Saturday, January 21, 2006
Everyone Should Have a Korean Niece
My last column was intended to employ a literary device involving called “foreshadowing,” in which the writer leads up to plot developments destined to occur sometime later in the story. In that case, how my 4-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew used to react to me was intended to introduce how I’m perceived by Asians of a similar age bracket now that I’m living overseas.
However, an 800-word column couldn’t fit both subjects so well, so I improvised, allowing me to write another week without the inconvenience of coming up with a new topic.
Anyway, during my Italian trip in December I accompanied about 20 Koreans, some of which I got know during that week. However, there was only one with whom I was able to share the watershed event of Western popular culture and watch as it instantly took effect on her life.
The instant I said “watershed event in popular culture” you ought to know what I meant: the “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” jingle.
She was nine-years-old and the daughter of one of the members of the Korean choir I was tagging along with. I was told by her mother that her name in Hangul translates into “beautiful diamond,” but since Korean is really hard to say and even harder to remember once you’ve figured out how to say it once, I’ll call her “Erin,” the nickname they devised for her to accommodate clueless foreigners.
She and her mother were part of a group that spent most of the time together during the trip. On about day three of our vacation we toured Venice, and we began plotting a trip for frozen dairy desert. Erin already speaks English at an intermediate level, so when she deciphered this plan she announced her approval in words we all understood: “Ice cream!”
“I scream,” I said, pointing at my personage.
“Ice cream?” she replied.
“You scream,” was my rejoinder.
“We all scream for ice cream!”
And so it began. These words would never be far from our ears the rest of our trip. An interesting thing about the Hangul is that they have no articles; no “a,” “an” or “the,” and so many of them compensate for this by indulging it fully once they learn English. This often results in sentences that are translated into English as “The Jesus is coming again” and “He likes a tea cold.”
In this case, Erin said the words “I scream, you scream, we all scream for the ice cream!” eagerly and often throughout the week.
On day six of our expedition I was asked if I had been sorry that I taught her those words.
“No,” I might have thought to answer but didn’t, “I’m leaving tomorrow and returning to Suncheon. I’ve taught her something she’ll remember and enjoy but now I can leave while she terrorizes everyone around her with it, including her mother.
“In a way, I guess that makes me her uncle.”
It’s easy for a Westerner to acquire honorary nieces and nephews here in Korea. Pastor Moon, the director of my institute here in Suncheon, has a very young daughter with another one of those really hard Korean names and a more clueless-foreigner-friendly nickname of Susan.
I was rather surprised to hear Pastor Moon tell me the other day that Susan talks about me often when I’m not around. “The other day,” he began, “my daughter said to me, ‘Uncle Rob said…’” and proceeded to make the throat-clearing noise. I was surprised on at least a pair of levels: one, she’s not even begun pre-school yet and she’s a master impresario, and two, she calls me uncle even though our interaction so far has involved me waving at her while she clutches her mother or father’s legs in what appears to be terror.
Every now and then I don’t feel too far removed from their age so it’s always a revelation to hear how I appear in their eyes. It brings out a sentimental streak in me; I always can’t wait to have one of those of my own.
And by “one of those” I mean a Korean child. My only regret is that I have but one year to find a Korean wife.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Welcome to Italy
Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera with me when I saw the "Yankee Go Home" message scrawled on the wall.
This will have to hold you over.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
The Weturn of Wunca Wob
This particular focus group was the 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son of my oldest sister Kathy. Their names are Morgan and Michael Sizemore, and I will always look back fondly as to how Morgan has addressed me up till now: as Wunca Wob.
“Wunca Wob!” she would say as she invited me to kneel on the floor and play Roll the Big Red Plastic Ball Across the Floor, either for sport or perhaps just exhibition, I’m not sure. About 15 second later, when that became less interesting, she would call out, “Wunca Wob, c’mea!”* and invite me to come play with toy cars, or maybe her dolls.
She would say “Wunca Wob!” when the family had a present to give me and she was entrusted with the honor of presenting it. She would call “Wunca Wob?” in a tone of confusion bordering on betrayal when I had the gall to nap on Saturday afternoons recovering from a week’s work, rather than fulfill my constantly-paying-attention-to-Morgan duties. Sometimes, she would call it out for no apparent reason.
“Wunca Wob!” she would say.
At this juncture, since she had said these two words no less than three dozen times since I had arrived at their home in Alabama or she to our home in Tennessee, I would reply “Yes, Morgan?” in voice betraying slight exasperation.
“You scawy,” she would reply.
I single Morgan out because her little brother Michael only recently began talking, and the few times he has addressed me it sounded more like a single word, perhaps a solitary syllable: “Uncrob” or something similar. My middle sister Betsey has three daughters, but lives in Miami, so I have seen little of them and they almost, or literally none of me.
But in the eyes of Morgan and Michael my standing has been colossal, built up by our occasional visits to Birmingham or theirs to Paris. The last time I saw them was this past Fourth of July, when Kathy brought the younglings and we drove to Murray to watch the fireworks, not realizing we had placed our lawn chairs beside a dead cat until it was far, far too late.
“What wong with the kitty?” Morgan asked, more than once.
“The kitty died, Morgan,” I would say. “Stay away from the kitty.”
“Why?” she would ask.
“Because touching dead animals can make you sick,” I would say.
“Why?” she would continue to probe, exposing the shameful shortcomings of my original explanation.
