Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

You say “tom-a-to”, I say ‘tom-ah-to”

Written by: on September 4, 2022

This week’s assignments on culture mapping with Erin Meyer and the Power Point video with Karen Tremper made me think of situations I have experienced living cross-culturally. Meyer’s material was enlightening. Learning which countries were high context and low context, and the differences in communication between the two helped me better understand why some situations unfolded the way that they did.

I lived in Korea as a missionary two years right after college. I was young and inexperienced in many ways. I didn’t mind jumping in with both feet and giving everything my best effort – and this included speaking the Korean language. Because language school in Korea lasts two years, and I was only going to be there two years, I wasn’t given formal language training when I arrived. I learned it as I went, primarily by trial and error.

I lived in a remote location and was the only single foreigner in my province. In the first year, I received so many phone calls from strange men asking if I wanted a “handsome Korean lover” that the mission had to change my number three times. Men I didn’t know would come to my apartment in the middle of the night, usually drunk, and wanting me to let them in.

It wasn’t until an entire year had gone by, and I was anticipating the arrival of another single missionary that I discovered what I had been doing wrong. I was sitting in a restaurant with our team of missionaries. (They were there long term and had all been through language school mind you.)  I had moved to another table to be alone and work on some note cards that I planned to give this new recruit to help her out when she first arrived.

One of the missionary men came to the table where I was sitting and looked over my shoulder at my notes. He was nodding his approval as he read them … until he saw the word I had written for “missionary”. Pointing to it, he had me whisper it in his ear. I did, and his whole balding head turned red. He told me he would have his wife tell me what that word meant, but not to say it any more.

He went back to the table where the rest of the team was sitting and told them what I had been saying, and they laughed so hard they cried. His wife was unable to bring herself to come talk to me, so one of the other ladies on the team came instead. She took me outside and showed me a nightclub on the top floor of one of the buildings. It was named in a short form of this same word I had been using. She told me it was slang for “someone who instructs others in sexual activity”.

None of my Korean friends had ever corrected me when I had used it because to them, they understood my meaning and saw no reason to embarrass me. As Erin Meyer said, they could “read the air”.

About the Author

Tonette Kellett

Missionary, teacher, Bible student, traveler ... Having lived in Kenya and Korea, I now live in Mississippi and work with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

2 responses to “You say “tom-a-to”, I say ‘tom-ah-to””

  1. mm Audrey Robinson says:

    Tonette, what an experience you had in Korea.

    Looking back, what would you say to the 20-something-year-old Tonette based on what you have learned experientially from the different cultures you’ve lived and the material from Meyer and Tremper?

  2. Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

    Tonette, What a great story to illustrate the challenges of working and living cross-culturally! It is impressive that you could pick up the language as you worked and lived in Korea, without formal language training.

    Were all of the other missionaries from the United States or were they from a variety of countries? It would be interesting to look more closely at why your Korean friends did not correct you when you used the wrong word in conversation. Did they not want to hurt your feelings? Perhaps, they were used to language learners making mistakes and graciously overlooked it? What was your reaction when you finally learned the problem?

    Thanks for sharing. I would love to hear more about your cross-cultural living experiences.

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