Saturday, August 25, 2007


Learning from the Conversation Impaired

Those who knew me were probably surprised when I chose to take a job teaching English conversation in another country. True, nearly everyone recognized the potential for adventure, and I certainly met the baseline qualifications for the job, meaning that I was born in an English-speaking country, had a college degree and hadn’t committed a felony that anyone could prove.

However, for me to teach conversation in English seemed to be about the equivalent to me teaching advanced quantum mechanics in English (to put in advanced mathematical terms: “bad.”)

If asked list the skills I’ve acquired over the years, I’d probably cite the ability to dispense complex information into clearly written sentences, listening closely and quoting movies at length, especially if the film involves Russell Crowe and/or the Roman Empire.

One thing I’ve never really mastered is having conversations. This is a skill that most York men lack, and I think it has something to do life on a farm in rural South/Midwest. In order to save time, your traditional agrarian professional should start conversations with no more than “Hi” and end them with no more than “Later.” After all, starting with “Hi, how are you?” or ending with “Talk to you later” takes up time that should be better spent sharpening farm equipment or harvesting soybeans before the next drought begins.

York men also tend to be very single-minded about their work, and interactions with those who don’t share their profession tend to be very short because they just don’t appreciate the ramifications of certain facts, such as: 1) the summers are getting hotter and dryer every year, 2) the socialists in Washington want to raise taxes on that newly sharpened equipment we need to plant soybeans, and 3) the corporate interests in Washington are forcing our product to compete with people from some place like Honduras.

I decided early in life that I farming just wasn’t for me (in fact, “Farming just isn’t for me” might have been my first words), but I inherited the conversation skills that would make any Midwestern or Southern cultivator proud. By the end of middle school, I realized that talking less during class meant that I would have fewer friends than most of the other students, but my hindquarters would also be less acquainted with the principal and his 18-inch hickory sidekick (two feet if you count the handle).

In addition to this knowledge, my eighth grade classmates paid me an honor by voting me “most bashful.” This award carried with it the privilege of a special yearbook photo, in which it appeared as though I was trying to hide behind one of the pillars at the school entrance. However, my moment of recognition was spoiled when, the copyediting standards of middle school yearbooks being what they are, the photo caption identified the winner as “Bob York.”

Galled by this slight, I was inspired to become a news reporter. My first full-time job was with The Paris-Post Intelligencer, and by then I’d cultivated my conversational interests to what I considered to be just the right degree. This was an important development, because on a regular basis I was required to call people, often those I had no prior relationship with, and ask a series of questions for the purpose of extracting needed information.

The worst possible outcome of such interaction would be that the person on the other line wouldn’t say anything, since they assumed that all journalists were exemplified by a few notorious newspaper/magazine reporters who fabricated material and were punished by losing their high-pressure, largely anonymous newspaper/magazine jobs and given high-profile, six-figure book deals explaining what drove them to fabricate.

By contrast, the best possible outcome of these calls would be that I would say “Hi,” they would give me the necessary information, then I could say “Later” and we could both move on with our lives.

Worse then this, but better than the person who didn’t want to talk to reporters, was the person who really, really wanted to talk to reporters. As I was in the process of information extraction, they would reverse the equation and start interviewing me.

Me: So why are you leading this push to legalize liquor sales in this community?

Them: We want to see a greater opportunity for business development in this area. One of the reasons I’m voting for Bush is because I think he’s pro-business. Tell me Mr. York, who do you like, Bush or Kerry?

Me: Sir, I’d really prefer not to discuss my personal views.

Them: Oh, okay.

Me: What do you say to people who feel you’re creating a community that isn’t family-friendly?

Them: Well, Mr. York, before I answer that, can I ask you if you have children?

Me: Uh, I’m 25 and I’m not married.

Them: Really? You’re going to have a hard time here.

Me: *whimper*

Maybe the best thing about living in Korea (at least besides the good job, the new experiences and the thousands of young women who consider any Western without gratuitous facial scarring attractive), is that it’s easier now to have meaningful conversations. People in this country want to know all about life in America, and the people I’ve talked to from home ask all kinds of great, well-thought-out questions about life in Korea.

Me: Hi.

Them: Hi, how have you been?

Me: Good. I’m living in Korea these days.

Them: Oh really? How is that different from living in America?

Me: It’s a lot more Korean and a lot less American.

Them: …

Me: Later.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


A Letter to "Blue"

Dear Generic Model That Came from the Supermarket,

Can I call you “Blue?” Not very original, I know, but you’ve got one of those familiar looks about you that makes you hard to distinguish. Anyway, I guess I haven’t been very considerate lately, and I’m sorry about that. You have a very valuable part to play in the life of not only myself, but in the lives of all people.

