How Ginger feels

I just got back from 18 hours in Seoul where I met a friend and former colleage and another friend and former professor. It was time well spent catching up and getting a good poke of inspiration toward a possible new personal project.

The evening out was fun, but it would have been more so had I not been struck by another jolt of insomnia. I met up with a group of four others, all Korean. With the five of us, three spoke perfect English, one servicable English, and the other didn’t say much of anything. Four spoke perfect Korean, with me as the odd one out. I’d say a good two-thirds of the conversation that night was in Korean.

It’s part of life here that I’m occasionally engaged in social interactions where I appear as though I’m involved in the conversation even though the meaning is completely lost on me. When Korean is spoken I watch the person talking, then I watch the person responding. Usually it doesn’t bother me. I’m lucky in a sense that I don’t need to be at the center of things and am far more comfortable observing. I like to watch faces, see reactions, notice dynamic interpersonal shifts, see who’s got the upper hand. But things can get awkward, like when something funny is said and the table bursts out laughing and I’m not—that’s when it’s clear that this guy is not like the others.

People who are considerate—usually those who have spent a lot of time with foreigners—will understand my situation and integrate me into the flow. So things get broken up by an occasional translation for the highlights, and side conversations in English will break off from the main dialog. The times when it sucks are when there’s no break in the flow. That I see as outright rude, not to mention painfully boring. But they’re also rare.

Yes, I know. Learn the language. But that’s much easier said than done. My classes and additional personal study at this stage cover how to ask directions to the bank, what movie we should go see, what I did yesterday, what my favorite food is, do I have a girlfriend. This kind of thing. When conversation shifts to how university professors are becoming increasingly fearful of being blacklisted by an increasingly repressive right-wing political structure, there’s just no chance. I can’t hang. I poke at my food, follow the emotional arcs, look engaged, and wait.

What I hear goes something like this. “Recently, ____ _____ _____ because of the _____ ______. It’s very ______ ______ and ______ _______ which I don’t like. Last week _____ ______ _______ ___ _______. So I _____ ___ ______ _____ ______. Usually _____ ____ _______ ____. But I don’t eat _____ ____ _______.”

I feel like the dog in that Gary Larson cartoon. But I’m getting better. Each week brings a tiny bit more. But it’s painfully, agonizingly slow.

I often wonder why I bother. Given the monumental undertaking that it is, time spent trying to learn Korean might be better spent doing some other kinds of work or research. But everywhere I turn I’m reminded how much certain worlds would open up to me if I had that access. And they’re worlds that I really do want access to.

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One Response to “How Ginger feels”

  1. czechmates Says:

    Stay with it, is what I strongly encourage you to do. The amount of effort required to learn Korean will not be for naught. Yes, you will miss the meaning of some of the conversation. Just make up your mind you’re going to do this. And don’t let it stress u out. Just keep on keeping on.

    I remember when I was a freshman at Ohio University, fresh out of the Air Force. I had to take a trigonometry course during the summer. In my 2nd floor room at #7 Palmer Street, sweating from the humidity and the heat of a mid-western summer, I had to get a “C” out of the course to satisfy my university math requirement. It was a 10-week course. For the first six weeks I was totally in the dark. I thought to myself, why am I doing this when I could be out with a couple of my Air Force buddies drinking beer.

    All of a sudden in week seven it hit me. Everything came together. All the formulas, all the rules governing sine and co-sine made sense.

    I got a “B” out of the course. I was proud of myself.

    So stay with the effort to learn Korean. You can only get better at it.

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