tales of the orient: the great language debacle

I affixed my bike to the rack, my metal lock stiff in the cold, and tried to quell the butterflies dancing in my empty stomach. As an emotional eater, the fasting required by this particular excursion was proving challenging.

I wove between buildings and through the parking lot, following the little red dot on my navigation app. I trusted that it wouldn’t steer me wrong, in spite of all the times that trust was ultimately misplaced.

Mercifully, I reached what appeared to be my destination. “Serim General Hospital” said the white letters, both in English and Korean. I performed my usual exercise, the one where I force my inner voice to spell out the sounds the Korean letters make. Fat lot of good that’ll do, I thought. Sure, it was reading practice, but I was only able to glean meaning from this particular sign thanks to the side-by-side English translation. Ordinarily, all I get is gibberish. What good is being able to sound anything out if you don’t know what it means? I imagine it must be similar to how toddlers feel when they sing the alphabet song. Toddlers don’t usually have to deal with getting their pee tested for traces of weed, though, at least not by themselves.

I entered through the automatic doors, my steps timid, clutching my neatly folded form. I paused, looking around for an indication of where to go. A few rows of empty plastic chairs. A desk against the back wall. The scrub-clad young woman behind the desk glanced up at me. I unwrapped my stifling oversized scarf to reveal a nervous smile, dipping my head in the customary bow.

She returned my nod. “Annyeonghaseyo,” she said. Her hair was reddish in colour, cut in the short, blunt bob popular with Korean women. Her makeup was also typically Korean; straight powdered eyebrows, stark against a complexion plastered with makeup two shades lighter than her real skin tone, lips dabbed with bright watermelon red.

“Annyeonghaseyo,” I said back as I approached the counter, my voice cracking. “Umm…”

A tiny wrinkle between her brows marred her otherwise porcelain-smooth visage. Her eyes were clouded with apprehension, though they were not without kindness.

“I need…health test?” I said hopefully.

I could see the gears turning in her head as she tried to reach for whatever scraps of high school English she might have retained, but she came up short. Her mouth closed as she looked at me with apology in her eyes.

“Uh…” I brandished my paper, praying it would offer some clarity. “This?” She took it and studied the jumble of what, for all I knew, could have been instructions to punch me in the nose. She nodded. “This is right place?” I asked, gesturing between the paper and our surroundings. Broken, simple sentences, lots of body language.

If she’d been a comic book character, she would have had a little question mark scribbled above her head.

Admitting defeat, I pulled out my phone and opened Papago, Korea’s native translation app. The little parrot mascot had become my best friend in all of Korea. Thank God for smart phones.

Is this the right place to get a health test? I typed. I turned my phone to face her, Papago spitting the Korean letters into the box below.

“Ah, ah, okay, okay,” she said, understanding lighting her face.

Relief flooded through me.

“Odi…?” I said, using one of the thirty words of Korean I’d managed to pick up. Where?

“Chogi,” There, she said, gesturing towards the elevator to her right. She held up four fingers, indicating the correct floor. She handed back my paper.

“Kamsahamnida,” I said, bowing and flashing her a smile.

“Ne,” she replied, the little wrinkle relaxing, evidently glad that I was about to become someone else’s problem.

I shuffled to the elevator. Step one of my mission was complete; at least I was in the right place and hadn’t wandered into a maternity ward or something.

“So, Sam…”

These were the two words the four Kim children dreaded hearing most: “So,” followed by their name. These sorts of talks usually came after report card day, or a particularly poor display of sports-playing by my brother, or even a long stretch of perceived general laziness. Us kids always joked about avoiding going downstairs when we knew our father was alone on the couch watching TV, lest he seize the opportunity for a “So…” conversation. The following is a rough transcription of what would usually transpire post-report card.

“So, Sam…” my dad would say, head slightly bowed like a bobblehead animal toy, every adult’s “I relate to you!” stance. He would look up at me beneath raised brows, his usually stern face attempting a kind but knowing expression. “I know you’re very smart. I was just like you growing up. I didn’t really have to study or do my homework. I was always smart enough to get decent grades without working too hard.”

I would try to feign interest, but by the third or fourth time I received this speech, I could have given it to myself.

“But, it’ll come back to bite you later in life. You can’t be slacking off like this in university.”

“Yes, Dad,” I’d say, because anything else would result in a tangent about “talking back.”

“I don’t expect you to give one hundred percent all the time. But right now, you’re giving about fifty percent.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“I’ll make you a deal.”

I still couldn’t tell you what the other side of this deal entailed.

“How about giving eighty percent, eighty percent of the time? Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes, Dad.”

