The Power of Language

The young man, the youth, the boy, whatever you want to call him, was making odd sounds behind me as I waited in the parking lot with my son, who was napping like an angel in his stroller, but I, incorrigible gentleman that I am, decided not to stare. Then, all of a sudden, someone was examining my sock. It was the youth. “Don’t touch!” I shouted in English, but he continued to bend over my shoe and peep at my undergarments, and so I shouted at him again—to no effect.

Now let us pause the entire universe, as is possible the moment reality becomes memory, and examine this instant in time. A perfect stranger continues touching you in public after you have already shouted very loudly for him to stop twice. I had reached Defcon 2. I would try shouting at him one more time, and then this altercation would become physical, risking a lawsuit, police intervention, deportation, amputation, defenestration, death: I would push him away. But before doing so, I had to give the last shout some extra oomph.

I switched to Korean.

Man-jee-jee-ma!: the moment I uttered these powerful syllables, derived, apparently not from Chinese but from the language’s far more primeval Altaic roots, when the Koreans were battle-hardened nomads who knew nothing about nose surgery or hand cream, I thought I should have conjugated them more politely. I had some doubt as to whether they would work at all, as I had tried using them back in The Elementary School Of The Damned on the students who persisted in attempting to plug my anus with their pointer fingers, joined together as if in prayer—only to have those very same syllables shouted back at me, and the rectal assault renewed.

But this time they worked. My examiner got the message. He stood up and looked at me, with half his face covered by a blue medical mask, and began bowing and walking away, seeming genuinely apologetic, as though he feared that I would attack him or call the police. Less than a minute later I was rescued by my wife in our new car, to which she has affixed a bumper sticker apologizing for her terrible driving. The sticker depicts a frazzled-looking cartoon woman with squiggly lines for eyes and mouth at the wheel, with something that is untranslatable written in Korean underneath. As she pulled up onto the sidewalk, switched on both the blinkers (which automatically excuse even the most heinous behavior on the Korean road), and then climbed out through the passenger side to help me put the baby into his seat, which is behind the driver’s seat, I could still see my acquaintance walking away from me, looking back, and bowing.

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One thought on “The Power of Language

  1. oegukeen says:

    Sometimes all we need to do is ask… in the right language 🙂

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