Elderly Korean Woman in my Doorway in a Big City

Some people are scared of Korean halmeonis (grandmothers).  Some people consider them frightening in an ‘I may only be as tall as your waist but make no mistake: I am the boss here‘ kind of way.

I am one of those people.

Don’t get me wrong.  Korean people are very friendly and social graces are VERY important to their culture.  But there is a sub-set of Korean elderly women who… how do I put this? They lack the nunchi which Koreans are famous for.

Nunchi is literally translated as “eye-measure” but it is actually a complicated social skill which is critical for social and business success in Korea and even among Korean Americans.  If I understand it correctly, nunchi is the ability to read a social situation clearly and respond accordingly.  If you lack nunchi, you are socially awkward, graceless, or sometimes just rude.

This experience, although much more brief than the other time an elderly Korean woman entered my home and brought me food, was intensely awkward.  Are you prepared to cringe?

Earlier this evening…

Kevin had just left for his work Christmas party and I had just sat down to a take-out dinner with the kids.  The doorbell rings and I excuse myself to answer it.  I admonish the children to sit at the table and continue eating. (Yeah, right.)

When I answer the door, one of my neighbors is there with a giant bag of tdeok, which are glutinous rice cakes often served in soups.  This bag is massive.  Possibly 10 lbs.  I smile and try to understand what she is saying to me.

(Short aside: some people, no matter their language, are very good communicators.  They use their hands, their eyes, props, etc to get their point across.  There are some Koreans I can understand clearly even if they speak not one lick of English.  This lady is not one of those people.  Every interaction I’ve ever had with her consists of her repeating something over and over, varying only volume and pitch and waiting for me to learn Korean… magically? )

It should be stated that elderly Korean women are often very generous to me, giving me fruit and kimchi, etc.  With this background knowledge – using broken Korean and hand signals – I try to ask her if she wants to give the bag to me.

This does not appear to be her intent.

So I try again.  Maybe she bought too much and only wants to give me part of the contents?  Once I again I use hand signals and once again she is not satisfied.

Then I begin to notice that some of the words she is saying sound like money words.  I distinctly note the words “5,000 won” and “10,000 won”.  (That’s roughly $5 and $10 USD.)

At that moment, a Korean family enters our building and is waiting for the elevator to take them upstairs. (We live on the first floor and the elevators are directly in front of our door.)  They begin watching us with interest and the elderly halmeoni lowers her voice and scoots fully into our foyer.

Hmm.  Something’s fishy.

I call my friend Ji Won and hand over the phone.  Halmeoni doesn’t want to talk initially, but I push the phone in her hand.  (I know I was lacking in nunchi at that moment, but I was HUNGRY and my kids were running around the living room and screaming like banshees.  All except Zeke who was strapped into his high chair and crying loudly for someone to let. him. out.)

After Ji Won talks to the halmeoni for a couple of minutes, I get back on the phone and Ji Won explains that yes, this woman is trying to sell me a gargantuan bag of tdeok. I thank her and hang up.

And then, in Korean and with hand signals, I smile and say “no, thank you” and sort of edge her toward the door.

She is having none of it.  She is the alpha here and must re-establish herself.  Her back is almost to the door when she notes the 5 bags of give-away clothes and books I have stacked up, ready to drop off at the thrift store.

She decides that she wants some stuff.  This is so odd to me that I don’t know where to go from here.  What is the kind and Christian response here?  This is an elderly woman wearing nice clothes, who lives in a very nice apartment building in an expensive area of town.  She has, in the course of 10 extremely awkward moments, tried to sell me food and now is asking for free things.

My path becomes clear.  Being a charitable Christian means giving.  (Also crossing my mind: the only way I’m getting to my dinner before it’s all cold and eaten is by giving in somewhere.) I start handing her stuff. A bag of baby clothes?  Sure, why not?  Some old sweaters? OK.  I inform her that she cannot have the books as those have already been promised to my chingu (friend).

Finally, blessedly, I get her out the door.  But not before, if I’m not mistaken, she actually straight up asks me for cash.  Feigning ignorance, I smile, say anyongi gaseyo (goodbye) and shut the door.

I gather the kids and get everyone down to the table and begin composing this blog post in my head.

While we all eat I was reminded that no matter how strange that encounter was to me, I have only my own experience with which to frame this.  I am me and she is she and our language barrier and cultural barrier were such that I was completely unable to see her as I see myself, much less love her as I love myself.  Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic blogged about this type of love just a couple days ago and it stuck with me.  If you’re interested in a much more intellectual take on what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, I encourage you to read: Selfing Others Right in the Face.

If you’re not interested in the more intellectual, would you at least join me in praying for this woman?  Perhaps all she needs are more social graces.  Or perhaps she needs much more than that: material or financial goods.  Either way, I hope that if I ever seem that rude to a Korean they will try to see their way past my lack of nunchi and attempt to send up similar prayers for me.


  1. Wow! Surreal! Hey, if the stuff was going to be donated anyway, it’s nice that you don’t have to take it somewhere yourself. All the interactions were weird, but the asking for money in the end was the real kicker. Perhaps she’s losing her mental capacities? I love your conclusion. I will join you. =)

  2. Yes, Nicole, it was actually very nice to clear out a few things without lifting a finger. But, as you say, it was just very surreal.

  3. oh my, what strange interactions. here are my thoughts…
    korean elderly don’t really care about “noonchi” – why? i don’t know. maybe because they are on top of the social hierarchy, or maybe they are just tired. also, sales people usually don’t take no for an answer. and koreans love free stuff 🙂 asking for cash? that’s strange. maybe she’s not all there. what a gracious response you have, to stay open and curious to this woman. you are such an inspiration.