these stores to ask help but she agitatedly kept asking me questions.-maybe she didn’t understand my suggestion to seek help in a store.
Then a light flicked in my head.
I pulled out my nice looking galaxy s3 and went to google translate. I typed everything I wanted to explain, converted it to Russian, and let her read the translation.
“Prush..t…te..ka… sak… sh….ahk..”
After reading it, she went “Ahhh!!!!!.. Thank you, thank you, thank you…”
She held my hands with her both hands, took it to her face, like almost kissing my hands. It’s like an act of true appreciation.

She asked if I was a Korean. I couldn’t understand clearly but it sounded like her husband lived in Korea for a while and now her son is often visiting Korea for business.
I guessed that the voicemail might be from her son who’s thousands of miles away…

I miss my grandma.


Cannot call my father father. Cannot call my brother brother.


I’m subscribing a monthly food magazine. I like this one because it explores diverse cuisines and has great columns on food trend, drinks, local spots, etc. It’s much better than other food magazines displaying same old generic recipes.

Last months, when I picked up the magazine from the mailbox, I was happy to find a Korean dish on the cover. It’s called Galbi Jjim which is marinated short rib stew with lots of spices and veggies that are good for the immune system. So it was perfect for their winter issue.
But when I read the article inside, I was disappointed that there’s no single word hinting that it’s a Korean dish or inspired by a Korean dish, especially considering the editor was a popular chef/food editor who’s a Korean-American.

The dish was named Short Rib Stew with Caramelized Kimchi, which translated fine but lacked the credit.

I emailed the magazine directing it to the editor and any other senior editors who finalized and approved the issue.
I got a response in a few weeks from the editor. She said the recipe was indeed Galbi jjim that she grew up eating. But the company often americanizes recipe titles for readers who may not be as knowledgeable or advanced in cooking. And they think that if readers see something familiar, they are more willing to try something new.
I had guessed this reason before emailing her. Yes, using a familiar name would be more comfortable for many readers. But this is not a Martha Stewart recipe magazine. It’s more for a food connoisseurs. They wouldn’t mind reading unfamiliar title of a dish, and trying to cook it. In fact, I’ve seen some recipes with its own name in this magazine.

So I emailed her back challenging more.

Readers have the right to know the origin of dish they cook. All I wished was to see one line that explained the dish is inspired by Korean Galbi Jjim so it actually introduces another great Korean cuisine other than Bulgogi and Bibimbap. While readers might guess it’s an Asian fusion dish because of Kimchi, they won’t necessarily know it’s actually Korean dish, which I think should be one of main points in the article – giving a good introduction of the dish.

When I look at other Asian cuisines, they usually use the name as it’s pronounced in their languages. For example, tom yum goong, Bánh mì, famous kung pao, and of course all Indian dishes, a lot of Japanese dishes Nigiri, Temaki, and even all sorts of sashimi(you don’t call it “cut raw fish,” do you?) ingredients such as maguro, tako, etc.
Although there’s usually an explanation of the dish is written in smaller fonts, notating the name in its original language is the least respect to the dish and great attempt to introduce the dish in the right way, just like all the French restaurants do.
In fact, a lot of French restaurants don’t even put explanatory tag lines!

If I saw a Persian dish in this magazine, for example, I would want to know that what I’m cooking is originally from Persia rather than guessing ‘it’s kind of an arabic food.’ And in a case like this, I recall that I usually saw a short line in an article, “This Arabic inspired dish is….” even if it had an Americanized name.

An old Korean fable similar to Robin Hood. This Korean Robin Hood was a stepson of a noble family and was forbidden to call his father father and call his brother brother. The infamous line “That I cannot call my father father, that I cannot call my brother brother…” is now used almost as a proverb for a unjust, unfair situation.

“That I cannot call Galbi Jjim Galbi Jjim…”


A few years ago, my husband and I were strolling down Beverly and a homeless man, who at that time lived next to a Riteaid, approached us for a quick joke.
He asked “What’s the difference between in-laws and outlaws?” At the same time I ignored him, my kind husband responded with a curious look, so the homeless man answered, “Outlaws are wanted but in-laws are not.”


