Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Language (How Do I Even Talk Now?)

Oh, hi there.

Still my go-to stock photo for language.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

I was on the subway, deep below the earth, talking freely to a friend. My tongue sluiced freely around my mouth. My teeth chattered, unbound. Phonemes flew unabashedly off of my stupid lips. Maybe I was talking about bowel movements, or my visceral hatred for a certain coworker, or fairly deep spoilers to books three, four, and five of A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe I was expressing untoward personal opinions on Margaret Thatcher, or my thoughts in unicorns in North Korea. Perhaps, at different times, all of these subjects of discussion. In polite company I would usually try to refrain from blabbing on about touchy subjects, about the crude or the vulgar or the spoilerific.

And while I was still largely in polite company, I was in polite company that was speaking in Korean and had no interest in my dumb English conversation. Under the sea of a completely different language, my own sentences were slipping completely under the radar, too fast and too idiosyncratic and too boring for anyone to bother listening in. I had diplomatic immunity of the mouth, and I could say whatever I wanted, almost whenever I wanted.

I had grown used to this luxury. It seemed, for a time, that I was walking around in a glorious English bubble, a great movable sphere of incomprehensibility. No one around would understand me, and unless I tried with particular effort, I couldn’t understand anyone else. It was a gentleman’s agreement on eavesdropping, and the difficulty of translation meant that nobody would bother trying too hard to overhear my tedious communiqués. Every conversation was intimate and private, even if we were sardined into a bus with hundreds of strangers at rush hour, or swarmed by waiters and other diners at a restaurant. No one was going to bother trying to understand me, and thus my words were all free.

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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.

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This Is Your Brain on Second Language

The wall

Pictured above: not the actual language I'm talking about. But I do love this picture.

As I brave the strange, navel-gazing midlands between “I speak Korean” and “Korean is a language that I know exists,” I have a great deal of time to reflect on the status of my own brain. The trials and tribulations, the ups and downs, the dizzying, self-satisfied highs of language successes and the mortifying, protruding-lower-lip lows of language failures. Being in the spooky land of intermediate capability in a language means my skills and capabilities are only so trustworthy. That, at any given time when I am expected to engage in my second language, the odds are about at even that I will manage to stun all listeners with my thrilling turns of phrase as are the odds that my tongue and teeth will fuse together into a tumorous fistula of flesh and manage to produce only the most mewling and pathetic of brays. Operating in a second language means being at the whim of your mood, your energy, the nimbleness of your articulators. It means seeming all over the place: at one point ragingly fluent, at others stunningly mute.

There are, of course, patterns I have come to notice in my own journey towards mild competence. Over time and experiencing both the greatest of shame and pride, my Korean has given rise to some easily-recognizable quirks.

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The Decline of My English: Fly To Your Imagination With The Art

I speak like this, essentially.

Before I moved to Korea, I don’t think I ever really said the word “delicious.” I guess I always considered it a sort of cumbersome 10-cent word more easily replaced by its three cent cousins, by either more or less specific terms of taste and flavour. It was just an unnecessary word that existed in my lexicon, one just vague enough to be completely useless in regular conversation, and thus one I didn’t really use or care about. It could be stricken from my brain—incredibly particular and futuristic microsurgery used to scrape it from my very neurons—and I could have gotten by in the English world with little difficulty.

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The Lopsided Linguist

Calligraphy

For everyone learning a new language, there is a constant desire to be just more fluent than you currently are. There’s always a verb you’re searching for, a new syntax you wish you could deploy, some fanciful flourish of phrase  that would convey your meaning just so, and it’s always just beyond your grasp. More frustratingly for me, though, is how much my skills have begun to tilt to one side. Many areas of my Korean skill are haunted houses full of lingering desires and forgotten words, while others are vibrant and lively. For the people who encounter me with the former, I appear to be a stuttering boob; but for those who see the latter, I’m practically capable of modern poetry.

