Deoku or Dilettante?

One enjoyable part of learning Korean is discovering slang/interesting expressions. I recently came across the Korean word deoku, meaning a person who has an obsessive interest in one thing; it has a negative connotation. In English, the word dilettante, which seems the opposite meaning of deoku, is also an insult. (Imagine an obituary: “the deceased was “a happy dilettante.” Won’t happen but obituaries are full of deokus and polymaths.) The ideal for some, might be the Rhodes Scholar polymath who has a deep knowledge of a few areas. But how few of us have the ability/time to be polymaths? Not I.

I have the dubious honor of being a dilettante in a family of polymaths and deokus. My husband the polymath, has a deep knowledge of music, philosophy, art and politics. He is good for party tricks–eerily able to name every major cabinet member for each President, tell me the electoral numbers for every election in modern times and give me a thoughtful summary of the rise of conservatism from Barry Goldwater forward. On our bookshelves thanks to him, are a long row of books about Canadian parliamentary politics and Richard Nixon that makes us look nutty and dull in one fell swoop.

My 12 year old son is obsessed with neurodiversity advocacy. When he was ten, he wrote impassioned, poetic letters to Sesame Street and other places chastising their portrait of autistic characters; he recently presented a Power Point presentation for autistic adults on his vision of the neurodiversity movement and is currently writing a sci-fi novel about neurotypicals who are forced to live on a planet ruled by autistic people. My five year old daughter speaks the language of My Little Pony, her all time favorite show== often telling me she’s dressing up for the “Grand Galloping Gala” or raising a fist above her head and yelling “Pony up!”.

My dilettante ways led me to draw every night for almost two years to see if I could improve (I did. For less than Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, I became a competent drawer. Yup, my early drawings are pretty ghastly and I know I befuddled/irritated some “friends” by flooding Facebook with them anyway). Just when I could have taken things to the next level like, gasp, take a drawing class to get better, I quit and moved on to Sculpie, making Korean drama stuffed animals and writing. Fun but maddening. Recently, watching the animated movie Soul with my family, I was amused by its premise that all humans need a “spark” to exist on earth. What if you have not one spark, but a million? Can your soul be fully formed? Egads. I hope so.

For this dilettante, deokus make me nervous. When my son wants to read a book about autism, I hear my voice trilling “but why not read The Great Gatsby? Salinger? Tobias Wolf?” and then intone that good writers have a wide range of interests/areas of knowledge. I have, kudos to me, resisted the urge to wrestle Neurotribes out of his hands. He has, in turn, successfully dissuaded me from reading Range, a book that seems to champion the benefits of not focusing on one thing intently (as Malcolm Gladwell advised) but exploring several skills deeply a la Roger Federer. My kid is smart enough to know that Range in my hands would be dangerous (or at least really annoying).

Perhaps my 12 year old has unwittingly come up with the following best solution for keeping me in check and not driving him nuts with my anti-deoku bias. In a hammy mood, he recently decorated a huge cardboard box we had in our foyer by writing “Cringe Containment” in bubble letters and joked along with my 5 year old daughter that I had to go into the box when I embarrassed them. This became a game for this oft bored family; Once I was in this box-no limbs visible, the kids delighted in generously carving our a small window of air and telling me I could not leave until I passed a cringe quiz they devised.

What parent wouldn’t benefit from some solitary confinement to reflect on all their ridiculous errors/unnecessary anxieties? In my served time, I will think of my kids and their deoku glory. They seem so at peace with their single mindedness, unlike chicken-with- head-cut-off- me. For this, I envy and admire them. Maybe they are the lucky ones.

Deoku, dilettante or polymath, which one are you?

If you don’t hear from me, I’m in the box.

2 responses to “Deoku or Dilettante?”

  1. Just a passerby Avatar
    Just a passerby

    This is an old blog, but 덕후 (deoku) isn’t necessary negative. That would be 빠순이, which is definitely meant to be an insult, especially to women. 덕후 would be more like stan. I suppose, like stan, it was originally meant to be negative but it now just means someone who’s enthusiastically interested in something.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. CrazyMiddleClassAsian Avatar

      Thank you! I’m an adoptee and don’t speak Korean so I really am guessing meaning/interpretation.


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