When I arrived fresh off the plane in Korea, Korean language was nothing but cipher. Exotic, bewildering cipher. A massive conspiratorial gumbo language spoken by millions, I assumed, while colluding with one another. Koreans had secrets, and I was not in on them. They spoke in whispered hushes with knowing glances, because I, the lumbering whitey, knew not a word of Korean. What were they hiding? Were they discussing the true origins of kimchi? What they really thought about the North? Exactly when and how Super Junior and Big Bang would be mobilized to North America to begin Korean plans for world domination? I wanted nothing more than to understand what was being said around me.
I lied in wait. My Korean studying has been long and arduous, and Koreans, as a rule, speak as though they are the bus in Speed, and if they go below a certain pace, they will explode. Thus for a very long time, even while I was learning, nothing said around me made a particularly large amount of sense because it was at mach speeds. Or it was a tense I didn’t know, or it was in a level of formality I barely understood.
When I reached a level where I could comfortably tease apart the meanings of what was being said around me (not a lot of it, mind you), I was a little disappointed. My name is casually tossed into numerous conversations at the school lunch table, this occurrence only occasionally pushing someone to translate for me. The parts I’ve become capable of translating alone, I discovered, are pretty tame and boring. While I thought they were either discussing their hatred or deep, abiding love of my presence, usually they are saying the exact things they say to me in English. Namely, they are narrating my eating capabilities. “Michael can eat spicy food. Michael can use chopsticks. Michael is eating a lot of kimchi today.” When they are not talking about me, they are typically talking about the food, its quality, its density, its taste, its plentifulness, and how they would like to acquire and ingest more. Their conversation once was so elusive and effervescent it inspired me to study, but now the mystery has drained when I realize they are basically providing live-in voice-overs of their own non-existent reality shows about lunch.
My students are similar. What could they be saying to each other in such rapid-fire, I wondered? Exactly the same as my broods back home: insults, desires to play videogames or go outside, and a near constant chant that they are hungry. Occasionally swearing or whining, both of which I have to handle now that I understand it.
As I come to discover over and over again through life, people are actually pretty boring. Koreans are not exempt; not more thrilling or exotic for speaking a language largely unrelated to English, despite what my brain originally proposed. They talk about things just as mundane and tedious as people in every other country, and I was just excited because it was, on my first passes, an unending sea of fast-moving jibberish.
Walk down a street in Korea. At any given moment, the following things are probably being said:
-추워/더워! “It’s cold!/It’s hot!” I hear this on almost a daily basis. Often by women who are wearing skirts in January, but that’s a separate issue.
-여기! 외국인! “Hey, look! Foreigner!” But it ends there. Koreans notice you and maybe stare for a moment, and then get bored and talk about something else.
-I like that new song by Wondergirls. It is totally not exactly the same as that new song by SNSD.
-Something, anything, about food.
Koreans talk about food like Canadians talk about the weather. It is mindless smalltalk, the kind of words that your mouth just excretes when you’re concentrating on something else, like audible drool. In Canada, you begin talking about the snow or the rain or the heat, and how there’s a whole lot of it, and suddenly hours have passed. You say these things to people you don’t really know, or to people who you’ve run out of other things to talk about. Your mind can wander off in search of more interesting things. As a Canadian, my brain has received such intense cultural training that I could talk about the weather ceaselessly for up to 10 hours while: eating, drinking, exercising, showering, driving, operating a forklift, performing open-heart surgery, or dancing Swan Lake. I was delivering a long monologue about Canadian winters as I typed this, and no one was even around.
For Koreans, it’s like that with food. My vocabulary for food (care of my Korean teacher) is more developed than the rest of my repertoire, and thus I catch it more often. Which isn’t difficult, because it is pretty much constant.
I started to get disappointed when I realized everyone at my school was as boring as I am. And as things go on, this mundanity takes over everything.
In the early stages, I was, like many, petrified by the random blue trucks that would weave through-out the streets. Each of these were affixed with loud-speakers, all transmitting aggressive male voices, shouting what, I assumed, could only be polemical materials, or efforts to spur sectarian violence. Every time one of these passed me in the street, I became positive that an uprising was imminent. That the North was bombing. That a hurricane was soon to hit our shores, and that these blue trucks were the government on the ground, trying to get the message out to the people. That the trucks also seemed to be carting around a lot of produce meant that maybe it was also a doomsday cult stocking up on supplies.
These are fruit trucks. I discovered this when I noticed one parking and setting up shop, but I still could not connect the disparate elements. Did these fruit sellers also work as street-activists when driving around? Were all produce merchants required to also pipe government propaganda down every road and alley in my city?
Prodded by similar questioning, a friend’s co-teacher offered to translate the gurgling froth of screams emanating from a passing produce vehicle. “Buy our fruit. Don’t buy those other guys’ fruit. They are bad. Our fruit is totally the best. You should maybe think of buying some.”
The people in front of the cellphone shops chattering aimlessly into the streets are reporting on the quality and absolute necessity to own their phones. The people in the park about how maybe they should play Stop Go. The people on the subway about where they will meet their boyfriends/girlfriends, and what food they will eat when they do so. Learning the language really takes all the mystery out of the relationship.