To Know You Is to Love You

Times Staff Writer

It’s all about you.

I fell in love with this English pronoun when I first met it on my father’s knees more than half a century ago in Seoul.

Initially, it was the sound that captivated me.

Later, as I continued to study English under my father’s tutelage -- he was a pioneering scholar of English and German at South Korea’s Seoul National University -- I began to love this three-letter word for the way it made me feel.


“Good morning to you,” I said with emphasis whenever American and Canadian Presbyterian missionaries visited our home.

When they responded with a big smile and “Good morning to you too,” I was in heaven.

You was an ally that empowered me.

It freed me from the encumbrances of my mother tongue, which is one of the world’s most complicated and nuanced languages, laden with honorifics. You pushed me out of the confines of Confucian-steeped, hierarchal Korean language into a world of egalitarian impulses.

To be sure, Korean is a wonderfully poetic language, full of alliteration and onomatopoeia. And I love listening to well-spoken Korean.

But navigating it is another story.

Korean has no fewer than six speech levels -- each with a unique set of verb endings to indicate the degree of formality, ranging from extremely polite to actively impolite -- and many gradations in between.

Other languages employ varying degrees of address. For two of the world’s more popular languages, two levels suffice -- vous and tu in French, usted and tu in Spanish.

But Korean has four words for you. The irony is we go out of our way to find substitutes so we won’t have to use them.

This formality -- and the impulses to maintain or reject it -- colors not just how many Korean Americans speak Korean, but our English. It’s a spin on the classic tale of assimilation, when two cultures meet and create something uniquely American.

Sometimes it’s an odd blend. Koreans are a communal people who prefer an unassuming “we” over a bold, American “I.”

A Korean woman always refers to her husband as “our husband” -- oori nampyon. And we say, “our mother, our father.”

“In English, you can’t imagine saying, ‘our husband,’ ” said Kichung Kim of San Jose, a Korean American scholar and writer.

To the Korean ear, “our mother” creates a “connection to home, family and all that. That feeling is absent in English,” Kim said. “The only time we say ‘our father’ in English is in the Lord’s Prayer.”

I have a friend who often ends our phone conversation with “Love you.” After hearing me repeatedly reply, ‘We do too,’ my Anglo friend figured it out. “Your reluctance to say ‘I’ is a Korean thing.”

You bet.

In English, birds sing. In Korean, birds cry. Traditional Korean songs are plaintive -- played in minor keys. In English, nouns and verbs rule. In Korean, adjectives and adverbs do.

“Korean is so expressive and emotional,” said Los Angeles-born Aram Kim, an honor student at Van Nuys High School who is studying at one of the many Korean-language schools in the region.

David Mo, a fellow student, agrees and says he’ll take the Korean Ahn-young-ha-sae-yo (Are you well?) to “Hi” any day.

“ ‘Hi’ is so simple,” he said, explaining that the Korean greeting has depth.

Still, experts say that Korean, spoken by 79 million people worldwide and more than 1 million in the United States, is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Aram Kim acknowledges that even a routine query, such as “Have you eaten?” can get complicated in Korean.

To navigate this linguistic maze, we use our well-honed sixth sense called nunchi -- literally, “measure of the eye” -- to size up age, education and social and professional position.

Then, we choose from two types of language within the language: a “respectable” form known as jondae-mal, and informal talk called ban-mal, literally meaning “half-talk.”

For me, you helped me bypass all that. The word let me enjoy conversations with people older than me -- a rare thing in my culture, where older people talk and younger ones listen unless asked to speak.

I attended an American primary school when I lived in Asia, so I had the rare privilege of using the English you when I was a child, without offending Korean sensibilities.

When I came to the United States in 1961, blending American informality with Korean linguistic tradition wasn’t an issue because there were so few Koreans to talk to.

These days in California’s Korean community -- estimated at 500,000, the largest outside Asia -- many Korean Americans share my fondness for the all-too-embraceable you.

You represents the essence of democracy,” said attorney Tong S. Suhr, a community leader. “You liberates us from that [Korean] caste system, and it makes life so much easier.”

Korean-born Kay S. Duncan, director of production with Jarrow Formulas in West Hollywood, says you helped transform her from a shy Asian woman who preferred to sit in the back of the room to an assertive executive equal to those around her.

“You can say, ‘You did this, or you did that,’ even if you’re addressing the CEO of your company,” Duncan said.

By contrast, Ho-min Sohn, professor of Korean linguistics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says he has never felt at home with this three-letter word.

Sohn, who came to the U.S. in 1965 from South Korea to work on a doctorate in linguistics, managed to get his degree without once using you when addressing his professors. It seemed so out of place for a student to claim equality with his professor.

Kim, the writer from San Jose, finds you more comfortable in writing than in speech.

Even in English, he said, “you seems a little abrupt. Koreans are careful with you because of our tradition. We are much more culturally and interpersonally civilized in discourses. We may be brutal in real life, but we, at least, have that pretense.”

In Korean, you comes in at least four forms: gwiha, dangshin, jahnae and nuh. And yet none is quite like you.

Gwiha is “your excellency” and your honor” rolled into one, used to address a person in a high position.

Dangshin is the formal you, but it can be misconstrued if used carelessly. When a smiling wife calls her husband dangshin and snuggles up to him, it is a term of endearment.

“But use it with a stranger,” Suhr said, “and it becomes a ‘fighting word.’ ” (Think of the classic New Yorkism, “What are you looking at?”)

Jahnae is used among school chums or by older people addressing young adults, like a man talking to his son-in-law.

Nuh is for children and younger siblings.

But even with youths, if they’re in high school, Koreans prefer to address them with the generic title haksaeng, meaning “student,” over nuh.

We love titles. Sonsaeng-nim (honorable teacher) is a respectable title for all professionals over 40. Even journalists get titles. Koreans call me Kang kija-nim (“Honorable reporter Kang”).

It gets more complicated speaking to people of high rank. A subordinate would not address his company’s president in the second person, even the formal version.

Professor Sohn explains that when the subordinate wants to tell his boss, “It’s time for you to go,” he’ll switch to the third person: “The honorable president should go.”

But in Southern California, you pops up in the middle of Korean sentences, like an odd bead in a string of cultured pearls. Listen to Korean Americans talk in Korean restaurants and church gatherings and you witness an evolving Konglish where you plays a key role.

Among friends who are bilingual, one might say: “You-neun-uh-tuk-hae-saeng-gak-hae?”

Translation: “What do you think?”

Then there are those situations that seem to defy you -- whether in English or Korean.

Kay Duncan’s husband, historian John B. Duncan, is director of UCLA’s Center for Korean Studies and a fluent Korean speaker. When they were dating and their two cultures began to clash as well as merge, John and Kay grappled with how they should address each other.

They considered dangshin (formal you) and informal nuh, as well as the English honey and yobo, the Korean equivalent of “dear” or “honey.”

Dangshin sounded cold and distant,” he said.

Honey gave me shivers,” she said. It was too touchy-feely.

They settled on the French tu.

More than three decades later, they still start their birthday and Valentine cards with “Dear tu” and end with “Your tu.”