Most sardonic yet realistic way to describe Korean marriage is probably a relationship between evil mother-in-law (aka. MiL) and pitiful victim daughter-in-law (aka. DiL). There are so many cases of conflict between the two, Korean people just seem insensible to this problem nowadays.
When you’re engaged to a Korean man, it’s almost understood that your future MiL doesn’t like you as much as she may seem. As a future DiL you just have to accept the fact.
My Italian friends told me that a MiL/DiL relationship is similar in Italy but a DiL in Italy has a “social approval” to lash out at her MiL, whereas when a Korean DiL gets up against her MiL, no matter what the reason was and who initiated it, it’s usually the DiL who gets all the blame.
If you’re “unlucky,” you also have SiL (bingo! sister-in-law) to deal with. But usually it’s only bad if a SiL is an older sister of your husband. For example, a friend of mine has a younger brother and 3 older sisters. So we make bad jokes about her brother’s future wife who will have to serve 4 SiL. Oh, better example here. My brother, who’s 7 years younger and whom I scolded a lot when he was growing up, once said he will never live in the same province with me when he’s married, and my parents strongly supported his idea…so congrats to a future wife of my bro because she won’t have to deal with the worst case scenario for a Korean DiL: MiL + SiL team.

I bet you a mansion in Malibu that, in any Korean dramas or movies, you will never find a scene that a wife is relaxing while her MiL is working in a kitchen. It’s usually the wife in a kitchen (even if it’s a MiL’s) and the rest of the family enjoying their time together, unless it’s MiL and DiL together in a kitchen.
Oh, and let’s not overlook the fact that MiL will never allow her son in the kitchen to help his wife. In this case, even if the son volunteers to help, the MiL will blame her DiL for making her son (husband) work.
This is not only a MiL/DiL situation but a case of young women/elder women in Korea and other countries that were once influenced by Confucius. You must help the elder or at least be next to her/him for an immediate help.
It’s considered extremely rude and unacceptable to just sit and chill while the elder is working. Even if you don’t know how to do, what to do, or whatever happening has absolutely nothing to do with you, you cannot just sit around while the elder is doing some kind of work. But this latter case is a matter of manner rather than an unfair social convention, like Korean DiL/MiL culture.

It’s hard to understand the social convention on the relationship between Korean MiL/DiL. But I found something even more difficult to understand when I came to the U.S.
Thanks to my parents, I grew up experiencing diverse cultures. And probably because of that, I didn’t really have any cultural shock when I came to the U.S except one: people are not afraid to show their dislike of in-laws.
I had seen movie scenes like “Why is your mom here?! So we can’t go out tonight because of her?!,” “I can’t stand your dad! Tell him to go to a hotel or somewhere!”
I thought it’s just a movie. But soon after I’d moved to the U.S, I realized those scenes were all very real and can happen in this country.
I’m very open-minded person and always eager to learn the new culture, and even adapt to it. But this hatred toward the in-laws, who are actually now your family, is never understandable, not to mention the fact that people express it out loud to their spouse and in-laws.
It might be easy for me to understand if your father-in-law beat up your brother for no reason, or if a MiL hates her DiL just because she feels like the DiL snatched the son away from her, which is most common reason that a Korean MiL treats a DiL with a certain attitude. But because of Korea’s deeply rooted Confucian idea, a DiL can’t defy her MiL for any unfair mistreatments.

It’s not because the bible says “You must love your neighbor as yourself” nor is because you just have to be nice.
You MARRIED your spouse. You are not a co-habitant. The two persons came together, as one family, as a big family all together. You love your own parents and siblings. Then, why are in-laws, in other words a family, such annoying people to you?
You have the right to speak your mind. You can say “I hate your mom” but how would you feel if your spouse says “I hate your dad?”
Whatever your own family did to you, you forgive them or at least try to forget about it. You let it go. Then, shouldn’t you be able to do the same to your in-laws, your new family, even if something bad had happened and you’re mad at them?
You don’t even have a mean-for-no-reason MiL like Koreans to begin with!
People in the U.S don’t realize how less baggages come with a marriage compared to Koreans who are trapped in still very traditional and irrational ideas of marriage!
I know. Words are easy to say. I might not understand how awful it can be because I have very sweet, loving in-laws.
In fact, I have this guilt in the corner of my heart that when we lived in the same town, I didn’t do my best to my “new family” when they provided so much for me.
So if I were to define, it’s more like I’m the evil DiL to my sweet, grateful MiL.
And I thank my Confucius husband for being so nice to my family in Korea.
Actually, it’s funny that, when he visited Korea to meet my family, he did everything very naturally the way that any Korean guys were supposed to do. True resurrection of Confucius!!!

