Tuesday, December 09, 2014

close encounters

1. First encounter

While walking out of the vegetarian buffet today, I was waylaid by an older Korean gent who gestured at me as if he wanted to say something. I stopped politely by his table and waited. His lunch companions, all younger than he was, waited as well. The gentleman goggled at me, mouth agape, for about ten seconds before he finally asked in English:

"Are you Korean?"

It was a disarming question, despite coming from left field, because so many idiots fail to see any Korean blood in me, even though it's painfully obvious—to me, anyway—that I've got Koreanish traits: dark eyes, dark hair, a certain Asian roundedness to my facial features. Most Koreans look at me and see only a white guy, which I find astounding: when I was in France, a few people looked at me and told me right away that I looked Asian (I wrote about this here and here). I tend to view the Korean inability to see me for who I am as a function of the tightly meshed cultural filter through which Koreans perceive the world. If you don't exactly fit the Korean paradigm, that precise look, then you're screened out and not considered Korean. It's idiotic, as I said above, but there we are.

Anyway, this gent didn't exactly start off on the wrong foot because his question was, at the very least, more perceptive than what I usually hear. So I said, "Well, half-Korean" as a way to be polite. I could see where this was going, though, and I anticipated his next question before he asked it:

"Do you have time to sit down and talk?"

You see, this wasn't really about me: it was about him. He could obviously speak English, and he wanted to show that fact off to the juniors sitting at the table with him. I've been in situations like this before. Koreans are status-obsessed, and one way to up your status is to show off your ability to interact more or less fluently with foreigners, especially with admiring observers around you. I've been with Korean guys who spoke unnaturally loudly as a way of alerting all bystanders and passersby that, yes, they could speak the language of the foreigner. For this older gentleman, I was just a prop that allowed him to display his own prowess.

My feelings about this are complex. On the one hand, I privately consider it a point of pride to be able to navigate several different cultures—in my case, those cultures would be primarily American, French, Swiss, and Korean (add on some extra cultures, like Kiwi, Aussie, Brit, and Canuck, thanks to the diversity of my coworkers in the jobs I've had in Korea). I agree with the loudmouthed show-offs that being able to interact with The Other is actually a good thing, like being able to navigate the multicultural, polyglot environment of the Mos Eisley cantina. On the other hand, being obnoxious about this ability is just a turn-off, and the obnoxiousness itself actually hints at the fact that the loudmouth in question maybe isn't navigating the cultural waters as ably as he could.

I told the older gent that I didn't have time to talk right then, but I gave him my business card (he gave none in return, which was odd), so it's possible he'll be tracking me down again at some point. God help me. It's one thing to meet someone new and start up a conversation; it's quite another when the motivation for the conversation is obviously a chance for English free-talk and for showing off. I also don't like being used as a damn prop.

2. Second encounter

I went out after lunch and walked down to the Chungmuro/Eujiro district. I wanted to snap a pic of that adorable puppy that I'd written about before, and I also wanted to shop for a proper vertical lamp. While walking past the Ambassador Hotel, a taxi driver suddenly reversed his car, which placed him right alongside me but at a slight diagonal, such that I began to run out of space as I began walking along the hotel's driveway. The taxicab was eventually going to grind me against the hotel's well-manicured shrubbery, so I made my left hand into a fist and rapped sharply on the cab's surface, twice, to alert the driver to my presence. He hit the brakes quite suddenly, indicating to me that he wasn't deliberately trying to be obnoxious: he really had no clue I was next to his cab. So: not obnoxious—just an idiot.

3. Third encounter

In the Euljiro district, I finally found a lamp store selling a stand-up lamp for only W50,000, which comes out to about $45, US. That was perfect for me, so I snapped it up and bought two of the large bulbs that went with the lamp (bulbs were extra, alas, as was the electric cord, but the guy gave me a W1,000 discount). If I don't have an extra extension cord hiding in one of my boxes, I'm going to have to go buy one of those, too. The shopkeeper was one of those doofuses who refused to understand me when I spoke in Korean to him; I did what my buddy Tom does in such situations, and shamed him by speaking in slow baby-talk to let him know that his listening comprehension was the problem, not my pronunciation.

One stranger and two geniuses. Never a boring day.



Charles said...

I would not have given the guy my card, but it's unlikely that you'll hear from him anyway.

Congrats on getting the lamp, although the doofus must have been annoying. I have had this experience as well. It's not even about listening comprehension; I think it's about being unable to comprehend the idea that a foreigner could speak Korean, making the brain incapable of processing the input.

I recently had an encounter with one of our apartment maintenance/management guys. He's an older guy, and he opened the conversation with the most broken English I've heard in a while--he was literally tossing out single words with no context. Even after I said, "I speak Korean" (in Korean), he kept up his stuttering babble. I repeated myself a good half dozen times before the light finally went on in his head and he said (in Korean), "Oh, you speak Korean!"

That being said, he does work in an apartment complex with a lot of foreign professors, many of whom do not speak any Korean. So I try to be understanding. I'm sure that I will have to go through the same process at our next interaction, though.

Kevin Kim said...

What I found bizarre was that the man thought I might possibly be Korean, then he asked me whether I was Korean in English.

"It's not even about listening comprehension; I think it's about being unable to comprehend the idea that a foreigner could speak Korean, making the brain incapable of processing the input."

I agree with your theory and have probably written as much on this blog, although I'd say you're simply plumbing a little deeper for a root explanation of the listening-comprehension problem. It's the "does not compute" brain-freeze that causes the problem.

re: giving my card

I knew it'd be a risk, but I felt it was the polite thing to do. The guy told me, moments after that initial exchange, that he was a fellow DGU prof who taught engineering, which made me feel a bit safer about giving him my card.

Anne in Rockwall, TX said...

And the pictures of the pup?

Charles said...

Ah, he was a DGU prof? Well, that does change things.