Thursday, March 30, 2006

attack of the little card girls

After I left the office this afternoon, I lumber-waddled downhill from Smoo's main campus to the local bank. My empty wallet was screaming for more money, and I was hoping to hit up the newly installed super-ATMs to calm the wallet down.

Two unchaperoned little girls, probably no more than six years old, were in the bank's foyer, which is also where a long row of ATMs stood. The girls had been trying to do something with one ATM, but I couldn't see what. The mystery was solved when one little girl ran up to me and said, "Adjoshi! This card doesn't work in the machine!" Cottoning to my new and surprising role as The Nameless Adjoshi, I said, "Show me your card!" The girl dutifully slapped it in my hand.

It was a phone card.

I have it on good authority from no less a cosmic personage than Justin Yoshida that, in Japan, phone cards are generally used by two classes of people: the homeless and drug dealers. Perhaps, I thought, the same applies in Korea. These little girls didn't look old enough to be pushing crack, so I was forced to conclude they were homeless waifs. They certainly seemed to have the street smarts I associate with clever homeless folks: after I informed the first girl that her phone card wouldn't work in these machines, both girls asked to see my phone card. I guess they were thinking that some people's phone cards were somehow better than others' cards when it came to ATM access, a perfectly reasonable assumption in a hierarchical society.

I told the girls I didn't have a phone card because, like most people in Korea, I have a cell phone. Undeterred, and having completely forgotten that their original purpose was to extort money from an ATM, the girls demanded to see my cell phone.

At this point, I was too charmed and amused by these girls to say no, so I brought the phone out and gave it to them. They grabbed it, immediately figured out how to open it, then started pushing random keys in a touchingly determined effort to make the phone do something. At that point I laughed, reached down for the phone, and pried it away from them while saying, "OK, that's enough" in a voice that tried to convey both imperiousness and avuncularity. The girls gave up without resistance, perhaps realizing that I can beat any number of six-year-old girls in an Ultimate Fighting cage match any day. Phone safely pocketed, I indicated the row of pay phones outside.

"Try those," I advised.

"We tried, and they don't work," was the reply.

At that point, the girls realized there was no further benefit in talking with The Nameless Adjoshi, so they left the bank's foyer. I got my cash in peace, then lumber-waddled home.

Aside from the fact that the encounter was inherently amusing, what struck me was that the girls never once said "Huh?" or "What?" while I was speaking Korean with them. That's a good sign: children are the most honest critics when it comes to judging whether you speak a language clearly enough to make yourself understood. My early forays in France were punctuated by a lot of "Comment?" (and its ruder cousin, "Quoi?") until my accent improved. I get a lot of that in Korea, but it's usually from rude teenage girls who utter the Korean version of "Huh?", which sounds like a nasal "Eh?" (or perhaps the French "Hein?").

I was also struck by the fact that my foreignness was never once an issue in our bizarre exchange. Truly remarkable, that, and reassuring. Recognition of foreignness, and inability to understand someone's accent-- these things might be the artifacts of the mental filters we construct as we are further assimilated into our given culture. The Tao Te Ching tells us that "the five colors blind the eye; the five tones deafen the ear." This means that our mental filters can actually get in the way of true, unadulterated perception.

Perhaps these girls, for all their wiliness (and no-- they weren't homeless; that was a joke, for God's sake), were strangely pure of heart: in the world of unmediated percipience, there are no Koreans, no foreigners, and no funny accents.



Anonymous said...

Finally, justification in the form of six-year-old girls!

I didn't even know they still had phone-card phones in Korea until my friend came to visit a few weeks ago and had to buy a phone card to call me at the airport. That's the only place I've seen them.

Kevin Kim said...


Some of us still live in the dark ages.

As for justification... it's not going to stop me from getting "Huh"s from the local teens at Burger King.


Maven said...

Additionally, children tend to live in the moment as well. And perhaps they were so taken by the calling card and cell phone bit, to really focus on your foreign-ness? Or perhaps it's a sign you've reached a deeper level of immersion?

Joel said...

I was using phone cards up until a couple of months ago. If you walk into any convenience store and ask for one they will give them to you. You just have to choose an amount.