Recently, I read an article about an increasing divorce rate in Korea, which has been a big issue of the country because of the remaining Confucianism. What was surprising and also not so surprising at the same was that 70% of divorce was due to MiL/DiL conflict.
There’s too much to factor in for the solution, and there won’t be just a single solution to Korea’s MiL/DiL relationship. It will take decades to unravel the problem.

Wait, here’s an idea! Korea-U.S government trade can help! Korea doesn’t need any more English teachers from America. But they can import American hippies from the 60’s and learn the spirit of peace and love!

I’m never gonna get hired!!!


“Should you desire money, social status, and the power, have the right blood tie, alumni network, and regional connection.”

This should be written in the Constitution of Korea.
(If you’re asking yourself “Is this North or South?,” you’re the one who needs to follow my blog more than anyone.)

Sure, it might be a common social phenomenon in any capitalism countries.
But I can almost guarantee you that it wouldn’t be as bad as it is in Korea. What I mean by bad is that, in other words, if you don’t have those 3 ties, the chances are you would highly unlikely… (it’s too harsh for me to finish this sentence because I think I fit in the “ellipsis.”)

Studies say that this social custom that values those 3 ties, seems to be originated and passed down from Joseon dynasty (14C) when Confucian idea was dominant. They thought highly of knowledge and family, which in a large form, could be school, mentor, relatives, neighbors you associate daily, and so on.
I’m not a historian and I don’t want to scrape out my historical knowledge from high school. It gives me enough headache to think about my own current issue which is affected by this 14th century convention.
It’s horrendous that people of 21st century still can’t break the idea from 7 centuries ago.

It’s similar in the U.S, too. You can submit thousands of resumes with all the nice stuff on it but one connection in a company can get you a job even if you lack a little bit of requirements for a position.
In fact, that’s how I got jobs in the past: friend, ex-coworker, classmate, etc.
The difference in the U.S is that, the connection doesn’t guarantee you a job. It’s a fast track to get your resume read or go into an interview. In Korea, if you are a CEO or HR person from a certain school, and you see a resume from your alma mater, you put it in a “interview” folder. When you see an applicant from the same area you grew up with, you call that person in for an interview. The difference is a “reference.” HR person doesn’t know a thing about an applicant but will hire the person because he/she’s from your hometown, because you’ve heard the person is a niece of a coworker who is about to get a huge promotion, because an applicant graduated from your high school or college or sometimes even an elementary school!
I might be exaggerating a little bit. But I’d heard this story from my dad a couple of times every year before I moved to the U.S.
My dad used to emphasize the importance of being accepted to certain schools (Ivy League schools in Korea) to my younger brother over and over. (I had already chosen a path against his will. Haha) Because my dad himself proudly graduated from one of 3 Ivy schools and would hire his research assistant only from one of those schools. He said in the field of knowledge and intelligence is all that matters, it’s unavoidable. As much as I understood, I couldn’t help myself feeling very bitter as a gypsy, have-no-real-job musician at that time.

If you went to a school with Korean people, you must have witnessed that they only hung out with Koreans and would be wary to have a non-Korean person in their circle. (I hated, almost despised this idea which in result left me only few Korean friends from school whom I hardly talk to.) This’s also because of the distorted Confucian idea. In a way, it’s similar to fraternities and sororities or guilds from the medieval Europe. It’s a guaranteed trust and support for people who fit in the group.
If you look at it positively, it can be good. Korea is all about hospitality and brotherhood anyway. But what if you don’t have those ties but still an awesome smarty pants who’s a super hard worker? That’s the downside of the invisible, untold “ties system.”

Why am I venting out on this now? No, I’m not really venting out. I’m just jotting down my thoughts.
Unlike what I said above, I’m not really under the force of “the 3 ties” because I’m not in a Korean job market.
So I should be relieved instead of criticizing Korean ties culture. But having a connection can’t hurt no matter in what country you’re looking for a job, especially if you want a new career, like what I’m doing now.
As I considered changing my career, I’ve been pondering on my strength, ability, talent, and most importantly passion.
I’ve submitted a resume for several companies for all different positions in different career fields because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do but was confident that I could do anything.
About 3 weeks passed, I haven’t got a call.
So, I was pessimistically nagging on a phone to my husband the other day.
“I’m never gonna get hired!!!”
My calm, mature husband lightly laughed and said
“Aw, you’re cute. You should write this on your blog. ‘I’m never gonna get hired!'”