Pictured above: not the actual language I'm talking about. But I do love this picture.
As I brave the strange, navel-gazing midlands between “I speak Korean” and “Korean is a language that I know exists,” I have a great deal of time to reflect on the status of my own brain. The trials and tribulations, the ups and downs, the dizzying, self-satisfied highs of language successes and the mortifying, protruding-lower-lip lows of language failures. Being in the spooky land of intermediate capability in a language means my skills and capabilities are only so trustworthy. That, at any given time when I am expected to engage in my second language, the odds are about at even that I will manage to stun all listeners with my thrilling turns of phrase as are the odds that my tongue and teeth will fuse together into a tumorous fistula of flesh and manage to produce only the most mewling and pathetic of brays. Operating in a second language means being at the whim of your mood, your energy, the nimbleness of your articulators. It means seeming all over the place: at one point ragingly fluent, at others stunningly mute.
There are, of course, patterns I have come to notice in my own journey towards mild competence. Over time and experiencing both the greatest of shame and pride, my Korean has given rise to some easily-recognizable quirks.
Irrelevant stock photo of the week: what Michael first thought of when he thought of being old
Over the phone, I was told that Faith and Ty couldn’t meet me for a while, because they were going to spend the next few hours at the gym. I sat up from my couch, where I had been lazing in weekend afternoon splendour, disgusted and repulsed. I was in my underwear, and probably crusted with a fine corona of cookie crumbs. It was 3 p.m. “That sounds terrible. Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know,” Faith muttered. “I think we’re getting boring. I came home from grocery shopping the other day and was excited and asked if he wanted to know what new spices I bought.” She paused, as though wondering if I myself might inquire about these new spices. I did not. “Being an adult sucks.”
I mean, one hopes.
On the road, you fall into a certain state of disrepair. You don’t keep up with your usual self-hygiene regimen, and in time, your body begins to accrue a corona of stank. That much walking and inclement weather invites wear and tear, and pretty soon you have a cake of your own filth. But it’s okay, because you’re on the road, so everyone else is also disgusting. But some people decide to take this liberty too far. Some people decide that once a backpack cushions their spine, they are free to abandon the mores of gentle society like so much garbage and scalp grease, and hoe the road of grossness unbraved by so many before them. They take the opportunity to be a douchebag because no one they know will ever see them, except maybe in the facebook photos, and make a stinky, oppressive time for all the rest of us on the trail.
World culture: what’s up with that? My students certainly wonder this from time to time, as I storm about the halls, as they see foreign people and lands on their televisions and ponder as to what they might do with themselves. What bizarre, quivering, gelatinous delights they might suck down into their mouths (if they even have mouths, because, I mean, who knows)? What strange, guttural base noises might issue forth from their vocal cords with which they might communicate? What obscene, confusing, alien activities might they engage in for “fun”? Well, gather your sun hat, your SLR, and maybe a can of mace to keep the weirdoes at bay: we’re going on a safari to find out!
Paging all whackjobs.
She was probably the nicest lunatic we had ever encountered. Tony and I were waiting in line for an ATM outside of the subway station, and she glided into our lives as though drifting on a low-flying nimbus. For twenty minutes she prattled onto us in a sort of garbled English-Korean pidgin, one barely decipherable even as I actively translated her more difficult turns of phrase. Whenever we would correctly identify one of her glistening, bewildering gems of human language, or nod as though we understood, she would wave her hand down and smile, as if to say, “Oh, you crafty kids. You know just what I mean.” Her nails were painted the colour of a sour milk, and she spent at least three minutes searching fruitlessly and without explanation through one of a dozen notebooks she had stashed in her purse. If we repeated a certain Korean mantra, she informed us thoroughly and at length, all the favours of the universe would rain down upon us. Money. Jewellery. Fame. Beautiful wives. Numerous children. Stupendous houses. Ivory pianos. Enormous wangs. All of them were a Korean chant away, and it was critical that she told us this.
Because she felt the need to tell someone, and when you’re a crazy magnet, you’re the one she’s going to tell.
More times than I can count, I have been assured that various mediocre-to-disgusting foods are basically really good for my wang. No one will say these things outright: everyone decides to play coy, like we’re in an erectile dysfunction medication commercial or Victorian England, and thus everything is covered in sheathes of euphemism. But the message is still clear. Eat these squid brains: they’re good for man. Good for man strength. Good for speed. Good for stamina. Good for staying power. Good for man health. Depending on who I’m talking to, these turns of phrase are accompanied with various nudges to try and make sure I’m getting the point, in case I don’t understand figurative language. A wink, a nod, an actual nudge. Once, a coworker said the food we just ate was good for man, and after several moments of consideration, pointed, with both hands, to his crotch to illustrate. Just to make sure I got it.
A new school semester is upon us, which of course means a bunch of sweeping changes.
Typically these sorts of things happen when I’m not at school for a little while. Schedules change on whims and decisions are made instants before their ramifications must come into play on a usual basis, but particularly when I am not around, large decisions are made in the school. Often large decisions that will impact me in various ways. My opinion is never really solicited, but I’m used to that by now. My job is to weather the changes with my regular stalwart endurance.
Enjoy! I will be here, right next to your face, in case you need anything.
I try to sneak by them, thinking that the rush of other customers will distract from my presence. But being the only honky around tends to attract attention, and anyways the staff of this grocery store exist only to watch every person passing by them like hawks. I hover over the dumpling selection for just a second too long, and suddenly one of them is upon me, existing all up in my face, chattering at a constant pace about this and that sale and about how my dumpling intake could be so much greater if I would just give in and go for the quadruple pack. I reach for one package and the woman, old and possibly kindly and in another life maybe someone who would enjoy needlepoint, refers back to her training and very nearly smacks the package out of my hand. Her face is awash in disgust as she gestures virulently back to the quadruple pack.
It is her duty. I am not being served properly unless I am being thoroughly accosted.
Step 1. Show picture. Step 2. "THIS PLEASE"
The woman had scissors in her hand, a pair of clippers in the other, and the back of my head before her, like a great, scarred battlefield. “I’m scared,” she muttered in Korean, as though before her she saw trenches, opposing troops, the very face of death. This was to be her greatest challenge. None of her training had prepared her for this. No one had told her about this in school, none of her mentors had ever even suggested such a horror would befall her. But now she would have to fend for succour with the great unknown of foreign hair, and she would have to be brave. She brought the clippers to my head.