Our Private Pidgin and the Great Slang Convergence

Wat Rong Khun - The roof

“Roof” or “ruff”? Well, it depends who I’m talking to.

All of us hailing  from varying parts of the world, in Korea we had a series of long arguments on the regional variations in description of carbonated beverages. Being from southern Ontario, I was staunchly in the “pop” camp, as were any others raised in the American Midwest, or who had a vested interest in Freaks and Geeks. My friends from elsewhere were adamant about calling it “soda,” while still others maintained that “soda pop” was the most righteous colloquialism. (No one we knew was in the “coke” camp, which is good, because what?)

While in my mind I championed “pop” in all situations, and would indeed do so until my dying day, when my great-grandchildren would pry a can of pop from my withered, dried old talons, in practice I had begun to falter. Around my American friends, I began to insert “soda” into my sentences, as though they couldn’t possibly understand what I might be referring to otherwise.

In time, my friends also brought to my attention that they had been doing the opposite for my own comfort. While they might not yield on pop, they were dropping Canadian, Korean, New Zealand idioms all over the place for the comfort of their listeners. Moreover, we had all been softening our accents. Ty would turn off all remnants of his Texan twang; the hollowed, rounded “o”s of my local Canadian dialect were receding. We had all been taking efforts to make our language more similar to the others’, in turn pushing them ever forward towards a mutually acceptable middle ground.

Things came to a head on the road. When Ty, Faith and I travelled through Southeast Asia, they were regularly mistaken for Canadians, and I for an American. We had approached the critical newscaster dialect mostly without consciously trying to, and our accents were slowly shedding their identifiers.

As we investigated, we started to unearth how deeply our own lexicons had become intertwined. Faith had begun describing situations in the Tyish manner as “intense,” and asking what we “reckoned,” as though she had grown up in New Zealand with Bobby Browne. I had begun to adopt the idiosyncratic roundabouts of Tony, never saying anything directly but rather circling around the drain of a subject in subtle orbits, interspersed occasionally with Thanh-ian outbursts of excitement or distaste. I had convinced Ty that “toque” was a perfectly cromulent word (and superior to “beanie,” which is just silly) and he had even begun sprinkling his sentences with “eh”s, both my Canadian ones and Bobby’s New Zealander breed. And enough time with Jongsu and Claire meant that our go-to slang was still half Korean.

Still worse were our inside jokes.

We had already been close friends before, and with no support systems like home, in Korea we spent the majority of our spare time amongst friends. Of course we had developed a series of complicated, interlocking inside jokes, and could throw each other into fits of laughter by telling one another to keep our hands flat when holding out the apple.

But now the three of us had spent four consecutive months with one another, experiencing all of the same oddities of travel, all of the same frustrations, all of the same joys, all of the same stomach bugs and rickshaw rides and long hikes under the Thai sun. Very quickly we began to develop our shorthand, which was actually kind of a convoluted longhand. We would “smash a cake” on anything we deemed particularly wonderful or great. When things were going according to plan, everything was “all meat pies and ice shandies.” If a new person turned out to be enjoyable, they would be “Friday night material.” A “kick to the face” was any negative situation about which we felt dismay. A “shut the fuck up” was the most cherished sign of affection, and the only way to express anger or discontent was to actually push someone’s head away from you. Very soon we didn’t have anything outside of the inside–our spoke communication was nigh impenetrable.

When we arrived in Laos, we took a large boat down the Mekong to reach our next city. This necessarily cloistered us next to a few obnoxious Australian (and one German) teenagers who had some untoward opinions on Aussie Aboriginals, and also, before we stopped listening for our own sanity, black people in Europe. We heard “I’m not racist, but…” so many times that we adopted it ourselves, warping it a thousand thousand times so we could roll in its absurdity. If you had spent the next weeks locked in close quarters with us, the progression would have been perfectly coherent, but to outsiders the sentence “I’m not racist, but cheese and vodka is like sunshine on a Sunday morning!” didn’t hold a lot of actual communicative weight. To us it made the most logical of any conglomeration of English phonemes that had ever existed.

Confronted occasionally by the horror of outsiders, we suddenly had to explain ourselves, and realized we often couldn’t. This was our speech. This was just how language worked–could they not just extrapolate our meaning from the flapping of our tongues and teeth, like we could for each other? We began to wonder if we even knew how we talked anymore–what had, at first, been an effort to make things easier on our friends had become the very bedrock of our entire speech. Had we begun communicating with some helping of telepathy or sign, or had we simply begun to form our own incestuous intra-tongue, formed mostly from a crucible consisting of months of togetherness, every episode of Futurama, and too many encounters with racist Australian youths?

It is hard, sometimes, to pinpoint exactly the kind of influence your friends have on you. You share a lot of time together (and sometimes, as in the case of this trip, an unhealthy amount), and you change alongside them, but dissecting their influence upon you can be difficult and nebulous. But if you look at your speech, the indelible marks people leave upon you become clear. How you speak is shaped by the people around you, is warped and changed and complicated by their own patter, by their own idioms, by their own quirks. Their quirks become your own, and your own theirs. How you speak is as much an expression of you are as it is the audible proof of those you choose to make you who you are.

14 thoughts on “Our Private Pidgin and the Great Slang Convergence

  1. My husband and I joke that no one understands our language. It’s a strange mix of Chinese and English that will not really make sense unless you speak some of both!

  2. You’re doing it Michael! You’re encapsulating the human condition!

    (I’m sorry, all the talk about inside jokes, I got kind of possessive there).

  3. I don’t think I really to need give examples how among Asian-Canadians they might joke in ways that’s based on experiences growing up in Canada but misunderstood for being foreign…and having to explain this over and over later in life to others outside the social group.

    Will your blog name be still used ….5 years from now? 😉

    Enjoy the luxury of …being a white and having the choice to keep or forget your Korean experience decades from now. Seriously.

    Some of us have that choice thrust in our face –positively or negatively. So those same inner jokes…become a matter of shared familial experiences that extend back into decades ago in and beyond Canada.

    • A lot of people group together over common experiences, and I’ve talked with some of my Asian-Canadian friends about it to some degree before. That common experience can lead to a lot of common lingo, a shorthand that can be used among people who just get it, without having to explain it to the other people.

      Universe willing, this blog name will still be used decades from now, possibly in movie form.

      I tried to grow more conscious of the privilege I carried, both here in Canada, and abroad as I travelled and lived, and now as I consider moving back to Asia. I cherish my time in Korea and don’t plan to forget it, but I am well aware that if I wanted to, I could very easily forego ever being seen as foreign by simply staying here. Forgetting it, letting myself just throw away the foreigner part of the blog title, I think would be betraying my time there and the understanding I worked on (and am still working towards).

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