I can recognize that, I just think it’s unfortunate that we had to meet in Korea, of all places. You’ve got to admit, this isn’t the ideal place for one such as you and I to get acquainted. In most countries, people talk about the weather when they don’t want to talk about anything else, like their ne’er-do-well-son or their failed 2000 presidential bid.

However, in Korea, we talk about the weather all the time. It damages the economy, makes us sick, and ruins wardrobes. It does all these things through of its inconsistency. From the time I wake up at 6 in the morning to the time the first class I teach starts at 7 it’s never raining, so I go to school and I always leave you behind.

Then, at anywhere from 7:18 to 8:36, the rains begin. Usually, it persist until I leave the institute and have to walk to the textbook office. Of course, many relationships, I think of you then because I need you. The point is, don’t think I don’t understand your value.

It hardly ever rains in this country for 10 months of the year, then in July the floodgates in the heavens open. Well, sort of; it stops and starts raining about 15 times a day until the end of August. Though grayish-blue clouds loom overhead, I often abandon you in those circumstances because, well, you’ve got to admit, if it’s not rainy you’re about as helpful as Major League Baseball’s current policy on steroids.

However, this past weekend I think I learned my lesson. My girlfriend came to see me and I went to meet her in downtown Seoul. I thought I wouldn’t need you, since I was going to spend most of the time in the subway and then in her car. However, when I arrived at our appointed destination, she then told me to walk to the Insadong shopping district.

Naturally, it had started to rain. I know you’re feeling neglected and overlooked, but don’t think I didn’t suffer, okay? Not only did I get rained on, but when I finally met up with her, I had to use her umbrella. Not only is her umbrella a little small for your tallish Western man, but it’s completely covered with purple flowers.

I miss Blue, was all I could think. Well, that and, What is the deal with the weather in this country?

As far as our relationship goes, you know could be worse. You’ve received much better treatment than that of your predecessors. There was Ebony, who was with me during Suncheon’s blizzard of 2005. Then there was Burgundy, who shielded me during the rainy season in Chuncheon last summer. Both of them are probably still in those cities, sitting alone in the institutes I taught at. Current employees are probably still walking past them every day, assuming that the one who brought them there will be by to pick them up at any moment.

You see, when we don’t need you, you’re not that noticeable. I know you should be. It’s no coincidence that when I forgot you last week I had the sniffles for days afterward. Other foreign teachers in my institute have overlooked the usefulness of your kin and ended up with pneumonia.

Here in Korea, you and your breed are used all the time, and not just to stay dry. You are also employed to shield ladies from the sun, since unlike in the West, Korean women dislike having dark skin tone. Help from you and yours, a diet of vegetables and steady aerobic workouts all help them come closer to their ideal, which apparently involves looking like they survived spending months in the North Korean Gulag.

(Hmm, just between you and I, “The North Korean Gulag Diet” would probably be a hit here. Remind me to pitch that sometime.)

But not all of your kind are created equal. When I forget to bring you along, sometimes the ladies I work with lend me theirs. Unfortunately, these are probably closer to “parasols” than “umbrellas,” and provide somewhat inadequate coverage. When I arrive indoors, I’m usually dry everywhere except my arms below the shoulders and my legs below the waist.

(Hmm, just between you and I, what would a better name for such a wardrobe? “The Parasol in Rainy Season?” How about “Wet Limbs?” We’ll discuss this later.)

So, let’s make a deal: I’ll try to remember you more often, if you’ll try to make yourself more noticeable. I’m always the one who has to initiate; you just sit there waiting. I think you can do better.

I mean, I did spend nearly $5 on you.


PS-I know your arm is broken, but I’m afraid there’s no cure. Sorry.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


The Art of Understanding Asian Languages

Every language has its own character, not to mention its peculiarities. It’s been so long since I started to learn how to spell in English that I’ve forgotten what it must’ve looked like before I could read it. However, it’s easy for one of your more jingoistic Americans to point out the odd appearances of other languages.

Now, you know I’m not a jingoist, and I know you’re not, but if we were just pretending for awhile, what would we say about those languages found in, say, Asia?

For example, Russian: here’s a language that appears to have noble intentions, and by noble intentions I mean that seems as though it tries to look like ours part of the time. Despite the intent of its founders, it never quite gets there, looking more and more like the product of someone who was drinking as they scribed. The end result: a series of letters facing in the wrong direction, some numbers pretending to be vowels and some that are completely overdone.

