The Korean woman in the apron handed me the paper bag and stepped back.
We bowed to each other, the way we might have at a Korean church.
“Su go ha se yo,” I said, which translates to “Keep up your hard work,” but that isn’t it exactly. The phrase is a kindness, meaning, I recognize you’re making an effort, and I encourage you to bear up, and it also means, I admire your labor.
This quote from a lovely New York Times op-ed by Min Jin Lee titled “What I Want the Woman Behind the Counter to Know” moved me to tears. And I was struck by how thoroughly American language and culture lack a way to express the blend of admiration, concern, and gratitude that Lee conveys in one perfect phrase.
“You are heroes!” doesn’t do it—particularly as nurses, bus drivers, and delivery people are trudging to work without sufficient protective gear; gear that a truly caring society would have secured in February.
Banging pots and shouting praise at 7pm each night doesn’t quite do it, either, at least not for introverts like me.
“Thank you for your service” doesn’t do it because pandemic front line workers didn’t enlist for this. They’re trying to survive, to preserve their families, and yes, to serve. But even soldiers sometimes tire of this glib-sounding acknowledgment.
Having a parade to “honor” essential workers, as NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio horrifyingly suggested, not only doesn’t express what so many of us want to say, it could risk hundreds of thousands of lives in a second wave that—as the history of 1918’s pandemic flu shows—might be far more deadly than the first.
I can’t use Min Jee Lee’s felicitous phrase, “Su go ha se yo,” not just because I’m not Korean (thanks for the cultural appropriation, White Girl!) but because there’s no translation that works. There is no sincere context for “I admire your labor” in my culture.
So I’ve been trying to smile ruefully through my mask, to say “Stay Safe,” and to leave what I hope is a good tip.
It’s not enough, but it’s the best I’ve come up with.
How do you handle this? I would love to hear your suggestions; please leave them in the comments section.