Monday, December 10, 2007

Travelogue #16: Flirtation, Painful Massages, and Language Barriers in South Korea

<---Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play?
---->Travelogue #17: A "Routine" Day in Bundang, South Korea

Time: Summer-Early Fall 2007

Location: Optometrist's Office or Hair Salon or Grocery Store

KINDLY STRANGER: You graduated? Know what you're doing yet?

ME: Right now I'm working at a used bookstore, but I might go to Korea to teach for a year.

KINDLY STRANGER (grinning like he's got a secret): Korea? I bet you're coming home with a Korean wife!

ME: Ha yep, that's what I keep hearing.

(KINDLY STRANGER turns to my MOM.)

KINDLY STRANGER: He's coming back with a Korean wife! And some little babies too!

Mom (smiling glibly): That's what we keep hearing.

The story was old even before my mom and I heard it: American boy meets Korean girl, makes her his wife, chuckle-chuckle, and brings her back to the Red, White, and Blue. Each jokester seemed to think he was the first to imagine this twist in my Korean adventure, though in reality, many people made the exact same smiley-faced prediction.

But could I blame them? Not really. We'd all heard the true tales of cross-continental love: anecdotal but no less factual. Sometimes, an American man did indeed go overseas and return with an exotic wife. But me? I didn't see myself joining that club, for my goal in coming to Korea was not to embrace a lifelong commitment, it was to independently embrace the newness of the other side of the world. If I'd make an exception, the woman would probably be another English-teaching Westerner who looked like Jennifer Love Hewitt did in 1999.

Don't get me wrong: many Korean women are unquestionably attractive. But the issue to me was more about language: what would we talk about?

What would we talk about?

"You look like...Jim Carrey!" she told me, her friends giggling along with her. It was a Friday night in Seohyeon at Beer Gardin, where brewskies are served in gigantic goblets fit for medieval knights. I was halfway through my goblet and sharing smiles with this woman who thought I looked like Jim Carrey. Let's call her Soo. Soo is a work friend of David's significant other, EunJin, but unlike EunJin, who's a fluent speaker, Soo is a beginner when it comes to English. She forms sentences tentatively, taping nouns and verbs together as if they're loose beads in a necklace. As for my grasp of the Korean language, I know hello, thank you, and the names of a dozen foods. So:

What would we talk about?

Since she said I looked like Jim Carrey, I brainstormed a celebrity to whom she could be likened:
"Jennifer Lopez!" she said, posing pouty-lipped.

"Yes," I said, though I didn't quite see the resemblance. "Yes! Jennifer Lopez!"


"Do you like to play any instruments?" I asked. "Music?"

She mimed playing the piano.

"Piano? Ah, Piano!" A little tipsy, I asked her, "Do you like Ben Folds?"

One of my co-workers muttered come on man, as if to say that Ben Folds is not the king of Korea and that Soo would not know Ben Folds from Ben Kinglsey.

No matter. I pressed on. Soo and I kind-of-sort-of discussed the fact that Justin Timberlake is from Memphis and so am I! From across the table, EunJin helped translate a word or two. "She thinks you're very kind," was the translation. Cool.

A few nights later, things got more intimate. David was performing open mic night at Dublin's Irish Pub, and I just so happened to be sitting across from Soo at the end of a dimly lit table. From her bag she unearthed an introduction to English book. "She wants to improve," Eunjin explained, "so she can ask you more questions."

Up popped my warning antennae, pulsing invisibly in the air. I'd heard of Korean girls who deliberately sought out English-speaking males to develop their language skills. Was Soo one of these girls? Was she fluttering her eyelashes in the name of God-honest flirtation, or in the name of her ABCs?

I was probably being unfair. She struck me as a sweet girl, not one with a "master plan." I shifted my fingers across the pages of her book, finding a line-up of questions in Korean followed by the same questions in English. I chose one: "Do you play the piano?" I asked boldly.

"Yes," she said. "Other night. You ask me. Same question."

She was right. I had repeated myself. Not a good sign for the future of our give-and-take. The last time I'd asked the girl the same question twice was Liz Lodholtz in eleventh grade, when I asked for the name of her favorite radio station, only to ask again hours later. Her answer was Rock 103. Liz and I haven't talked much since.

Anyway, Soo and I regained our footing at the Norebang, where we doot-doot-dooted to Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life." She was a bit shy but I wouldn't take no for an answer; I would only accept "doots" during the chorus.