So, I would filibuster. “Because…hey, who wants a horsey ride?!” And I, a 200-pound 25-year-old seeking a master’s degree in English writing/rhetoric, would transform before the eyes of onlookers into a kind of four-legged creature genetically designed to please children while wearing a polo shirt. Naturally, Michael would also want on, and I would indulge the both of them for as long as two-and-a-half minutes. This is the maximum length of time I could sustain them both before one of them would fall off, begin to cry and all attention duties would instantly transition back to Kathy.
Now that I’m in Korea, I miss this. I really miss this because I don’t know what I’ll be coming back to, even if I choose not to renew my one-year teaching contract, which expires in September. Morgan and Michael are the progeny of a doctor and a highly attentive mother, and children are expected to know so much so quickly now days. Whose to say what they’re learning while I’m gone and how much they’ll grow. They might even, I shudder to think, learn how to pronounce the “r” sound.
My return may start pleasantly enough when I go to visit them in their new home in Chattanooga, and greet them by getting down on my knees, smiling extra big and saying, “Hey guys, remember me, Uncle Rob?” only to have Morgan reply: “Indeed, your avuncular contributions are not forgotten.”
“However, I must say this current conduct is most ungentlemanly.”
I mean, look at how much progress she’s already made. Four years ago, Morgan was just a protrusion in my sister’s belly, while three years ago she was a hairless, weightless creature who would stare off into space while I held her and muttered, “Fine, don’t look me when I talk to you, you’re just like every other female!”
Considering where she came from, I think “You scawy” is real progress. By the time I return, I may not be “Wunca Wob” any more; I’ll just be Person No. 3,000,000,079 to shake my head and mutter, “They grow up so fast.”
*“Uncle Rob, come here” is how I always translated this phrase, but you need not be limited to my interpretation.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
I want this mission to succeed as much as you
But I see no end in sight to the conflict.
Don’t accuse me of cutting-and-running,
I’ve fought as hard for this anyone.
We’ve become a destabilizing presence
And if we don’t get out soon
We’ll be two more casualties in a fight
That’s claimed too many good men and women.
I wish you hadn’t done your hair this morning,
put on that sparkling makeup that looks
like a constellation around your eyes,
put on a t-shirt I remember from warmer,
put on a smile and greeted we with a wave.
Thirty minutes ago
I could’ve stopped looking at your eyes,
An hour ago
I couldn’t see your face,
you weren’t so happy to see me
And goodbye was hard enough then.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
What I Did in Italy, pt. 2
My second week in Italy was spent in Rome, where we visited the Vatican City, the Coliseum, Sistine Chapel, and every tourist’s favorite stop for a giggle, the Catacombs.
“Come see our historic catacombs, the burial site of hundreds of early Christians who were persecuted unto death with their whole families, including small children!” I imagine the billboard saying in Italian. “And while you’re there, check out our new Pope Benedict postcards!”
However, of all things I saw in the city which was the capital of the world’s greatest empire during Christ’s lifetime, nothing sticks out in my memory so much as: the subway.
Growing up in rural West Tennessee, the closest thing to public transportation is snagging a slow-moving hay trailer when the pick-up breaks down two-three miles from home. Here, there’s little danger your wallet will be stolen or your personal regions explored by strangers*.
I have ridden the subway in Seoul, but that did little to prepare me for Rome at five o’clock in the afternoon. Even at it’s most packed, the Seoul subway system is still mostly populated with Korean people, and the worst thing they are likely to do to a tourist is attempt to take your picture with your camera against your will.
On the other hand, during rush hour Rome’s subway offers about as much space to spare as your average box of Sun Maid™ raisins, except most raisins don’t curse at one another and smell like cigarettes. Twice during that week, as the sun went down we boarded the train, squeezed into our raisin boxes and were promptly touched in places that only a physician known by the family for generations ought to have access to.
I kept my valuables safely inside my jacket, but I did manage to get into a near-altercation with an unshaven, racing-jacket-wearing Italian youth whose name I didn’t catch but will refer to as “Il Morono” (or in English, “Luigi”). He attempted to walk past me on the subway, and I certainly attempted to oblige him by moving as far in any direction as I could, which was about1/4-inch, or in metric, nowhere.
After saying something in Italian, he then said “Let me pass,” then pushed by me while making insinuations about my relationship with my mother.
But Italy is not just a place where you can find hooligans, food and Catholic architecture. It is also a place where you can find snacks for slightly less than a tank of premium gasoline in America, magazines for the price of a CD in the discount rack at Wal-Mart and designer clothes for about two, or a maximum of three or your prime years in indentured servitude.
Just to give you an idea, I visited a clothing store where T-shirts cost 140 Euros. Keep in mind, the Euro is actually worth more than a dollar. So, if you go to any Internet search engine, and type in “Euro to dollar conversion” and you’ll find a chart that will tell you how much this would translate into: Il suo rene sinistro**.
On New Year’s Eve, I returned to South Korea. I was happy for the week’s experiences, but also glad to be back to the peninsula I’m more used to, where the people are friendly and the snacks are affordable, even if I haven’t actually figured out what most of them are yet.
Home sweet temporary home.
*Europeans generally seem more eager to touch than Americans or Asians. Having been frisked now on three continents by airport security due to my metal belt loop, I must say that Amsterdam has the most personal, feeling more like a full-body massage on fast-forward.
**Italian for “your left kidney.”
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