“Where do you work?”

Last night my wife and I met a friend of hers for dinner. I’d met her two or three times during my first stay in Korea, I certainly remembered her, and I knew that she worked in a bank. Friday evening peak-hour traffic in Seoul is bad enough at the best of times, but even more so yesterday due the after-affects of a protest march in the city centre earlier in the afternoon, so the friend drove from her suburban workplace to her suburban apartment before catching a train to the city centre. Before or after she arrived, my wife mentioned that her friend just got a promotion. During dinner I asked her (in English) “Where do you work?”. She replied “A bank”. I thought “I know that” and said “Where do you work?”. She replied “Kookmin Bank”. I thought “Not much better” and said (in Korean) “어디? 구, 동?” (“Where? Gu (district), dong (suburb)?”) pointing in random directions. She named a suburb which I didn’t know, so I pulled out a Seoul train map (as I didn’t have an actual map) and we pointed at that for a while. (My wife was at the bathroom during all this, which is why she wasn’t translating.)

The big problem here, even without the difficulty caused by our low levels of proficiency in each other’s language, is that there is no immediate way for me to indicate the level of detail I want to know. Talking with a native English speaker, or proficient second language speaker, I could start with a preamble: “I know you work in bank — do you work at head office or a branch? Which branch? Where do you work?”, but all that might have been too much for someone with such a low level of English. My wife later told me that the same ambiguity exists in Korea “어디에 일해요?” (“Where do you work?”) might elicit the same range of responses, and I’m sure all that preamble would bamboozle me.

People sometimes ask me where I was born. Levels of detail are “Australia”, “Victoria”, “country Victoria”, “a very small town in country Victoria” or the name of the town, which not many Australians know (it’s that small). Nowadays, even the question “Where do you live?” might have two possible answers “South Korea” (temporarily) or “Australia” (permanently), each with its own levels of detail.

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