It would come to pass that I apparently could not do that. As if by prophecy, my easy 90s in late-elementary school slipped to 80s in high school, which slipped to a graduating GPA of 2.65 in university. I can only conclude that this was a result of the equalization of my natural talents in some fields and my absolute lack thereof in others.

In any case, I managed to skate through my entire academic career without trying, albeit on increasingly thinning ice. I listened in class and participated in discussions whenever I could summon ideas from the deepest caverns of my ass, which was often. I finished assignments on books I hadn’t read minutes before their deadlines, garnering grades that ranged from barely passing to average to sometimes even exceptional. I took minimal notes and studied them even less.

All of this is to say that I never learned how to try.

And so, here I am, approaching my late twenties as a jack of many trades but a master of none, because every time I press the “try” button in my brain it doesn’t even have the chance to malfunction because that button doesn’t actually exist.

I stepped into the sterile whiteness of the medical floor, removing my heavy down parka. Frosted glass doors lined the perimeter, numbers marking the different exam rooms. More rows of chairs, mostly empty. The staff outnumbered the patients; it was mid-morning on a Friday, and most people were at work.

Not me, though. I was flying back to my Home and Native Land for my winter vacation that very night and I was looking to get my health check over with, a requirement for renewing my teaching contract for another year. You see, I wanted to take full advantage of Canada’s newly minted marijuana laws, and Korea regards THC in the pee as a deportable offense. It was now or never.

I set my sights on the long counter situated in the back left corner, behind which sat a row of more scrub-clad women. Panes of textured glass divided their work spaces, each with a chair facing opposite. I made towards the rows of chairs serving as the waiting area, but one of the women caught my eye. “Anyeonghaseo?”

“Ah…Anyonghaseo,” I replied, approaching her station tentatively. My scarf trailed on the ground. I balled it up as I plopped into the chair.

“Do you…speak Korean?” she said.

“No,” I mumbled, shaking my head sheepishly.

“Ah…” she said, her brow furrowing, clearly ruffled.

I slid my paper across the table. She glanced at it and tapped a few keys on her computer. “Passport?” she said.

I obliged.

More typing. A machine beside her spit out a sticker of some kind, which she attached to my paper.

“The health test, ah, will be pahl-ship man won,” she said.

I thought for a moment, attempting to translate the number in my head.

“Eight-zero,” she clarified, having noticed my confusion.

“Ne.” I handed her my bank card and she swiped away my money.

“First is blood pressure test,” she said, indicating the blood pressure machine a few metres to my right. She returned my paper and passport and I gathered myself to leave.

“Kamsahamnida,” I said, stumbling towards the blood pressure station.

I’d experienced the Korean health test protocol once before, a year prior. It was all very efficient; there was one or two specialists at each station – blood pressure, blood and urine tests, dental exam, eye exam, x-ray – and patients circuited through each one. My previous year’s test had been facilitated by the orientation camp for English teachers I’d been required to attend, but this time, I had only my digital parrot friend as ally.

After I got my arm squeezed by the blood pressure machine, the nurse ushered me to the blood and urine test station.

I bounced from station to station, being poked and prodded, accompanied by a soundtrack of ums and ahs. I quickly began to sweat in my tracksuit, weighed down by my parka and oversized scarf that refused to stay in the jacket sleeve I’d stuffed it into. Eventually, the nurses, fluttering around me like a flock of frightened pigeons, managed to communicate that I needed to move up a floor.

Upstairs, I found myself once again unsure of where to go. Another nurse approached me, her face steeled with friendly determination

“Ah…this way, please! And…remove your clothing,” she said, opening the door to what appeared to be a change room. Her orange-tinted cheeks rounded as she smiled.

“Ohh! Waow!” exclaimed the other nurses, giving their colleague a little round of applause.

I gave her an encouraging thumbs up. “English is very good!”

“Oh! Thank you!” she said, grinning.

“Do you speak any Korean?”

Every time I told anyone about my upcoming move to Korea, that was usually the first thing out of their mouths. Well, the second; the first was usually some very hilarious joke akin to “South Korea, right? Don’t get nuked by Kim Jong Un!”

“Not besides ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘turtle,'” I’d reply ruefully. (For the record: Turtle = Kobugi).

“I’m sure you’ll pick it up in no time,” they’d assure me.

And I’d believed them. After all, I grew up hearing Korean straight from the mouths of my own flesh and blood.

We were all, tragically, incorrect.

If the earlier mention of my surname didn’t give it away, allow me to clarify: My father is Korean. I have his dark hair and eyes, his round face, and the Asian curse of straight eyelashes and sparse, misshapen eyebrows. My Czech mother’s round eyes combined with his monolids to produce my hooded lids that are the mortal enemy of eyeliners everywhere. I’d clock myself as Asian-inspired, like sesame ginger salad dressing.

