I am quite ashamed to say that my skills in the Korean language are bad, and by bad I mean non-existent. In Taiwan, Chris and I picked up some survival Chinese and were able to get around at a functional level. However, here in Seoul we live on campus surrounded by other English speakers and we have not been forced to learn any of the local language. Despite promises made to myself to develop in this area of weakness, I have made no progress over the last year.
Nothing highlights this ineptitude more than when I hop into a taxi to venture out into the city. It is not usually because I don’t know how to say where I want to go, however. I have learned the names of certain areas and can pronounce them with at least some degree of accuracy. Instead, I am reminded of my language deficit when the taxi driver desires to converse with the crazy foreigners and their tiny foreign devil babies. Such a circumstance came about the other day when Chris, Chris’ mom and I set out on an errand that required a 20 minute taxi ride.
As we situated ourselves in the cab, we went through the usual charade session to indicate that we had twin girls who are two months old. This is often where conversations stop and I expected this one to end here as well. But, this particular cabbie was quite chatty. He proceeded to spout off in Korean a number of very important and interesting points about twins, Korea, and life in general… at least that is what I imagine that he was saying. After the first few minutes of chatting, we all attempted to give him a blank smile that usually communicates, “Hello, good sir, I am sure that you have valid points to make but unfortunately I cannot understand any of them as I am an ignorant foreigner who has not taken the pains to learn your language.” This blank stare did not deter our new friend, however. Through hand signals, very interesting sound effects, Korean, and a smattering of English, he proceeded to explain to us the ways of the world. Meanwhile, the three of us made it a sort of game to decipher what it was he was so intent on explaining to us.
“Japan blah blah blah *explosion sound followed by large hand gesture*! Blah blah blah Korea *high-pitched noise followed by hand gesture signifying something small*.” We nod slowly and take a few stabs at what he is explaining. Is he still talking about the twins or have we moved on to a new topic? He continues, “Blah blah America *small explosion sound and medium hand gesture*. China! Ha, China blah blah. *Laser sound and arrow hand motion*. Korea, Korea *small hand gesture again*. Japan *explosion sound and large hand gesture*.” We huddle together and discuss what he might be talking about. Was he explaining foreign relations? Was he talking about child-rearing traditions and when children are typically brought out in public? He continued on with increasingly animated sound effects and gestures.
Finally, Chris thought he had decrypted the message. “Tsunami?” he ventured. “Of course tsunami,” his tone responded as he continued to communicate through pointing and grunting. Our new friend resumed his game of charades with sound effects seemingly unfazed. We, however, held a mini-celebration at Chris’ incredible victory in comprehension. When we finally reached our destination, we were all glowing with satisfaction: our driver because he had informed the ignorant foreigners about important information regarding the tsunami; us because we had actually succeeded in comprehending one word of a twenty minute conversation. We have got to learn Korean.