Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Ramen, Changes and Dead Amphibians

When a person who grew up in a particularly Caucasian environment for his or her whole life finds his or her self in, for example, Asia, the first few weeks are a haze of dark hair and a barrage of sounds that bear a vague similarity to what we know as a language. This particularly suits the naturally adventurous, as every trip from work to one’s apartment may be one wrong step from a detour that might end in, say, a former Soviet republic, which would make it hard to get back to work on time the next morning.

However, after a few weeks patterns are discovered. For example, in Korea where I’m staying, a walk that takes 10-15 minutes will bypass — at minimum — three convenience stores where one can buy everything he (there’s a reason I don’t say “or she” here) needs to survive: milk, cereal and ramen*.

Having achieved the bare minimum needed to keep one’s self going, newly confidant Caucasians can begin making rounds of increasing circumference, until they find entire grocery stores, places to buy paper and pens, and seven-eight more ramen-stocked convenience stores. The language barrier is still in effect, but there are ways to amble around or over it. One strategy is to learn a few key words or the native language, such as “please,” “thank you,” and “restroom.”

However, there is an inherent risk involved with learning too much of the native language. For example, one may get into a taxi, speak in a complete sentence such as “Take me to the grocery store, please,” and the cab driver may assume that you are a bilingual, cultured visitor he can engage in high-minded discourse.

“Do you think of the idea of holding multilateral talks with North Korea is going to bear fruit?” he may ask.

“Uhm…” the foreigner may stammer, before shrugging to feign ignorance, thus giving the cab driver the impression that this Caucasian happens to know two languages but is otherwise as knowledgeable as a dead salamander, thus chipping away ever more at America’s reputation abroad. And quite frankly, we’d prefer you just stayed home rather than embarrass us overseas trying learn new things, okay?

So, if you are going to attempt to communicate with the locals, it is best to merely learn words of the please-thank you-restroom variety, and be sure to scratch your head thoughtfully even before using those, in order to give them the impression that this brief burst took a considerable act of brain power to muster. When done right, this method will help the locals to discern what you want without encouraging further attempts at conversation that will elicit comparisons between you and deceased amphibians.

The other approach is to simply communicate with hand gestures and the inarticulate but easily understood sounds made by those such as Chimpanzees, primitive cultures and those on the current roster of the Minnesota Vikings. The way this works is to simply enter the convenience store of choice, place the milk/cereal/ramen on the counter and wait for numbers to appear so that you can pay the price and get on with your life.

“Will that be all for you?” the cashier would ask in her native tongue.

“Mmm-hmm,” you would say.

“That will be 2,800 won,” she would then say.

“Mmm,” you would respond and then produce three 1,000 won bills.

“You have no idea what I just said, do you?”


“You have the IQ of a dead salamander, don’t you?”

“Mmm-hmm,” the foreigner would then say, while nodding in complete agreement.

If you are eating enough to survive, successful at your job, and getting to meet new people, this is all you have to do. The rest of the country may be a blur of dark hair and something resembling a language, but that one-mile radius of the country makes perfect sense to you.

Unless, of course, you move to a different part of that country, in which case you’ll have to start all over.

*Ramen noodles are the unofficial milk blood of the low-income college student, especially male, who is struggling to get by. However, I’d never been a heavy consumer of ramen until I came to Korea, where the noodles are accompanied by a series of spices which have an effect on one’s sinuses that is not dissimilar to some of the US military’s stronger explosives.

These same things can also happen when a person is living in Europe. I know the "Mmmm" process well, and only occasionally has it resulted in a startled expression on the speaker's face. I wonder what I so ignorately agreed with?
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