“Monica, you have zero noonchi.”
“Noonchi? What’s noonchi?”
“You know, noonchi. That thing. That thing people with noonchi have.”
With no thanks to my mother’s explanation and just a little hunch from the context, I made a guess. “Is ‘noonchi’ Korean for ‘common sense’?” I asked.
My mother’s eyes brightened. “Sort of.”
I gave her a look. “Sort of? What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”
“I … I’m not really sure how to explain it,” my mother sighed. It was only a couple of years later that I understood the subtleties of that word’s definition. The term noonchi refers to one’s ability to gauge the nuances of another’s feelings and act accordingly.
One day, my family and I were crowded around a table at a Korean barbecue restaurant with delicious galbi sizzling on the grill. My aunt was talking about one of my cousins, who was pregnant with her second son, when I decided to ask when her other daughter was planning on having a child. A swift kick in the shin coupled with an intense eyebrow raise from my brother was all it took for me to realize that maybe that hadn’t been the most appropriate question. It was only after we got home that my brother shook his head and told me, “Monica, you have zero noonchi.”
It took me several more tries before I eventually pieced together the definition. Before long, I started hearing the word everywhere – at my local Korean market, at my church, and even in my favorite Korean dramas. I even found myself using the term, then trying to explain it to my friends.
As a Korean-American, I have always found myself teetering in the middle of two vastly different cultures. On one hand, I am American-born and enjoy biting into a hamburger at a Fourth of July barbecue. On the other hand, I am Korean-raised and savor every moment of being able to twirl around in my hanbok, a colorful Korean dress worn on Chuseok, the annual harvest festival.
My struggle to grasp the meaning of noonchi was a testament not only to my inability to identify with one culture over the other, but also the difficulty of truly comprehending the Korean language’s idiosyncrasies.
Every language is born from a medley of culture and tradition. If every word from every language could be translated simply and mechanically, it would strip away and disengage the customs from their words. It would demean the thousands of years of history carved into the carefully chosen sounds and locutions.
So even if it did take me a frustratingly long time to fully understand the meaning of noonchi, it is one of the many, many examples that make the Korean language and culture unique, and I would not want it any other way.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.