Much further south of Russia we have the Thailand. Here, the language appears to have been influenced by nothing so much as the local wildlife. In particular, it’s influenced by the kind of wildlife that crawls out of the ground after rainy days. One fateful afternoon, maybe hundreds or even thousands of years ago, somewhere between the provinces of Chiangmai and another whose name is really hard to spell, a handful of earthworms lay in their death throes, and moved into formation in order to send one final message.

Coming upon to the scene, the potentate of the early settlers said to another of his younger traveling companions: “You see this shape they’re making? In the new language, this will mean ‘Goodbye.’”

His protégé examined the scene for a moment, and then said: “But I can’t tell where one character ends and another begins.”

“Most people can’t,” the older man responded. “That’s why I’m the chief.”

Elsewhere, the differences between the Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages are like the differences in the rest of their cultures: people in the West assume that since their appearances are similar and they live in the same general area they must be the same.

However, once you’ve lived in one of these places for a few months, it becomes easy to distinguish between their languages and writing systems, even if you don’t understand any of it.

To anyone who has taken the time to look over Mandarin Chinese (but not bothered to study it, mind you), it appears that there is no way it could have been conceived without a paintbrush, a bit of writing material, and a decade or two of free time. This person, whoever he/she was, probably didn’t even expect it to become a language. He/she was probably a struggling artist using a series of intricate designs in an attempt to capture the angst of life in China prior to indoor plumbing.

After being rejected by a host of primitive publishing houses, the artist finally took the etchings to one of the local villages, showed them to the town elders and said, “Like this? For a small fee, I’ll let you use it as a word.”

“Why not make a whole language?” the village leaders probably asked. “How many more of those drawings do you have?”

“Eighty-six thousand,” the artist probably replied, with no small hint of frustration in his/her voice.

Later, whoever began writing the Japanese language appears to have begun leaving messages on wood. As such, nearly all of its characters appear to have been designed to be easy to carve using a knife or similarly sharpened object.

In fact, since Mandarin Chinese was the root of most languages in this part of the world, this early Japanese linguist-person probably began by trying to carve Chinese characters into this wooden object. Soon, he/she probably gave up, realizing that by the time a complete sentence in Mandarin was etched, his or her knife would be worn down to a nub.

Until the Middle Ages, the Korean language used the Chinese characters in all their fecundity, meaning that only the upper class was literate. However, in the 15th century they had a king named Sejong the Great who sought to change that.

“Children would have to be in school for sixteen hours a day just to speak this language,” Sejong probably said to himself. “We must make our language simpler, so that our students can learn it easily and use those sixteen hours to study English.”

Of course, hardly anyone from the West had been to Korea, so no one there even knew English existed. That’s just how ahead of his time Sejong was.

But where did Sejong find the inspiration for the language he helped to develop? I think it came from an overlooked source of knowledge: the dinner table. One day, as he used chopsticks to finish a bowl of rice he thought, Hey, the shape of a chopstick could be a vowel sound.
He put them down, and realized, Together, they could be a different vowel sound. The shape of this bowl could be a consonant!

In 1446 a new system, one which could be learned in only days, became the national language. Sejong was naturally please with his discovery. This must be why people call me “the Great,” he thought to himself.

In truth, no story I can invent could summarize the wonders of how a civilization forms, and how they learn to communicate. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


The Old Lady's Lesson

I'm terrible at guessing ages, but I'd place this Korean woman ambling down a narrow street at about 60. At the end of this alley is my apartment, which I'm returning to from the nearby ATM.

I'm 6'3, so my legs cover territory quicker than the average person, especially here in Seoul. Even so, I can tell that this lady is walking rather slowly. Her purse is in one hand and a brown paper bag is in the other. I can't tell is these bags are weighing her down or not, but each of her steps covers no more than a few inches. I've been in this country as a missionary teacher for more than 18 months, but I still can't tell what she's muttering to herself as she takes each minute step.

Having long since passed her, I look back at her from the doorstep of my apartment building, wondering if I can help. However, I notice that she has stopped walking about halfway down the alley.

Must be her apartment, I think, and enter my apartment with a freshly-cleared conscience.

Inside, I gather the spare change I'm planning to use in the taxi on the way to the supermarket. Moments later, I'm back on the street, walking directly toward the same woman I passed only moments ago. Apparently that wasn't her apartment; she was just stopping to catch her breath. Now she's back, inching along the alleyway, still muttering in her native tongue.

The internal debate inside of me rages anew. Someone should help her, but does it have to be me? In my mind, I can justify my lack of action as I walk by: I wouldn't even know how to communicate with her.

But wait: I have heard Koreans ask each other, "Where are you going?" How do you say that again?

I turn around, and within seconds I've caught up to her.


It must be the right sentence, because she starts pointing at the pass that leads behind my apartment building. I extend my hands and she places her bags into them. Instantly, I know that the problem is contained entirely within her legs: the bags couldn't have weighed less if they'd been filled with grass.

