The Unoverheard


Oh, hi there.

Luckily, you probably won’t understand me.

We were sitting at dinner, discussing essentially nothing: food or books or music. The din around us was filled with the sound of other people speaking, the clatter of spoons and chopsticks on dishes, sizzling things in enormous central pots. Suddenly, I perked like a bloodhound, and raised a hand to my friend to stop speaking.

“The women at the table behind us are speaking English.”

Beth tensed, alarmed. We were both in fight or flight mode, without intending it. “What? No. Impossible.”

We both stopped to listen, and in time confirmed that the syllables being exchanged adjacent to us were similar to our own. We were petrified. We felt awkward. How could we go on speaking to each other now? There was a miniscule chance that we might be overheard.

Over time in Korea, I’ve grown strangely accustomed to being able to say whatever I want to say, whenever I want to say it. Speaking in English in a place where English is not The Language affords me the opportunity to prattle as freely as I want. Granted, I can’t be too loud about it, because some people (especially old people) find the sound of foreign tongues grating and offensive, and are likely to get up in my grille about it. But if I keep a calm tone, I am generally guaranteed enjoy a certain degree of privacy wherever I go, no matter the number of people surrounding me.

Not that what I say is particularly interesting, or as though people around me everywhere are desperately craning to catch what dewy bon mots might emerge from my spewing maw. But having the privilege of essentially no one around you ever understanding a word you will say presents you with a certain feeling of freedom. Of carelessness. I’ve become wanton with my words: I can say what I mean and mean what I say because what I say doesn’t really mean anything to anyone.

Being surrounded by Korean, as well, makes you feel like you’re in soft, insulated room, a powerful soundproofing system blockading you and your precious phonemes from drifting into the path of a stranger. It’s a sea of white noise, under which the tiny ripples of English are barely even noticeable.

It’s a nice feeling, really. The luxury of constant, uninterrupted privacy makes even crowded restaurants and packed subways feel relatively intimate, and casual, and close. You can talk about whatever you like. People around you may catch a word or an inflection, but as most people naturally don’t care enough to bother, or at least not enough to try to translate your conversation, you are guaranteed a certain wide berth.

Almost touching

Be perfectly quiet. Someone might be listening.

Suddenly nothing is too crass, too rude, too brazen. You can say things you wouldn’t say in polite company, because while the company is very probably polite, they don’t know what you’re talking about and don’t care. Bodily functions and rude words and deep, dark secrets. Movie and television and book spoilers, for both classics and recent works. You can discuss your controversial opinions on Bolivian politics. That ghastly mole you’ve got, and how you’re sure it’s benign. Your coworkers or your friends or significant others, and the things that they do. Nothing is forbidden, and this reckless, free-wheeling ease of speech is heady and liberating.

By the same token, you never have to overhear anyone else. I only understand Korean if I actively attempt to, and thus in a passive state, every conversation around me is a delightful communicative haze. People can be discussing things just as uncouth or bizarre or terrifying or bewildering as I might, and I won’t understand a lick. You never have to overhear the variegated tediousnesses of those around you, and in turn you can imagine all these exchanges to be utterly fascinating. Did you know most Korean people are spies, movie stars, or astronauts, and all of them have big swimming pools made of gold and money and pure opiates? This may or may not be true, but from the conversations I imagine them having them on the subway, I think it just might be.

Of course, growing accustomed to this unrestrained, unbridled freedom can be dangerous. While visiting a friend’s university, he warned me to be careful of what I say, because there was a higher density of English speakers around in the student body. Not that we had anything of dire interest to say—our plans to funnel military secrets to the Chinese; our designs for harvesting those around us for the organ black market; the directions to our caches of gold dubloons and artillery. Rather, the actual prospect of other people being able to understand cowed us almost completely, making us reconsider every utterance. Did we even know how to be a part of polite society anymore? How do you abide by taboos if you’ve been delightfully unburdened by them for months?

Going home, too, proves nearly overwhelming. In Korea I can detect English at 100 paces, and I naturally tune in. Back home, being immersed in it, I’ve lost all of my coping skills: I hear everything. The details of every break-up, the plot of every episode of Jersey Shore, how much every boss sucks. I can’t block it out. I understand the things going on around me. I can no longer pretend that everyone is interesting, because I am actively witnessing evidence to the contrary, and I can’t stop myself from listening.

And by the same token, everyone can understand me. I know, theoretically, that no one is really listening: that anonymity and the tedium of my own life will ultimately make my hushed secrets ultimately uninteresting and unworthy of attention. But merely being surrounded by people who can, if they so choose, listen to every word you say makes you suddenly more careful, more delicate, more suspicious. I feel exposed. I feel like my words betray me, by fluttering into unchosen ears.

There’s just more of a chance for people to eavesdrop when they understand what language you’re speaking.

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9 thoughts on “The Unoverheard

  1. I have had these thoughts before. My boyfriend and I will speak English in Shanghai to feel less obvious, but when we go to the US or the Philippines or anywhere else our mandarin will come out of the wood work. Enjoyed the post.

  2. This exactly. I had a layover in Minneapolis/Saint Paul and listening to the conversation between two middle-aged guys in particular was awful. I DON’T CARE THAT YOU’RE RETILING YOUR KITCHEN UGH SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP.

    Likewise I was visiting a Korean friend in D.C. It was incredibly difficult to keep him from snarking everyone around us in English. “Look, English isn’t our secret language anymore. Everyone understands *perfectly* everything you’re saying. You’re being very nunchi eoppda.”

  3. LOL, very amusing. Only last week, I had a childhood friend visiting me in Spain, where I currently live. When talking about really personal stuff over coffee and cake, she would start whispering things to me. I made fun of her for that 😉 I mean, we were speaking broad Bavarian, which not even other native Germans, who are not from our region, can understand!
    …with English, one has to be more careful. I’ve put my foot in it more than once assuming that people around me wouldn’t understand…ouch! Maybe not such a risk in Korea.

    • Ahh, to have a secret code language… it seems like Bavarian would get you through most situations undetected, but the world is really changing. One day another person is going to stumble up and start speaking in perfect Bavarian dialect to you and then you’ll be nervous everywhere you go!

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