Friday, July 1, 2011

Speak Your Language

They say that almost everyone speaks some English here. What they mean is that almost no one speaks English here, and she finds herself racking up stupid American points left and right because of lack of communication: on the subway, on the bus, at the aquarium, in the lobby, at the grocery store. When she tries to ask something, she is met by a proliferation of Korean. There's no point in responding, so she doesn't; she only stares blankly, shakes her head, and feels stupid.

Her impulse is to speak Italian, and the impulse is so strong, and so ridiculous, that it makes her laugh. If Koreans don't speak English here, it's not likely they'll speak Italian. It's just that the last time she was in such a communication void, she was in Italy, and eventually, she became fluent in Italian. But here? She knows the word for "hello" and "thank you" and "grandfather" and "palace" and "rice." Today she learned the word for "salt." All she can really say is "Hello, palace grandfather. Thank you salt rice." Not exactly conversational, especially if you want to know how to get from one place to another, or if you want to know what this is on your plate, or if you want to find out where you can sit to eat a snack without offending anyone.

As she sits on the subway with the gingerbread boys, the youngest looks out the window watching for ghosts in the tunnel. The other one holds her hand and looks around. She watches the signs that light up with the names of the stations, and tries to figure out the hangeul--the Korean script--for the various letters. The hangeul is supposed to be a brilliant alphabetic system, easy to learn, but the lines and circles float around in her head, and she feels the greatest sympathy for dyslexics. She could try to learn the letters, but she doesn't know any of the rules of how to put them together to make words, and with only three and a half weeks left here, she wonders if there's any point in trying.

She stops looking at the signs announcing the stations and looks around at the other passengers on the subway. All of the younger generation are glued to their cell phones, texting or talking or playing games. A very few sleep. The older generation watch the gingerbread boys, smiling indulgently at them. There's a woman on the train who looks like the Korean version of someone she knows. In fact, she's seen several Korean versions of people she knows. She wonders if there's a Korean version of her somewhere here. Would she recognize her? Could she walk up to her and know her heart? She wouldn't be able to talk to her, because of course, her Korean self wouldn't speak English, just as she doesn't speak Korean.

But she wishes she could communicate with her...then she might not feel quite so foreign.

Ignorance is not always bliss.

1 comment:

  1. Communication. It is hard!!

    You're right: it is the wrong foreign language is what our brains call up.

    Good luck and have fun. Enjoy the journey.