The Banana Octopus Crisis: When Language Fails

Banana Octopus Crisis, in graphic form.

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.

How I look, when speaking with 저니 Every Korean.

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.

How I must appear to 저니 Every Korean during this crisis.

“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.]

50 thoughts on “The Banana Octopus Crisis: When Language Fails

  1. [The language barrier suddenly seems more like a blockade, with reinforced titanium walls and angry sociopathic guards standing watch.] hahaha I love how you describe it =)

    You’re a tech?? Oh my dear god! Don visit my blog please i couldn’t handdle your evil eyes all over my texts hahaha

    I’m hoping you are just exagerating this part

    [“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?]

    If not I’m scared of you and english language now 😀

    bye and good luck with your korean students!!

    • A tech? What do you mean?

      I exaggerate a little, but when we speak in English and reach the breaking point, some of my students (and some adults) do look as though I am actually threatening their very lives by continuing to speak to them and not giving them an out.


      • I mean a teacher =)
        Same thing happends with spanish people…they’re afraid they’ll screw up so they preffer not to talk at all.

        must be a bliss to be in Korea!! how’s the wether there?

        • There are times in Korean when I worry if things get too complicated, I will actually cause my situation to plumet… in those cases I summon a Korean friend. Last time I went to the doctor, I spent an hour before hand preparing good sentences to explain exactly what was wrong, and practicing theoretical responses.

          It is usually bliss, but the weather in Incheon right now is currently unpleasantly cold. Spring and fall in Korea are amazing seasons, I can’t wait for pleasant weather again.

          • Yes it’s important to have an inside friend.
            I’ve been there. When I was 14 i didn’t know spanish at all and i found myself in a spanish school i had no idea what people was talking about haha. It was a challenge. Things got better specialy because i made spanish friends and that helped a lot.

            It’s a whole process. I also know it’s easier for kids to get adapted and learn a new language than for adults, at least it’s quicker .

            Hang in there Spring is coming soon! Post pics of Sprinly Korea will you =)

            • I rely less on them now as I become more confident in my Korean, but there were many times when I first got here that I pulled the “Uh oh! Better call a Korean!” parachute to get me out of trouble.

              Indeed, kids acquire languages more quickly, and there are huge debates on the literature about when and how exactly this changes and things become so much more difficult for adults and teens.

              I cannot wait for spring. I bought a ridiculous new camera for a reason, and that reason is amateurish photography as a hobby!

  2. Y’know, part of me really wanted this post to be about a new Limp Bizkit album released exclusively in Korea. Another part laughed out loud through that second last paragraph.
    A great, yet divisive, read Mikey.

    You’ve done it again StUgFo!

  3. “or possibly the language they speak in Hell”. I guffawed!!!

    In my experiences with teaching teenagers I’m often quite amused by the speed and frequency with which they pull out their cellphones to get just the right word. But then I find myself pulling out my own cellphone at the grocery store or wherever to find the Korean word for whatever I’m looking for. And if I should use a few Korean words, well I end up in my own “octopus banana” crisis, looking around desperately for someone who can speak English to help me out.

    Luckily my fiance speaks English quite well so when we’re out somewhere together I let him do all the talking so I don’t ever have to speak Korean. He also does all the driving, but that’s a whole other ball of wax, because have you ever seen the way Koreans drive? I’m not ready for that kind of stress.

    • Oh boy, I’ve got my own series of impressive Octopus Banana incidents, of which I will post at length. I’m not good with my cell phone’s dictionary, but I usually have a phrase book or my flashcards with me, and I’ll give a “jam kan manyo!” while I begin rapidly flipping through in search of solace.

      I go out with my Korean friends often enough that they can rescue me from doom, but some of them will leave me alone in order to help me “learn,” even if that means sweating bullets.

    • Durr. My second paragraph should read “Luckily my fiance is Korean so when we’re out somewhere…” He does speak English really well but that’s beside the point.

      If he pulled the “helping me learn” trick on me I wouldn’t be very pleased, although I’m sure he’d quite enjoy watching my face turn red. It hasn’t happened so far. He has, however, asked me to do the ordering in restaurants which have a reputation for being foreigner-friendly, because he likes to check out just how good the level of English comprehension is with the wait staff. Sometimes the results are quite amusing. You can see them as they approach the table, looking all relaxed and smiling at my fiance and ignoring me, but then their expression turns to fear when I’m the one who starts talking. English is pushed so hard here but when it comes right down to it no one really wants to lose face by having to talk to a native speaker in a public situation in front of other Koreans.

