Whenever I meet someone, or see them on the street, a few rough assessments run through my head. How likely are they to walk slowly in front of me, how likely to buy a hot dog, how likely to steal my wallet and coat. As I moved to Korea, an additional variable began to filter in: what language will this person likely speak? The answer to this question greatly limits or expands my abilities to interact or get things done, and so I make snap judgments all the time in regards to what phonemes will come blasting from between their teeth.
On a daily basis, I see approximately one bazillion Koreans, and thus this is, on the first glance, not a difficult task. See a Korean: they speak Korean. See a foreigner: they speak English.
Problems begin to arise with crafty Korean-Americans, Korean-Canadians and the like who are, of course, Koreans, but also more Canadian or American or whatever, and thus speak English just like me. They throw a kink in the works. Further still is the actually large number of other immigrants in Korea not here on cushy English teaching visas who break the mold lazily established in my mind by speaking the languages of the countries they actually come from, be it Russian, or Urdu, or Tamil, or Thai.
Still, I considered myself pretty adept at this task after a while, a game far more easily played in Korea than it will be when I am back in Toronto. There, the given language coming out of any individual’s mouth at any time is like spinning a wind-up children’s toy. The cow says “Annyeong!” The dog says “Vannakam!” The chicken goes “Halló!” In Korea, things are predictable. They are safe. They are easy.
But not always.
Occasionally I come upon people so outside of my prediction patterns that I have no idea what they’ll speak. Or I hear words flowing from the mouths of strangers that seem impossible, like a particularly crafty and well-performed flash mob ventriloquism act. I hear these chattering morphemes and decide to give up on the predictions altogether.
In Busan, my friend and I sat on the subway and quietly chatted away in English, to the consternation, discomfort, and occasional jealousy of those around us. After some time, three boys got on the train: two Korean-looking, one blue-eyed and blond. Their dress was that of modern Korean children, which is to say like modern American children, but maybe from a less fashionable state that is on Jupiter in the late 1990s. They were quiet for a moment, and both Leona and I sat rapt, waiting for them to speak. Were all three tourists? Would they begin chattering away in slangy American? Or was the blond kid somehow being adapted into Korean society, and would he sputter out some impressively deft 한국어?
After a moment, the three boys began to speak in guttural, rapid Russian. I turned to Leona, a language-nerd, and got an enormous grin across my face. They had defied my expectations completely. No one else on the train was paying attention and thus didn’t care, except for one Korean woman, seated directly across from us. She seemed to share the same fascination, the same shock. She had assessed them too, and was curious what would come out of their mouths. When the Russian began, she looked around at her countrymen and -women with a drooping jaw, a kind of elbow-the-ribs expression, “Doesn’t anyone else see this? Doesn’t anyone else find this awesome? Guys, look at them! Right now!” If we could, we would have shared this moment with this woman, but I don’t think she spoke English, and I think she thought we didn’t know any Korean.