Being in On the Code


Korean! What could it mean?

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.

Mostly unrelated, but I don't know when else I'll get to share this photo.

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8 thoughts on “Being in On the Code

  1. The fruit trucks remind me of the ice cream trucks here only I am certain foreigners who don’t speak english would not think they are a call to arms to finish the War of 1812 or that the Russians are on their way; indeed I am certain they would recognize them for what they are – large mobile noise makers. And as you know, they don’t shout out slogans slamming their competition.

    I liked the photo at the end (though it did not go with the narrative); looks like a shipping container rather than a loo without a view.

  2. Well thank God you took all the mystery out of the Korean language. I, too, often wondered what people around me were saying. Now I don’t have to learn it and I can just continue on in blissful ignorance. Learn Korean to communicate with my future mother-in-law? Not necessary! She’s probably just talking about food or how fat I am! Have deep, meaningful conversations with my fiance in his own language? No! He’s just telling me he’s hungry. I’ll ask his mother for some kimchi! Wow, thanks so much. Now that you’ve unlocked the secret code of Korean language I can bypass all the tedium of studying and using it myself! Yay! ^.^

      • Oh, no, I wasn’t trying to be passive aggressive. Sorry! I really enjoyed your writing. That’s why I put the little Korean smiley face at the end! And really, now that you’ve deciphered the code of Korean for me I’m really, really, deeply relieved that I don’t have to learn it!

        • …thank…you?

          Again, I hope I’m not misinterpreting you. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive.

          Anyway, your husband and mother-in-law are probably more interesting than my students. Unless all your mother-in-law also cares about is Starcraft, IU and lunch.

          • Haha, you poor guy; I didn’t mean to freak you out. I really like reading your blog but I’m obviously really bad at making that clear. One of the reasons I’ve put off studying Korean is my fear of finding out that everyone is saying bad stuff about me, so I just found it funny and timely that you wrote this piece and I happened to read it after having a discussion with my fiance about my need to learn Korean so I can communicate with his mother. In my imagination she is always talking about my size or my too-white skin, etc., so I meant my comments to you as a kind of tongue-in-cheek way of saying that I’m glad I don’t have to learn Korean for real now because obviously Korean people are pretty boring. And I teach high school boys so they’re probably only interested in IU, Starcraft and lunch as well! 하하

            • Heh, no, I thought maybe you had taken the tone of the post a little sourly and didn’t like where it was going. Really, though, most Koreans aren’t saying much about you; I originally thought the same, that it went along with the frequent staring. Certainly kids will say something, but most adults I’ve noticed just stare for a while and then talk about something else. I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing the sort of “Yankee go home” mutterings some people do, and it’s really not all that frequent. Most people are interested for a few moments and then move on.

              If anything, she’s probably mentioning that you should eat more, or maybe have some grand children.

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