      • My co-teacher described speaking English to a native speaker (especially students from other countries) as though he felt naked. It can feel really risky to talk to an English speaker in that scenario.

        Indeed, I get the same when I’m out with my friends and I get pushed into ordering. More typically, I’m with some Asian-Canadian or -American friends who are assumed for Koreans, and the ajummas will approach and look hopefully to them. My friends then in turn look hopefully to me to make them go away and stop speaking Korean.

  4. LMAO! hahahaha – I was very amused by the idea that people get into “fight or flight” mode – I imagined the conversation hitting a wall and a Korean person just starting to fight with you instead! LOL! And I also enjoyed “sonic switchblade” – where did you come up with that phrase? Awesome – I feel your pain – I had a friend who taught English in Japan once and she said it was very difficult to engage her class in spoken English because they also fear losing face. Good luck to you!

    • I also enjoy the thought of a Korean person not liking where the conversation is going, slapping me in the face, and then making a run for it. Originally, I had put “sonic machete,” but I decided that alliteration was best.

      The odd thing is that the reverse situation, where I desperately attempt Korean to a Korean person, contains much less pressure, though I certainly feel as stressed. Generally, Koreans are over the moon when you attempt to speak some Korean to them and will drown you in praise no matter how poorly you mangle their language.

    • It certainly is a good idea.

      The thing about Korean, is that the first steps are misleadingly easy. Hangul, Korean’s written alphabet, is a very sensible writing system, and can be understood within a few hours. This got my ego up back when I started, and I wasn’t prepared for the real difficulty involved in learning the language. (The hard parts, I’ve found, are remembering the heavy suffixing embedded into verbs to make more complex sentences.)

  5. I finally understood why you use so many difficult words and pay so much attention to the way you write (I know you do, don’t deny it). This way you can change gears not only into Regular English mode, but Literary English mode and that gives you some kind of relief after the whole day of using Korean-friendly version of it, am I right?

    • It’s less on purpose, though I definitely mull over my entries a few time and will alter things based on how I like the progression of the word usage. If I find I use a particular adjective or superlative more than once, I hunt down all other instances and find a better synonym, because I hate sounding repetitive.

      And indeed, I use the blog as a place to crack out the Literary English, to throw down all the vocabulary stowed away in my brain. There are times when I feel as though it atrophies, as my concerns in interactions most days drive more towards successful communication rather than absolute subtlety and clarity of message.

  6. Okay, Zack gets in on your Blogs very fast; that’s what you call commitment. Reminds me of a time when I was in Paris with a Buddy and I was doing most of the translating, however, Dave – not to be left out – asked me what the word was for ice. I could not remember then (but know now it is glacon or petite glacon (sp?)) and told him it was “cube d’ice” with a french accent of course. I have never forgotten the blank stare from the person in the small hotel when he finally worked up the nerve to ask for ice.
    On a funny note, I sent you and Zack and e-mail joke on the English language.


    • …I do the same in Korean sometimes, because so many words from English are absorbed into Korean, that there’s a decent chance the other person will understand what I’m trying to get at. This has saved me more than a few times when I attempt to communicate in Korean. (Add an -ee after a j- or -ch- sound, and an uh after most other consonants, and suddenly you’ve got some Konglish.)

  7. I so appreciate this post! I lived last year in Vietnam and live this year in Haiti, so I unfortunately understand this struggle–especially in an Asian country where saving face is so important.

    At any rate. last month a post of mine about second language aquisition was Freshly Pressed, a rant called “A Tale of Miserable Failure: Moanings of a Second Language Learner.” Since your thinking about these issues, you might enjoy the humor–

    Posting from Haiti and loving your blog,

    • Indeed, learning another language can take you out of yourself, and hearing your brain process and produce another language (or, when you’re really on your A-game, thinking in that language) is a jolt that reminds you you’re nowhere near home.

      (On another note: I used to have so much French jammed in my brain, which has disintegrated over the years. When I return to Canada, I will try to reaquire it.)

  8. I stumbled upon your blog trying to look up something unrelated to your topic, but became intrigued because my husband happens to be on a business trip in S. Korea right now. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts – very funny!

  9. your friend nancy seems really funny and hot.

    the pictures are great! i was eating shrimp linguine and i actually spat it out cause of how hard i laugh when i saw the octopus banana picture. and you know i would never do that unless i was really laughing.

    another amazing post.