Soon, we're walking side-by-side, and now she's muttering in my direction, though I have no idea what point she's trying to articulate. Then, she utters two words I do understand, first in Korean and then its English translation.

"Yesu," she says. "Jesus."

I find that her apartment is only a few feet away, so our walk is a short one and my help is minimal. However, there's a Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute only a few buildings away. This lady has probably lived here long enough to know that our school brings foreigners like me here to teach English, and also to witness.

And I can witness, both for my institute and my Savior, just by showing a little concern for others. This lady, whose name I'll probably never know, showed me that this kind of care translates into any language.

I should be thanking her.


My Role in the Workplace

What will you be remembered for at work when you are no longer on the payroll? A person's personality will always shape what kind of employee they will be, as they always bring a certain set of characteristics with them whenever they take a job.

At the Papa Johns store where I held one of my very first jobs making pizzas, I will probably be remembered distinctly by the delivery drivers. They used a computer screen to tell them which runs they were supposed to make. This screen told them the name of the person making the order, along with their address and a phone number in case they had any questions.

Coinciding with the time in which I worked for Papa Johns in the late 1990s, drivers would frequently find themselves called upon to deliver a single can of Coke. The particulars of the order changed from time to time, but frequently the name was "That Guy," the address was "Behind you," and if they didn't understand these directions, they were instructed to call the number 123-4567 for further information.

After awhile, the drivers got used to my antics. In fact, in time they would embrace them, because that was 60 cents more that would showed up on their toll for the night, even if I wasn't a particularly good tipper.

It's been eight years since my days as the blithe producer of pizza came to an end. These days, I live in, editing textbooks for a school that teaches English as a second language in Korea. Since taking the job, I have attempted to stand out through my prior experience as a journalist. As I'm sure many of you do, I hold very strong views on comma use, and how the misapplication of it can make sentences less "conversational" and inhibit readability.

However, very rarely am I called upon to share my painstakingly processed views on punctuation. Never let it be said that I don't stand out; I am, after all, the one who changes the water cooler and kills the bugs in the downstairs bathroom.

I am uniquely qualified for these tasks for all the following reasons:

1) I'm the only male in our office.

Therefore, once every two days or so, either my supervisor or my coworkers will call upon me to share the talents that I, as a man, call my birthright: namely, the strength to lift a 10-pound water jug and a general indifference to the effect that flattened insects will have on the bottoms of my shoes.

"Robot-uh," they call to me in Korean accents, pointing at the jug that sits, drained of its usefulness atop the dispenser. Most of my co-workers are foreigners and our supervisor studied in the UK for so long that she says "schedule" beginning with an "sh" sound. However, pronouncing my name the way the locals do is but the latest way women have found a way to make me a source of amusement.

At once, I whip out MacGuyver-esque pocket knife and proceed to hack the plastic covering of the bottle. Once this is accomplished, I swing it upright, grunting for effort, and place it atop the dispenser so that my colleagues might begin emptying it of its substance.

However, though I have the ability to lift moderately heavy things, being a man apparently makes me somewhat less perceptive of certain trends, such as whether or not there are insects in our bathroom, and whether or not those bugs look scary. My coworker Vanessa, uninhibited by sensory-dulling presence of the Y-chromosome, catches on much quicker.

"Rob," she says, not using a Korean accent, but instead stressing and stretching the vowel sound of my name to produce a pitiable pitch. "Did you see the bugs downstairs?"

I assure her that I did not, and surely, surely if they are as menacing as she has described I'd have noticed.

She leaves our third floor and walks to the bottom of the building. In mere minutes, she's back, which is in and of itself a sign that the restroom is not usable for women.

"Rob," she says again, with even more emphasis. "They're there. Behind the toilet."

I know now what I must do. The proofreading of ESL pedagogical materials will have to wait. Much as a lifeguard has a duty to save any person who may be drowning, it is my solemn task to go downstairs and confront the crickets.

You may scoff, but they are much bigger and meaner-looking than the crickets we're used to in US; in their pupal stages the Asian crickets probably beat up the North America variety and stuff them in tiny insect lockers all the time. Nonetheless, I wear a size 13 shoe and the most hostile-looking of insects in the Ensifera family fits conveniently beneath it.

Triumphantly, I return to my workplace and announce: "I have found their weakness. If you step on them, they're powerless."

Vanessa mutters something about not wanting to step on them with her shoes, but it only gives more credence to my point. Men may no longer be needed in management, the executive branch of the federal government, or possibly even in human reproduction. Even so, I've proven that my gender will always be useful, at least in this office.

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