There comes a point in every conversation between two people who don’t share equal footing in the current language of speech where things can potentially go sour. On a daily basis when I interact with Koreans, we reach a certain apex beyond which we cannot continue to interact, and one or both of us naturally goes into fight-or-flight mode. In that moment, the Korean knows no greater terror than continuing to speak to me. The Banana Octopus Crisis is this moment.
Korea has a face-saving culture, and also one of strict modesty. People generally refuse compliments as though they as though they were vicious knife assaults, and only accept them under duress. When asked about their English speaking capabilities, most Koreans will quickly declare, “My English is very poor,” usually said with spectacular grammar. And indeed, some Koreans have terrible English, but even those with an excellent grasp still revert to modesty. Thinking thus, most will avoid the living crap out of English conversation with a native English speaker, fearing, as they do, a Banana Octopus Crisis.
When one is brave enough to approach a native speaker, we are generally pretty warm and forgiving of linguistic issues. My friend Nancy was shocked when I told her that the majority of teachers at my school don’t ever speak to me, but I know it’s not out of malice: it’s the fear that if they speak to me in English, I might actually respond. Suddenly they will be sucked into an English language interaction, from which there is no dignified escape. When someone, an adult or a child, works up the courage to use some English with me, I will do all I can to make sure the interaction is successful, and I will grin like a monkey and pantomime my answers if it encourages the speaker to go on and speak more.
In a typical conversation, we’ll chat for a bit, I’ll feel out where the other party’s language level is, and adjust my speech towards that. I’ll drop function words, limit my vocabulary, change my pace, enunciate more clearly, and move my hands as though I’m spontaneously generating my own sign language. (Once, a co-teacher brought forth a 3rd grader who had recently moved to Korea from America. I changed gears into Regular English mode, Teacher-Student subclass and sprayed the kid with rapid English phonemes which he responded to in kind. My teacher became wide-eyed, knowing this not as the English I spoke with her, assumed that we were speaking in French or Tongues or possibly the language they speak in Hell, and immediately departed.)
Things often go well. I’ve trained myself to stick to easy conversation topics, to always be blissfully optimistic about everything in Korea, to smile pleasantly. My main concern most of the time is not a soul-excavating depths of conversation, but rather reinforce the speaker’s use of English. If I can show them how successful this interaction was, maybe they’ll speak in English again! Maybe I won’t sit quietly at lunch, the other teachers glancing away from my eyes lest I drag them kicking and screaming into small talk.
But sometimes, we get in too deep. The other party will say something, and despite my efforts, confusion will wash across my face. This precursor, the Scrunched Eyebrow Escalation, worries the other party. The communication was unsuccessful. Blood rushes to his or her face, and anxiety begins to bubble. Uh oh.
He or she restates, using slightly different language. They tilt their head to the side, raise their shoulders hopefully. A nervous smile cracks their features. I try desperately to decipher what they are saying, because we both want this to go well, but it made so little sense. I say something in response, and they in turn look confused. The language barrier suddenly seems more like a blockade, with reinforced titanium walls and angry sociopathic guards standing watch.
We both feel warm. Is it hot in here? I want desperately to keep them in the conversation, confident as I am that we can rescue this from encroaching linguistic disaster. I smile encouragingly and usher them to go on.
The other party clutches his or her head. This is not how they wanted things to go. Suddenly, they reach for their cell phone. All Korean cell phones feature Korean-English dictionaries, ones that are usually pretty capable in terms of translation. They type away in Hangul furiously. We are at the Banana Octopus Crisis.
For a moment, they look to their cell-phone, then to my bright, hopeful expression. Do the words the cell phone has produced make sense? They speak the sentence or, in the case of most of my students, shove the phone in front of my face. Often, a grammatic hurricane appears in front of my eyes, but I get the gist, and we can resume comfortably, and the Korean can escape safely several moments later.
But sometimes. Sometimes, the phone dictionary fails. The thing it suggests makes less sense than whatever the Korean tried to say in the first place, and my face shows it. I repeat it once, saying slowly, to make sure I heard right. “Banana… octopus? Party… go town? Hyena sausage…?”
This was the last ditch effort. There is no other means to save the interaction, and the Korean’s only concern now is for safe passage. Where before I seemed pleasant and jovial, now my every syllable is like a sonic switchblade, and my very presence is threatening to their sense of self and well-being. They want only to be away from me. Nothing can possibly be gained, only lost: further embarrassment, even more loss of face, their very soul is what is at stake.
“Englishee… no.” They say the abort code. They begin to back away physically, their hands raised in defence, as though to swat back any crafty attacks of English language I might assault them with. Every Korean sucks air through clenched teeth, the sound you make when you slam your knee into something. They cringe continuously, and shake their heads from side to side. Where is the door? Where is another Korean? Why did I try speaking this god-forsaken monkey language in the first place? Why won’t this white devil let me flee?
The optimist in me thinks I can still salvage the conversation, and I beckon for them to stay. But it is too late. The Crisis has overtaken us, and to force them to stay would only be traumatic, and scare them off of speaking English ever again.
[P.S. You’re welcome on that second self-portrait there.]