What now am I capable of? What now can I say, or do, in Korean, after two months or so of so-called serious learning? My sentences are still stale and flat as an opened can of soda left to fizzle out in the sun, and my unbearably slow and simplistic attempts to communicate are often quickly finished by my kind Korean listeners, unless I am shouting something at my students—our favorite words for the past two days have been discrimination (차별)!, and fraud (사기)!, which we shout at each other in either language whenever we have a disagreement.
I am sure I look like more of a fool, now that I attempt to speak; being silent gives me a chance at some quantum of dignity, but the moment I open my mouth in either English or Korean I become the fool and the clown that a number of my students really, really enjoy climbing on and shouting at.
Newspapers continue to be utter labyrinths. Conversations are like battlefields in which one’s unwitting soldiers always get themselves clobbered over the head by a few well-placed halberds.
I noticed today that while huge tracts of the sounds issuing forth from my students’ mouths were, as always, as maddeningly always, as completely unknown to me as the heart of a black hole, the pattern, the rhythm, was totally familiar; I can’t tell you what they’re saying, but I can tell you that I’ve heard it all a thousand times before. Maybe it’s something like the difference between listening to music and making it; how much more powerful even a single chord becomes when you can pluck it from the strings of your own guitar. My fiancée has told me that I can only understand what I can say myself.
So!, when I learn how to fashion these familiar notes and syllables into music and speech, when I become more than a mere listener, I will have attained the right to add the epithet The Great onto my full name—
Because Ian James learned to play a musical instrument “like a motherfucker”; because he also learned to express even complex and abstract thoughts in Korean, he is no longer Ian James; he is Ian James The Great, and if you say otherwise, you’re really going to get it.
I’ll frame and sign that statement and mount it in the bathroom whenever it actually becomes true.
And a peculiar thing I found yesterday was this—in class we decided to make our own t-shirts, since almost every snatch of English you find on the t-shirts in Korea is either eerily odd or outrageously stupid—as Korean would be if English-speakers were obsessed with writing Korean all over themselves—when my young students were allowed to translate their Korean thoughts into English ones, with the help of a Korean teacher with a pretty firm grasp of English and an American teacher with a toehold in Korean, the result was actually not so different. Chinglish is not necessarily a result of poor translations; the seeming randomness and lack of logic perhaps, perhaps, doesn’t make sense in English, but does in untranslated (and untrammeled) Korean.
Perhaps an example of this is this: a relatively common Korean metaphor is 밥줄, bap jool, which literally translates to “rice line”, and figuratively means the most important means by which you earn your livelihood, as if a string were stretched between your job and your bowl of rice.
In conversation with my fiancée and I, my brother-in-law, who like many Koreans has been studying English for most of his life with little in the way of progress (this is because most language study in the Daehan Mingook takes the form of fill-in-the-blanks, a useless, mindless, worthless practice I have not once utilized for my own Korean education)—my brother-in-law, he suddenly exclaimed “rice line!”, with a nod and the nervous, warm, good-natured grin (on the cusp of an explosion of laughter) that almost always accompanies his attempts to speak even a little English to me.
And of course this exclamation made absolutely no sense, and even with the help of a few intermediaries over the course of several months I could not quite find an English equivalent—until, with the help of that evil miracle, Google, I found that 밥줄 means “bread and butter”, a rather decent bridge between two worlds, don’t you agree?