In English we throw this word around like a baseball, we toss it back and forth for fun in the backyard, and sometimes shoot it through our neighbors’ windows. But to reveal the translation I must first don my respectable Glenn Beck spectacles, my respectable Glenn Beckian girth, and declare, with all due reverence, before an unnecessary blackboard, that this word is racist!
Racist! In-jong-cha-byeol-choo-owee-ja! 인종 차별 주의자!
It appears to mean, literally: race-discrimination-activist, a phrase which is even longer and more awkward in English; I suppose Koreans don’t talk about this enough, which is to say that they don’t accuse each other of being racists quite as relentlessly as good ole’ virtuous English-speaking folk do (“Good morning, Bob! You’ve won a free hamburger aaaaaaaand you’re a racist today!”); but, surely, when the shit starts to fly, rather than exhausting their tongues—stretched to the breaking point by such a trainwreck of a phrase as this!—surely, surely, Koreans will simply adopt the easier English phrase—racist, or lacist, person who hates tying shoes—instead.
Why do I mention it, America? (which is to say—Why do I mention it, World?) Last weekend my girlfriend and I were at a nice cafe near Pusan University called Cloudtree Coffee, which I’ve been visiting a few days a week for the last few weeks because it’s a good study area that’s located quite close to my Korean class. The place seems classy enough. It still suffers from Korea’s perennial design problems; i.e., unbearably uncomfortable, spine-breaking, neck-torturing, hardwood chairs, but the coffee is good and there are pictures of black people on the walls, so I suppose it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill Korean coffee establishment, which generally consists of small shots of sugar water drunk in the company of hordes of staring, glaring, elders.
To tell you the truth, I liked it. That was a good cafe. The waitresses were always nervous around me, serving me my coffee as gingerly as they would a rabid dog chained to the wall, foaming at the lips; and groups of giggling Koreans had, on more than one occasion, walked in, looked at me, stopped giggling, and then turned around and left—perhaps it was the giant greenish-purple hemorrhoid pulsating on my forehead—but still, I got a lot of work done there, and, yeah, I liked it.
The coup de grâce happened last weekend. Now I should explain first that my (Korean) girlfriend is more beautiful than Helen of Troy. She cannot walk outside without a large stick, which she uses to beat the inevitable hordes of men who ceaselessly seek to assault her from all directions wherever she goes, whether it’s to an empty desert or one of the city’s many crowded arteries; and there is, indeed, a danger, that when I inevitably steal her for good, and take her to America forever, Korea will declare war to steal her back again. But Paris couldn’t resist his golden apple any more than I can resist mine.
We were sitting together on a sort of chair, a sort of couch, a sort of booth—this black, leathery, uncomfortable piece of furniture beggars all description—when the owner of the cafe, hitherto a rather multicultural-seeming man, politely sidled up to us in his casual bluejeans and explained that that chair, that indefinable thing, was only meant for one person at a time, despite possessing at least enough room for three bone-thin Koreans or about one or one half of an American tub of lard (everything after the “despite” is from me and not from him). I should say that I had committed the unconscionable faux-pas of expressing genuine affection while foreign, and put my arm around Helen of Troy, a big no-no in Korea if the owner of the arm happens to be a male foreign berserker and if the female victim of the filthy, hairy, scum-encrusted arm in question happens to be a pure-blooded, snow-white angel from the holy peninsula of that most godlike nation on Earth, Korea.
We were scandalized! Outraged! I declared (to myself) that this man had just lost himself a customer!
But it’s not always like this. I often go to a nearby restaurant to devour some amazing olive kimchi chiggae and the ajummas there treat me like their own son, and though there was one time when two old pieces of trash spent the entirety of their meals staring at me in disbelief as I gorged myself on this amazing, cheap food, this was not really the fault of the kind ajummas. Can we truly be blamed for our most ignorant fellow-countrymen? Is Glenn Beck my fault? I don’t think so. I’d like to give that man a tongue-lashing he would never forget! (heheh tongue-lashing)
And I’ve been preparing to strike back at the occasional random weirdos who say hi to me as I’m going to and fro (talking of Michelangelo)—this they apparently do as a sort of ignorant, subtle insult, thinking in their very limited Korea-centric way that to say hi to a stranger is actually demeaning or impolite, as it would be if you used the (very rough) Korean equivalent—I mean to extinguish this odd practice from the whole of Korea by asking these odd fellows, in Korean, if they constantly say hello to perfect strangers. If and when they answer no, I’ll ask them why they say hi to me. The surprise, the dumbfounded-ness, should make them think twice the next time they see a berserker trundling their way.
But my girlfriend tells me Koreans don’t really think, talk, or care very much about foreigners—as in America, only the rare oddity has his eyes, his drooling fangs, fixed on them—so, in short, tut, tut.
Speaking of surprise, many of them are so often startled, or shaken out of their consumerist reveries, by the presence of a foreign face, that I suppose I find it worthwhile to comment upon. It seems to happen much more than in America: a Korean will suddenly see me where he or she did not expect me, gasp with surprise, and perhaps even clutch his or her heart as if ready to succumb to palpitations. Actually it happened at the new cafe I’m going to now in the P(B)usan Daehakgyo area, a nice little joint called Matahari, evidently frequented only by foreigners; I had to quit my studies thirty minutes early last night because I was too distracted by the rare pleasure of being able to understand, with perfect, uninhibited fidelity, the unbearably mundane conversation of two American men who didn’t really know each other, who weren’t really interested in talking to each other, and were, in fact, just making conversation, because sometimes it gets a little exhausting being away from the hallowed bosom of our mother, America.