The shorthand of culture

October 31, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with my husband in our living room. As I was looking through my news headlines, I said to my husband, ” Oh, look at that… Tom Bosley died.”
” Tom Bosley. You know? Happy Days? The Fonz? AAAAYYYYY!”, I said, pantomiming pulling a comb out of my jeans pocket, pulling up the collar of my motorcycle jacket and giving the double thumbs up, hoping to somehow trigger a memory in my husband which he had never had.
” Didn’t you guys have Happy Days?”, I asked.
” Sometimes, happy, but not because of combing our hair”, he answered.
At that point I gave up trying to explain who poor Tom Bosley was, and added his name to the column of things which don’t belong in our marriage.

When you marry someone from another culture, one of the things you must be willing to sacrifice is cultural shorthand. Koreans have words for concepts that don’t even exist in English. Bong ( my husband ) can use those words anywhere in his life, and have instant understanding – except at home. If he drops one of those words at home, it usually will involve a one-hour history lesson, a bottle of wine and a game of charades before I start to understand the weight that the word carries.

The good side of all this, is that it keeps things fresh. We have been together more than 10 years. He may not yet know about my obsession with Duran Duran when I was fourteen. That could take a 3-hour dinner at a barbecue restaurant and two bottles of soju to explain.

Yet, for someone who has grown up in a totally different culture, my husband “gets” me on a level so deep, it transcends everything else. When we met, his English was still a smidge above basic. That first night, we met in a bar. As we stood trying to talk over the music, he told me he was a jazz musician. I said, ” I’m sorry…I don’t know much about jazz. ” He was silent for a few too many beats, trying to put together what he wanted to say. Then he looked at me and said, ” You are jazz”. I decided at that moment that anyone who saw me that way was Mr. Right. Ironically, the concept of “Mr. Right” is also in the column of cultural shorthand that doesn’t translate.

This December, I will be bringing my husband home for his first real Christmas. Christmas is celebrated here in Korea – in a very different way. Christmas Eve here is a date or party night. Everyone buys cakes and goes out to get drunk. Perhaps not so different from home after all? Yet, it is a recent holiday with little emotion surrounding it. For us North Americans, Christmas holds so much – family, memories, romance, hopes, pressure, stress, warmth and tradition. It can never be just another day.

In the early days of our relationship, I tried to recreate a Christmas back home. I would buy a turkey at the Black Market shops ( where you can buy items smuggled out of the US army base at triple the normal price.) I would play Bing Crosby and decorate a small artificial tree. I would make desperate phonecalls home for gravy instructions. Through all of this, Bong would humour me, and try to play along. I could see it in his eyes, though. None of these things meant anything to him, except that he understood they meant something to me. No napkin drawings or hand gestures could possibly communicate the feelings that Christmas evokes. Eventually, I gave up trying to recreate an empty shell of a holiday that I left behind when I moved here. The best Christmas Bong and I shared was when I stopped trying, and we went to the horse races. Like everything else in our marriage, we are at our best when we meet in the middle to create something just for us.

Last Christmas day, we went to a friend’s bar to drink and have dinner – Korean traditional alcohol and pasta. I called my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas – because of the time difference, I had no choice but to call while I was in the bar. It might have been the warming effects of the Andong Soju I was drinking, or it might have been the fact that a gorgeous unexpected snow had begun to fall, but I found myself on the phone for hours while my husband chatted with his friend. I was missing home. I was missing my culture. When I hung up, my husband said, ” Why don’t we go next Christmas?”. Again, he ” got” me on a level beyond the shorthand of culture.

So, this Christmas, we are going to my home to celebrate. I don’t expect he will totally understand, but I’m hoping a little of the feeling will seep into his skin and warm him to the tradition – become part of him. At least, the next Christmas after, when I mention stockings or shortbreads , he won’t need a one-act play to understand what they mean to me. He and I will have a shorthand.


  1. You are jazz – that’s great. And I am also looking forward to my wife and kids first real Canadian Christmas in December 2011.

  2. Beautiful piece Shelly! I hope you bring Bong to our house Christmas Eve…

    • Marilee,

      We will be in Rocky Harbour Christmas Eve, but will be in Corner Brook after Boxing Day. I will be sure to get in touch. šŸ™‚

  3. Oh! Now the pressure is really on. I hope we don’t let you down.

    • Dad! No pressure intended….Just being at home and with you guys will be Christmas enough.

  4. I love this! Hope I can get to see you Christmas.

    • Thank you Bev – it would be great to see you too.

  5. […] The shorthand of culture October 20107 comments Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)#1 Page and Top 3 Posts In 2009Reboot11,000!!! […]

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