Korea: Tongue tied - The Saddle Sores Super Asia Tour 2000 begins with a whimper uttered in hangul.
I had never really felt like "just another white guy" until yesterday. Most of those who know me well will snicker at this, but it's amazing what feeling like a total outsider can do.
I lived all my childhood and adolescent life in Peru, son of Colombian parents, going to a school where we studied everything in English. Where does the white guy part come in? Well, yours truly has dark brown hair, but everywhere else I'm about as pasty as your standard resident of Wisconsin. I can and do claim Latin American identity, but many 'Mericans give me that "but you don't look Hispanic" fairly often. I guess they're imagining some guy in a Mariachi hat, and that I'm some form of cultural impossibility. Put all that together, and it means that when I moved to the US, I didn't feel like a foreigner greatly because all of my education had been preparing me for what would be Freshman Move-in Day, and yes, because I'm a white-looking guy without an accent.
In addition to Spanish and English, I also speak French and Portuguese and can make myself understood in Italian. I can, by and large, read German and get the general gist of it. Oddly enough, even though I speak a good number of the European languages, I've never been to Europe. However, I've traveled all over the western hemisphere and have never been in a place where I didn't know the language that those around me were speaking. So go figure why my first real transoceanic trip was not across the Atlantic but in the other direction (well, does Hawaii count?)
I'd been preparing for this business trip to Seoul for a few weeks, and had enough time to go to the Arlington County Public Library (which along with The Java Shack is my favorite place in the County) to check out Fast and easy Korean (I'll call it FAEK from now on, because that's all it's really helping me to do) and learn to at least recognize what Korean sounds like. But the reality of living in a world where I can't read the writing or function at a most basic level is very humbling.
As soon as I got into that All Nippon Airways flight from Washington, DC to Japan's Narita airport it hit me that I would be living two weeks of pantomime. My pidgin Japanese was really of little use in the airplane, given that I was not asking for directions to the train station, trying to find out where the Post Office is located or how much this bundle of turnips costs. With every voice over the airplane's PA system I could discern was the very frequent kudasai, but by and large I was in the linguistic dark. The two flight attendants were very sweet in that young-Japanese-woman-in-service-role kind of way, and I think they were a tad surprised when I asked for the Japanese-style meal. I'm still curious as to whether or not the quality of Japanese airplane food has the same reputation as that of US airplane food. I enjoyed it, however.
A two-hour layover in Narita consisted basically of me feeling lost for about 30 minutes, trying to figure out exactly where it was that I was supposed to go. By that point I'd been awake for just about 20 hours, so compound that with my not being able to read Kanji or interpret the signs in muddled English and you end up with what Lost 'Merican Tourists look like. The Lost 'Merican Tourist syndrome was something we easily recognized in Peru (the phrase book, the confused look, the slowly-spoken, progressively louder "Do you speak English?") and that we often mocked, so I suppose this is some general-purpose Karmic adjustment.
It's very telling that, despite all this, I could still get things done because people speak English all over the place. Signs are still, by and large, in English as well. Is English the real-life Esperanto?
I landed in Seoul at around 8PM on Saturday evening, got my luggage, changed money and boarded a cab. I dug out my phrase book (never thought I'd ever use one of those) and uttered the word Hilton and something to the effect of take me there. Road signs are in hangul and English, and my few hours with FAEK helped me interpret a few of the signs that were not in The Queen's tongue.
I think I insulted the cab driver when I made a signal asking him if he could write down how much I owed him. I then dug out the trusty phrase book, muttered something else, and then he pointed. He seemed highly offended at me for something, because he stormed out of the car, took out my suitcase, left it on the asphalt, and didn't even wait for me to close the door before taking off. I'm hanging out with my friend Jang-ho today, hopefully he'll clarify some things for me.
Sum total, I interacted with people in four different languages (I called my mom from the airport) in a 24-hour period, two of which I don't even speak.
In two weeks, I'll be headed to Hong Kong. There, with my limited Cantonese, I'll be able to ask a waiter to please bring me a glass of beer and some steam dumplings.
At least I'll know not to try to speak in very slow an loud English to make myself understood.