"She says thank you for encouraging her to sing," Eunjin said, again helpfully translating. I nodded a no problem. With David and EunJin canoodling in one corner of the starbrite-burst of a room, Soo offered to give me a massage. Hmm...I wasn't too comfortable with her yet, but when a pretty girl offers you a massage, it's hard to say no.

Ouch! God! Ouch!

What the hell was she doing to my back! I let out a Bambi yelp but still her hands clawed deeper and deeper into my sides. The words of Michael Scott flashed through my mind: "The Japanese have this thing called shiatsu massage, where they dig into your body, very hard. And it is very painful. And apparently, some people throw up. But the next day they feel great. I’ve never had one. They sound awful."

Was this Korean girl giving me, an American guy, a Japanese massage? If so, the cross-cultural wiring was making me feel more distant from Soo rather than more connected. I buckled away from her grip, and her eyes twinkled in apology. In a typical situation I'd feel like an ungrateful snot, but this time, all I could think about was my back. Hurting.

After mumbling through her Karaoke selection of Usher's "My Boo," I joined Soo in her car. She had generously offered to drive David, EunJin, and me back to our apartment.

"So that's the Tanchon River?" I said, pointing out the window at the water lapping beside the road. "I need to take a walk there."

"You haven't gone to the Tanchon yet?" David asked.

"I haven't, but I will," I said. "Consider it done."

"" Soo wondered.

"Consider it done!" I said with a bad Bronx accent.

I speak in idioms. Many idioms. And sometimes I try to artificially create new ones for the sake of humor. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I flop, but on this night, I did neither. On this night, I merely confused.

Soo began to jabber with EunJin in Korean. "She is not sure what you're saying," EunJin explained, "she is asking if you are inviting her to walk with you on the Tanchon River?"

"Umm," I said. David chuckled in the backseat. He was enjoying this.

I steered the conversation back to what "consider it done" meant, but I was not scoring As for clarity. "Consider it done!" I said, "you know, like they say in the Mafia, when somebody is supposed to be killed, and consider it done, so even if they're not killed already, they will be killed. Consider it done..."

Through this explanation, I may have mimed murdering Soo. "Okay," she said uncertainly.

The night closed with Soo and I alone in the car. She's a nice girl, but I couldn't help feeling plainly uncomfortable in the face of our language barrier. I touched her elbow; I think she touched mine. We said good-bye once or twice, or maybe even three times. And then I left the car.

In my recent history of travel, I've written frequently on how members of different cultures can communicate through more than language: they often can understand each other through pop culture, food, or even tennis. But in my time with Soo, language stood as an obstacle between us, at once obvious and surprising, forcing us to exaggerate hand gestures and nod and smile even when we didn't know what the other person was saying. According to David, later that evening, EunJin spent fifteen minutes on the phone with Soo explaining the meaning of "consider it done" and how nobody was making fun of her for not knowing it, that David and I were just laughing at the curiosity of the situation.

I don't think I'll marry Soo. I don't think I'll marry any just-now-learning-English Korean woman. If you call me closed-minded or call me impatient, you might be right.

I don't know what Soo wants, but I want a woman who can play with my words and fire them right back at me, a woman who can twist my clumsy idioms into conversational quips all her own. Or at least, that's what I think I want...

One day I'll make it happen.

Consider it done.

Related Post: Travelogue #26: My Rocky Introduction to Korean Dating

<---Travelogue #15: Hello Korean Women's Tennis League. Can I Play? -

--->Travelogue #17: A "Routine" Day in Bundang, South Korea



Steph said...

I think this might be my favorite post of yours so far! Very funny!

Anonymous said...

Great post!I am still laughing.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant writing!As usual.

Anonymous said...

so are you going to write a novel on your experience? If so i'll buy it

David Ogles said...

The way you wrote this makes it more alive to me than when I was actually experiencing it. Great job.

"Consider it done" will go down in catch phrase lore forever.

Michael said...

Aw. She wanted you to be her boo.

Anonymous said...

Awesome, as usual, Alex. Your stories always make me smile.


Lindsay said...

Cute : ) Im moving to Seoul in a couple of weeks and Im looking forward to awkward, Lost In Translation moments of my own...

ekang said...

hilarious loved it! perfect to get through the desk warming!