Unfortunately, the Thousand Island neighbourhood in which I grew up was less than kind. I was ching-chong-ling-longed as kids pulled the corners of their eyes in imitation of mine. I was made fun of for partaking in Asian pop culture, even in the midst of Pokémania, when pretty much every kid carted their Game Boys to school. As I got older, I was the subject of men’s “yellow fever” and was once even asked if I had a sideways vagina. In my childhood, I felt confused; my teen years, I self-tokenized; into young adulthood, I took pride in my Koreanness and sought to protect it from anyone who might disparage it.

“Samanta, you go Korea. Teach English.” In the years preceding my university graduation, my Korean grandpa was prone to giving me this little speech. Perhaps speech-giving is hereditary, though I had a lot more patience for his than my dad’s speeches. He’d lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea and is a Korean War veteran, having survived time in a North Korean prison camp during his stint in the Korean army. His eagerness for his offspring to honour their Korean heritage was understandable.

He and my grandma moved to Canada fifty-something years ago, though no one would ever guess it just from speaking to them. In their younger days, my grandpa was an airplane engineer at Air Canada. My grandma ran a number of different businesses through the years, including a gas station, a hair salon, and, curiously, a Polish delicatessen. But, since retirement, they’d taken to hanging out exclusively with other old Korean people, leaving their English skills to decay.

When their only son married a white woman, they blessed the union on the condition that their children be raised with an understanding of Korean culture.

And so, we bowed to our elders every New Year’s Day in exchange for money; we held celebrations for our hundred-day birthdays (baek-il, a leftover tradition from a time with high infant mortality rates); we ate kimchi and mandu (Korean potstickers) and miyeok guk (seaweed soup). We were ingrained with a family-first mentality and taught to always respect our elders.

I often say that I didn’t have any expectations when I embarked on my Korean journey, but I think that’s at least a little bit of a lie. Deep down, I’d been hoping that I’d be fluent in Korean within my first year, that I’d be able to have conversations about our family history and the meaning of life with my grandparents upon my return home, that the Koreans would smell my Koreanness immediately, as if all the kimchi I’d eaten over the course of my lifetime had gathered in my bloodstream, ready seep out of my pores like some kind of race confirmation pheromones to call for my people.

In a brutal dose of reality, upon my move to Korea, I was constantly complimented on my proficiency with chopsticks (as if they’re shocked a whitey like me has even seen chopsticks), warned about the spiciness of food that has even the slightest red tint (as if my years of kimchi consumption hadn’t steeled my tongue against barrages of capsaicin), and ignored by taxi drivers who see my not-Korean-enough face and drive right past (though to be fair, Seoul taxi drivers are notoriously asshole-ish, and a pure bloodline would have likely improved my track record only marginally). I procrastinated on basic tasks because I knew attempting to complete them was going to be a symphony of Sisyphean horror. I waited three weeks before I finally worked up the nerve to take my bike to have a flat tire replaced. I avoided going to the dentist for my entire two-year stay. My toilet started leaking the month after I moved in, dripping steadily, leaving my bathroom floor perpetually wet. The entire endeavour required a lot more trying than anticipated.

The irony isn’t lost on me. I’d moved halfway across the world, and I was even less self-sufficient than when I was a mere forty-five-minute train ride from my papa’s Sunday-morning pancakes. I’m an adult, for Pete’s sake! I’d even started making my own medical appointments and everything! I shouldn’t have had to go crying to my proverbial mommy every time I needed to make a phone call. And yet, there I was, having a mild anxiety attack every time an unknown number showed up on my caller ID because I knew that I was probably about to have a yelling match with an ajusshi in which I desperately cry “Hanguk-mal mot-hae-yo!” (I don’t speak Korean!) over and over while he responds in increasingly angrier and faster Korean, which as we all know is the best way to help someone understand a language they don’t speak. I shudder to think what expat life would have been like prior to the advent of smartphones, when non-speakers had to get by solely with printed phrasebooks, pseudo sign-language, and prayers.

At least once a day, I’d feel like a complete and utter failure, like I was dishonouring the sacrifices of my grandparents and my ancestors before them. And every time I’d talk to my dad and he’d ask, “How’s your Korean coming along?” my stomach always gave a little squirm of shame. “You learn speak Korean?” my grandma would ask hopefully when I spoke to her over FaceTime.