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The Great Restaurant Language Dilemma

The moment we are first noticed upon entering an establishment, there is anxiety. Tension begins to fill the air, and the hand-wringing commences. When we enter to sit down at a restaurant, or walk through a store, the waiters usually assemble in a quickly thrown-together caucus to discuss the dilemma now facing them: one of us might have to speak English to finish our job tonight. They weigh out the pros and cons, and in the vast majority of establishments (though certainly not all), it is simply less embarrassing and risky to struggle valiantly and painfully through every interaction with non-Korean-speaking customers than it is to try to bar them form the business with pitchforks and raised voices.

And so, an argument begins.

Who studied English the most, or the most recently? Who has been to any country where you have to speak it? Who is the most daring, the least shakeable, the least likely to run back to the kitchen drenched in tears, flop-sweat, and whatever toxic emissions foreigners surely seep through their alien hides? In rapid succession, candidates are nominated, and struck out of contention, and nominated once more.

When one sacrificial lamb is finally elected, they begin to waft over to our table as though facing the gallows. Their palms are sweaty. Their brows are furrowed. This had not been in the job description. If they had known they might have to speak English, they would have just started working in a stockroom. Or shovelling manure somewhere, or began working with dangerous animals. Taken a job on a mountain top, or in a rural village, or just somewhere, anywhere, where the travesty that is coming to befall them would not have occurred.

They heave a sigh once before us, and simply pick up the bill, hoping we will start the interaction. In their eyes is the desperate plea of an animal, of someone being led to the slaughter — make this quick.

Because I am ultimately a cruel and capricious fiend, I have, more than a few times, allowed people to swing in the wind for a few moments of harried, desperate, strangled English. Once, a waiter came to tell us that the kitchen would soon be closed, but when we began asking a clarifying question, he recoiled viscerally. Soon, a waitress came to shield him, to stand in front of him, to barricade him from us and our brutal linguistic assaults upon his very spirit.

When waiters or service people do start an interaction, it is almost invariably with a long, disheartened apology about the quality of English we are about to receive. But they will do this for us. Because it is their duty. And because they will probably get yelled at if they don’t.

***

The moment when I first reveal enough Korean to get us through the interaction is one of fairly intense confusion.

While having dinner recently with a friend, we searched for the bing-bong (the table doorbell) to summon one of the waiters, and when we discovered none, I yelled out the customary “Over here!” in Korean. A waitress perked, and began to scan the restaurant, looking for who might be calling out to her. “That certainly sounded like Korean,” her expression read. Consternation swam across her features. She could find no source, and was prepared to just believe it a ghost, a bit of wind, until she noticed me waving and blinking rapidly at her. “Him?” She shook her head and began walking towards us. “Oh well, a lucky coincidence that I hallucinated just when he was trying to get my attention.”

When I, or someone else at the table, finally take pity upon this long-suffering and, to be fair, legitimately straining face, I begin speaking in Korean. After a few pained, brutal sentences through English, each one seemingly rending another internal organ from their torsos, I inform them they can continue the interaction in Korean. Or I just begin rattling off the things that we want.

The look is at first one of genuine bewilderment. “Oh, of course. I suffered an aneurysm from that much English in one sitting, and purgatory is a world of illusions.” I can’t be speaking Korean, that would just be nonsense.

But then I keep going, and I’m saying all the food or help that I need. And they remember their job, and that as much as they want to interrogate me as to how I have engaged in such sorcery, they don’t want to ask me to repeat just in case it’s a one-time distortion in the fabric of the universe.

And last is an overabundant praise of my Korean. Usually it’s overkill, as my Korean still largely sucks. But I know just enough of it to get the job done. They are not praising my Korean, really. They are thanking me for saving them from the fate they had dreaded.

Seconds later, they return to the caucus. They tell them what they have seen. “You’re full of it,” their faces say, and they glance at me or whoever I’m with, and shake their heads. You just don’t want to have to answer them the next time they call for a waiter. The person is looked upon with suspicion, with rolled eyes. They might as well claim Bigfoot is sitting in the restaurant.

Nuggets of Life: Kinder-Surprise Mouth

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.