On Speaking Many Languages Poorly

Lady, I only speak two languages—English and bad English. But I’ve spent some time traveling here and there, I like a lot of “foreign” movies, music, and literature, and although I’m a stranger in a strange land, dwelling now for six years in Korea, I still don’t and may never speak Korean, known locally as the vaguely Burmese-sounding Hangoogaw, at the level required to earn money from doing so. I know a lot of words in more than a few languages, but sustaining a conversation would really tax my soul.

For a few months I studied Chinese with a tutor, and I think we both felt I made a lot of progress, especially as she was always there to tell me when I was mucking up my tones. But that was years ago and I’m really out of practice. Right now I could walk up to a group of Chinese tourists, say hello in the major dialect of their language, and tell them I’m an American. Then they might say so what. And I would just stare blankly, because I don’t know how to say so what. And then they would look at each other and move on. Speaking Chinese for me feels a little like crossing a roaring river by jumping on outcroppings of rock, like in Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, except you always fall, hit your head, and drown.

Korean is a complicated beast. I find myself frequently wondering if everyone just says the same things over and over again, or if I only understand a certain number of the things they say—I hear the words meechutda, rendered in Korean English as “you al belee kuh-lay-jee”, and sheebal gaysekya, “you bad guy”, several times a day. Children and university students are easier to understand as long as they don’t start talking about video games or comedy shows. Older adults are impossible. I can’t even generalize as to what they talk about. Once I heard a group talking about problems with the Chinese—they called them choong-gook-nom, Chinese bastards, Middle Country guys, which is funny because even though Koreans disdain China, their word for China literally means the country in the center, as though Korea is peripheral—though when Koreans complain about how uncouth the Chinese are (loud talking and eating, cut in lines, jaywalk, generally ignore rules and laws), I think most foreigners are like, how are you guys any different?

In one Korean comedy show I keep thinking about there was a male fashion model and some comedians. And of course the comedians made fun of the model’s clothes. So far as I can tell comedy in Korea is confined almost entirely to physical appearance and interpersonal relationships—comedians who discuss politics find themselves cooling their heels in jail in this free society guarded by forty thousand American soldiers. I do not believe there is any discussion of sex or genitalia or race, unless it’s to take potshots at South or Southeast Asian workers.

Anyway, they’re making fun of his clothes, and in the past the model wore a shirt that looked like Captain Picard’s uniform from The Next Generation, a red bar over the shoulders, black everywhere else. And, incredibly, someone said he looked like he was from Star Trek. That comedian must have spent time a lot of time abroad, because Star Trek is unknown here—possibly because Korea was the victim rather than the perpetrator of modern colonialism, for which Star Trek is an apology. The show is also about exploring a universe of headcrests without money, concepts which are anathema in hypercapitalist milkpale doctorworld—people like soap operas about the rich and the poor duking it out and falling in love in Seoul. Sometimes the characters vacation in the Ryukyus, Shanghai, or a suspiciously small New York golf course. But mostly they stay inside limousines and white mansions and doctor’s offices and office towers which look, curiously, like something out of The Great Gatsby (the book) and DS9.

So they say the model looked like he was from Star Trek, which is not subtle enough to be funny, and of course no one in Korea knows anything about Star Trek—is it about celebrities going hiking?—so the producers decide to show a clip from Star Trek to educate the ignorant masses, and they choose one of the new movies—some security guards walking through the Enterprise’s curiously steamy pipe-dominated depths—which feature totally different uniforms from those in The Next Generation, proving that the producers themselves didn’t know what the comedian was talking about, that they didn’t bother to find out, and that they didn’t care that no Korean watching that show could ever possibly understand the unnecessary straw-grasping joke the comedian was attempting to make.

Maybe a google image search would have helped, but this is the unhappy land of Naver, despised by English teachers across the country because, I swear to god, every time a student doesn’t know a word, they use naver, and then ninety-nine percent of the time the word is wrong or out of context. Perhaps the producers used naver to find out what Star Trek was. It’s interesting to compare the results: naver versus google, showing that Korea is obviously a land where Star Trek did not exist before 2009.

For the first time in six years a student told me yesterday she preferred google translate, which doesn’t require thumbing through eighty different mobile popups for nose surgery, and I was like, my god, what is the world coming to?

I was going to write about French, Spanish, Japanese, Tamasheq, and the eight different obscure languages Ali Farka Toure sings in, but I guess that’ll have to wait until next time.