Monday, February 26, 2018

the cognitive mesh

It's not that Koreans are incapable of thinking, but they're often trained and educated in such a way as to think that life can be navigated as if it were a series of clear-cut multiple-choice questions. A single operator's manual is all a Korean needs to get through life, and when any situation arises that doesn't fit what the manual says, a Korean either freezes or backs up and then repeats whatever procedure was being followed that brought him or her to this pass.

Case in point: I went to Subway today to get a tuna sub.* When I placed my order, I started off by saying I wanted the 30-centimeter (i.e., foot-long) tuna sub, and I specifically mentioned white bread. I used the Korean term hayan bbang (literally, "white bread") to describe the bread I wanted. The girl taking my order looked up at me and asked, "What kind of bread did you want?" I once again said, "Hayan bbang." She then asked, "Do you want hwaiteu [the English "white" pronounced the Korean way]?" For a third time, I said, "Hayan bbang." The girl then pointed to the menu chart and asked again, "Hwaiteu majeuseyo?" ("White bread, correct?") Finally, I gave up and said, "Yes—hwaiteu."

I've used the term hayan bbang with the older lady that I normally see working at Subway, and she's had no trouble understanding what I mean. She wasn't in today, and she apparently took all the IQ points in the room with her. Luckily, the rest of my order went smoothly, but as I stalked out of Subway, grumbling, I replayed the exchange in my head and tried to analyze it. The only conclusion I could come to was that the girl had been trained to hear hwaiteu bread, and anything else—even Korean itself—would register only as incomprehensible static. Her cognitive filter was a round hole; anything not exactly conforming to that hole's shape and size would automatically be rejected as faulty input.

To be fair, I've been the guilty party in similar exchanges when I was in America. I've listened to someone with an accent trying to say something to me, and it was just not registering. Then someone else listening in would restate what the person was saying, but in a clearer accent, and I'd immediately realize that what the first interlocutor had been saying was, in fact, perfectly comprehensible: I'd simply had my cognitive mesh in place, and it had been screening out any and all utterances made by those fuzzy little furriners.

That said, I'm not as routinely guilty of this problem as some of the geniuses I encounter here are—geniuses who are almost always young and female. Don't be fooled by all those stories you hear in America about how Koreans are intellectually superior model minorities: most of them have brains, but quite a few have heads stuffed with straw. Dealing with foreigners, even ones who pronounce Korean clearly, is just not in the operator's manual.

*I couldn't help noticing that an anagram of "tuna sub" is "anus tub."

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