After coming to America, I have suffered from the improper usage of "yes" and "no." I sometimes confuse an affirmative response with a negative one because the usage of "yes" and "no" in Korean is different from English. For example, if I am asked, "Haven't you had dinner yet?" and I have not had dinner yet, then in Korean I usually say, "Yes, I haven't." But in English, I have to say, "No, I haven't." This different usage of "yes" and "no" in Korean and in English sometimes causes misunderstandings or even estrangements between my American friends and me.
Because of my misuse of "yes" and "no," I often find that my friends misunderstand me: They perceive the exact opposite meaning from what I intend to give them. The following example will show how the misuse has embarrassed me. One day only a month after I came to the U.S., I happened to have dinner with an American student, Bob, in a dining hall. He was living in the next room in the school dormitory. He asked me several questions about my background, including my family, religion, and my nationality; I answered all the questions as sincerely as I could. Several days later, I found that some dorm residents thought that I came from North Korea. I was a little embarrassed. Even though North Koreans and South Koreans share common ancestors, the two nations have maintained serious competition for 30 years and are different in every respect: North Korea is the most chauvinistic country in the communist block, while South Korea is a leading developing country in the capitalist block. Thus, South Koreans do not like being regarded as North Koreans. I stopped by Bob's room and asked why he was spreading the wrong information on my nationality. Then he said, "Oh, you told me that you came from North Korea."
"No, I didn't," I replied.
"Don't you remember?" he continued, "when I asked you, 'You are not from North Korea, are you?,' you clearly answered, 'Yes, of course.'" Didn't it mean that you are from North Korea?" I was so confused that I did not even know whether I should say "yes" or "no" to his last question. He said that I pronounced "of course" so strongly that he could not ask me further; he thought that I was very proud of being a North Korean. I actually affirmed what I wanted to negate strongly.
The different usage of "yes" and "no" also causes estrangement between my friends and me. During the summer of 1989, my close friend was a dorm-mate, Mark. He was in his late twenties and had gotten married about five years ago. One sultry weekend night, he brought his son and daughter into the dorm. Playing with each other, his son and daughter made some noise while they were running up and down. I did not mind the noise since I was just watching T.V. The next morning, I came across Mark and his offspring in the doorway of the dorm. After we both said, "Hello," he introduced his children to me.
"Nice to meet you. How old are you?" I asked his son.
"He is three years old," Mark replied on behalf of his son and asked me smiling, "Didn't they make noise last night? Didn't it bother you?" Because I did not mind the noise at all, I clearly said "Yes!" How stupid I appeared to be! The mild smile suddenly disappeared from his face, and he said, "I am sorry about that. They are going right now, so they will not bother you anymore. See you later." He passed me by with his children. I could not understand what he was sorry about, and again I stupidly said, "OK. Bye. Have a nice weekend!" After a moment of thinking, I recognized that I had misused "yes" and severely hurt his feelings. That evening, I had a hard time explaining my difficulty in using "yes" and "no" and apologizing for my impoliteness to Mark. After a short conversation, I found that if I had not realized my mistake and not apologized to him, he would have thought that I was a very rude person.
Grammatically, in Korea, people use a "yes" when they agree with the literal meaning of a question regardless of whether the questioner uses a positive sentence or a negative one. In America, however, a "yes" is always followed by a positive sentence. This seemingly slight difference has made me confused and embarrassed more than any monstrous calculus problem has. To cope with this problem, I have set simple rules: First, take a five-second break if I am not sure of the proper word--"yes" or "no." Second, use the phrase "pardon me," so the person asking the question rephrases the sentences.
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