And to add even more corn to the pizza (it’s an Expat in Korea thing, trust me), my white friends—whose affinity for Korean culture was borne almost entirely of obsession with K-pop and Korean dramas—seemed to be total naturals at picking up the language. It was hard not to be resentful when I had to look to them for translations while I was just out there trying to live my Korean life. This language is my birthright, Goddammit!

I would have eaten nothing but weirdly sugary Korean bread for the rest of my life in exchange for the ability to go back in time to before my brain solidified itself against new languages; better yet, to before I was even born, when my child father would hide from his mother and refuse to attend Korean school. She would eventually give up, dooming his Korean to stagnate at a five-year-old level, unable to even read or write in his native language. Part of me wants to slap that little kid, scold him for not trying harder to hold onto his roots. But part of me understands why the little kid who got called a chink on his first day of school in a foreign country would want to distance himself from something that made him so markedly different. He couldn’t have known that his daughter would someday be trying to dig up those roots, clinging desperately to some semblance of identity in a society that can’t seem to decide where she belongs.

After I left the change room, my scarf having escaped its goose down prison once again and trailing behind, I looked around expectantly, awaiting my next instructions. When no one made any attempt to direct me, I sidled back down the elevator to the previous floor. I approached the desk next to the staircase, waiting for the woman behind it to notice me. I stared at her awkwardly, unsure of how to get her attention. She took a few moments to look up, as if hoping I’d poof away if she waited long enough. She met my eyes wearily.

Knowing better than to attempt speaking at this point, I told Papago, Am I finished? How do I get my results?

“Ah…” she pointed at one of the nurses at the back of the room standing by a computer podium. I gave her a small smile, inclined my head, and traversed the linoleum to the nurse, dragging my jumbled mass of winter clothing behind me. I repeated my smile and bow to my newest victim and again flashed my Papago message.

She looked around for help, unsure of how to communicate the necessary information to me. And then, from around the corner, another nurse approached. I hadn’t noticed her before; maybe she’d just started her shift, or she’d been otherwise occupied. Her round wire glasses and short fringe framed her kind, plump face. The top of her head barely reached my chin, but she walked with her head set high, with an air of, “Step aside, cowards, I’ll handle this.” The other nurses scurried away like mice retreating to their burrows. Without hesitation, my new best friend pulled out her phone and immediately began typing into Papago. Do you need some help? said the app.

Smiling gratefully, I pulled up my own Papago. Yes. Am I finished? Can I leave now?

She gestured towards my paper and scanned it.

You can leave now, said the parrot. You can pick up your results after one week. To illustrate her point, she opened the calendar on her phone and indicated the appropriate date.

“Okay, okay,” I said, nodding furiously. I gave her a thumbs-up for good measure.

“Okay, okay,” she echoed, her eyes twinkling behind her glasses.

“Kamsahamnida,” I said, positively beaming now. I bowed and made to leave.

“Ne, ne,” she replied. “Annyeonghi gaseyo!”

“Annyeonghi gyeseyo!” I answered. And with that, I flounced out the door, tearing my blasted scarf out of my sleeve and wrapping it resolutely around my neck. This weed better be fucking worth it.

I eventually came to accept that Korea would never be home, not really. I never really expected it to be, but I did hope that it would provide me with a kind of lifeline to throw to my sinking sense of self. As my grandparents grow older, my most intrinsic tie to Koreanness slips further into the deep.

I asked my grandfather if they’d be able to come visit me while I was in Korea; the last time they’d been back was almost ten years ago, and I knew that they would have wanted to visit their homeland one last time.

“No,” he’d said, his liver-spotted cheeks lifting in a small smile. “I too old.” His tone was bittersweet.

“But, you come home, I waiting you,” said my grandma.

And maybe it’s too late for me to achieve this nebulous form of identity confirmation. Maybe I’m too old, too, and too set in my ways. But that’s okay. Because it’s not too late to forge my own fortress of identity, patchwork as it may be.

Human connection and identity is more than language and a homeland. My grandparents proved as much when they moved to Canada all those years ago. They kept their roots as best they could, and while it’s true that they grow thinner and thinner as they extend out from their base, they’re still there, nourished by our hodgepodge of Korean-Canadian traditions and afternoons I spent in the kitchen with my grandma, learning to make the Korean dishes I grew up with so that I might pass them down when she’s gone.

So, even if I can’t defend myself against irate ajusshis, I do have one source of Korean pride: I make excellent kimchi, much to the awe of many of the modern-day Koreans I’ve told. It would appear that this particular tradition has somewhat fallen by the wayside in twenty-first century Korea. And I’ve never felt a greater honour than when my grandfather, surrounded by all his old Korean friends in front of the mall food court Tim Horton’s, proclaimed, “Samanta make delicious kimchi. She does very good job.”

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