  10. LOL! I once told my ex-parents-in-law in French that they could go to my house and “faire callan” (which I now know means that the could go and “do it” in my house!) – I also told my ex-father in law that I was a female chauffeur (a “chauffeuse”) in French (which in French slang means a “loose woman”) – so I’m familiar with the pain of learning a new language – I never even tried to learn Korean but I’ve been living in Bahrain for the better part of 7 years and I know how much locals appreciate it when you try to speak with them in their language, even if you make mistakes. We’re all part of a global village now so go for it – stop scaring the Koreans with your White Devil Language! LMAO! ha ha ha ha!

  11. Good luck! You do a lot better than I ever could (with exchange students from school…I’m not brave enough to actually move to another country). I always feel bad for not understanding what a non-native speaker is saying.

    • It takes some training. Luckily by this point I’m pretty used to the Korean accent, and knowing a little Korean gives me an idea of where the common stumbling blocks are, thus I can understand pretty well. When you talk with multiple people with different first languages it can be a little more difficult, because each person is bringing a different linguistic experience to the table.

  12. Here’s hoping that “Octopus-Banana” isn’t the Korean equivalent of “I see London, I see France…”

  13. Lol! You really have an impressive way with words, from the first read I was hooked on your blog! I was literally lying on the floor in the teachers’ office laughing hysterically at this post! 🙂 I liked that I (and most ESL teachers, no doubt) could relate to everything you were saying. What I didn’t like is that my little blog now pales in comparison 😦 Looking forward to following your future foreign tales! 🙂

    • I like the idea of the other teachers in your office peering over casually to ask why you have fallen.

      Looking forward to writing more. Blogs don’t pale in comparison, they just take different angles on their subject matter.

  14. Another wonderfully humorous post. I appreciate the humor you use–a humor found in the normal-ness of life. It’s a humor I like to think I have on occasion. I really should write more…

    • Now’s the time to do it! New year, resolutions and blah blah blah. The only way I’ve been able to improve my writing and consistently include humour in any way has been to just commit to writing a crapload.

      • I’m working on it, actually! I’m graduating this Spring with a Writing and Rhetoric major. My senior project is going to be done in blog form–however, probably more memoir/lyric essay-esque than life story-esque. I’m still trying to choose a theme. I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Now, I just need to sit down and write for a while, again!

        • Writing in this style about my life is actually pretty new for me. I had a livejournal once, but it was pretty masturbatory and self-involved, and written more as a personal journal and venting ground than anything that anyone could possibly want to read. Just dedicating yourself to a form gets you more comfortable with it.

          I’m interested in what this blog will turn out to be. Keep me posted.

          I’m more typically into long-form fiction (long-form, duh, as anyone who’s read a post on here can glean, I’m pretty verbose), and thus I typically pair healthy blog updatin’ with a side of fiction writing on the side. Of course, I also have the attention span of a monkey in a meth lab, so I rarely can manage to dedicate myself to a project long enough to finish it (or I go into editing too fast and thus never get around to, you know, actually writing anything new).

          • I’m jealous that you can write fiction. I think the last time I wrote a “good” fiction piece was in 2nd grade when we had to write a story for Author’s Week, and we drew pictures and wrote a story. I believe mine was about little woodland creatures, and a pony. I have tried many times to sit down and write fiction and have given up because it seems too fake. At least when I’m being self-centered and writing about myself, I know it’s real! 🙂 Don’t get me wrong, I love fiction–everything from Harry Potter to Anne of Green Gables to The Outsiders.

            At any rate, I’d love to read some of your fiction. And, I’ll let you know how the blog goes. Maybe you can even provide me with writerly feedback–part of the assignment…have people read what I write 🙂 Good luck writing!

            • Well, “can” write is a matter for debate. I do it because I enjoy it, and I hope that one day I can pummel it into something that resembles a work of publishable material. Who knows how long that’ll be.

              I’m interested. Keep me informed, for sure! When I actually get around to really producing material (I have old drafts of things I’m currently working on, all of which I’m immensely dissatisfied with) that I think is ready to share, you’re free to take a look.

  15. I know a little bit of french, enough to be polite, and maybe order food at a restaurant, but once I went to Montreal Canada, and was faced with the real thing, I was terrified to speak in French. I totally get what they are doing with you.

    • As much as I love French and wish I knew more, it’s a little bit daunting of a language, and its speakers not famously forgiving… That said, I’ve found mostly if you smile a lot and show that you’re trying reaaaaaaally hard, most people are willing to ignore all but the most glaring speaking issues.

  16. I very much enjoyed this post. I taught ESL in Shanghai, China last year and this sums up pretty much every conversation in which I was involved with a Chinese colleague while I was there!

  17. Pingback: Me and the Octopus, or, Honky Talks Korean « Stupid Ugly Foreigner

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