Sunday, September 30, 2007


Translator, How Do You Say “Quack” in This Language?

Of the few Korean words that I know, two of the easiest to learn are Hangeul-mal. When someone uses this, they are asking you to (or asking if you can) speak Korean. I deduced its meaning after about my seventh trip to a doctor's office in this country, when I realized the physician was asking the person I brought with me as a translator if I could speak his language.

Few of the natives of this country seem to feel the burden that I bear, which is to enlighten all who would ask questions whose answers are painfully obvious with the cleansing fire of sarcasm. They always give the abrupt response that means "No," rather than something I feel would be more appropriate, like "Yes, he speaks it incredibly well. The reason why I, a Korea, have chosen to escort this foreigner to your office is actually because I want to learn the language from him."

Perhaps my bursts of imagined banter are particularly bitter in doctors’ offices because nothing good ever happens there. Whenever the seasons change in Korea, foreigners, regardless of whether or not they are 90-pound recovering anorexics or gold medal decathletes, come down with flu-like symptoms.

Unlike in America, where we tell those feeling slightly under the weather to just get some rest and drink lots of water, the Koreans we work with will always say, "You should see a doctor." The first few times, the foreigner goes along with it, since this is a different country, and here an untreated flu might mean something much worse than in America, like death, brain damage or the early onset of male-pattern baldness.

Well, after two years here, I've come to find that there are, in fact, four differences between seeing a doctor for flu-like symptoms and not seeing a doctor for flu-symptoms. If you don't see the doctor, A) you won't get to spend an afternoon sitting in a room full of people sicker than you, B) you won't get to give the hospital/clinic $15 worth of currency for their services rendered, plus $5-$10 more of currency that the pharmacy will charge later that day, C) you won't get a week's worth of tasteless pills that you get to remember to ingest after every meal, and D) while you may know already that you're supposed to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of water, you won't get to hear it directly from a guy in a lab coat who wasn't sharp enough to immediately realize that you brought a Korean with you because you can't speak Korean.

Either way, you're going to have spend an afternoon or two getting some rest and drinking plenty of water.

For all of these reasons, my immediate reaction to anyone who tells me that I need to see a doctor is indifference, if not outright scorn. In June, when I first felt back pain after 18 years of playing tennis, someone naturally suggested a visit to a clinic, to which I probably responded that I'd just stretch more before my next match.

When it occurred again, I probably responded by saying I'd do more strength-training exercises to help my lower back.

When the pain persisted, I finally relented to the chorus of hypochondriacs and agreed to have my back examined in Seoul. "Maybe you should get your back x-rayed," someone suggested.

"Right," I probably responded. "And maybe I'll get blood drawn and my prostate checked while I'm there."

They insisted, so I got the x-ray. After putting on a gown designed to properly fit the typical Korean middle school-aged girl, I laid on my back under the machine. Then, I laid on my sides under the contraption, and then I laid in a kind of combination of the first two positions, which actually requires you to clutch the side of the table to keep from tipping over. Then I found that in the final required formation, the x-ray technician will push you into the shape of a ball for one more scan. I don't what he says as he's doing this, but I like to imagine that when he's finished he quips, "In this position, sucking your thumb is optional."

That finished, I can have the dignity of proper clothing restored, then learn about the doctor's diagnosis and prescribed therapy.

"He says your spine is crooked and that you shouldn't play tennis," my translator says.

"For how long?" I ask.

"He says that you should find another sport."

Since then, I've pictured what this doctor would say if he were treating a recent amputee, who asked him, in innocent wide-eyed curiosity, if their arms could be re-attached.

"Use your legs!" I imagine him saying.

My fiancée offered to make an appointment for me at the special spinal department at the hospital where she works in Chuncheon. Suddenly, I couldn't wait to see a qualified physician, provided he'd tell me something encouraging, namely, that I didn’t have to give up the only sport I’ve ever loved.

After another round of contortionist positioning for x-rays, I was told that my spine was getting better, and given a pamphlet with core exercises and proper sitting positions at my work desk. He also said that tennis is hard on my back and that I shouldn't play until the pain subsides.

In that case, you can see me on the courts tomorrow. Thanks, doc!

Sunday, September 23, 2007


How Do You Say "Back to School" in Korean?

The reasons I have for wanting to learn Korean are many. Next year I plan to get married to one of the locals, and when speaking to her non-English speaking mother, I want to be able to communicate with some semblance of articulation and sincerity. Occasionally I can get away with memorizing short sentences, but it's much easier than you think to mix syllables and mispronounce vowels. One of my greatest fears is that my mother-in-law-to-be will ask me why I want to marry her daughter and I will say something like, "I love her because she is a knee."

Also, of my fiancee's many friends and family members, only a few speak English with something resembling fluency. She's more than happy to introduce me to them, but once perfunctory greetings are finished all we can do is perform the timeless art of intercultural communication, meaning we share awkward glances that translate into "I'm trying to remember something, anything I know in your language that makes sense." We usually remain at a stalemate until I receive a decisive elbow in the ribs from my significant other, signaling that it is high-time I practiced that Korean I'm supposed to be studying.

"Hello," I say, trying to emulate that throaty, chain-smoking accent that so many Korean men possess. "My name is Rob. I ..."

"I know," her friend/family member says. Instantly I am deflated and lose the will to speak. On the mental plain, however, I'm full of serrated ripostes that would certainly shame her, could she a) read minds and b) read English thoughts.

Of course you know my name is Rob, I think. That's not the point. The purpose of this is to show you that I care enough about your friend/family member and your culture that I'm trying, bit by incremental bit, to communicate with you.

If my non-language-specific mental counterattacks counted, I would surely be an international debate champion. Since they don't, I have chosen to take Korean classes. Two nights a week I ride a subway for roughly one hour to Seoul National University so that I can practice Korean with those at a similar level to mine. This is worth the effort because Seoul National University is the most renown school in all of Korea.

Virtually all students in this country study night and day for the first 12 years of their schooling, hoping they will one of the fraction of a percentage point of all natives accepted there. Foreigners, on the other hand, are able to take language classes if they can prove a) that they've graduated from high school, and b) that they are, in fact, permanent residents of another country.

This inspires me because I'm envisioning a day: not the day I graduate, but the moment a native asks me where I learned Korean. At this prompting, my chest will inflate immediately.

"I studied at SNU," I would say in a nearly perfect Hangeul accent. "You're probably investing the GNP of a South American country in your child's education in the slim, oh-so-slim hope that they will get to attend there, but all I had to do was photocopy my passport and pay the $15 entrance fee."

"Ha ha," I would probably add.

Between now and that moment of chest-swelling there are sure to be many incidents of difficulty and confusion. The first of which is, of course, the very first day of class. Graduating from a university takes years, thousands of dollars and an untold number of caffeine-induced late-nighters preparing for tests and/or projects. Upon receiving the diploma, one of the easiest things in life to do is say that you plan to continue your education in order to get ahead at work.

It's significantly more difficult to actually do so. You have to budget a few hundred dollars more every few months, and decide how many more caffeine-induced all-nighters you can survive. Then, you have to actually show up.

Thanks to my active imagination, this is considerably harder than it sounds. One reason I never pursued an MBA is because I pictured walking in to classroom full of people wearing ties that match their suspenders, while they enthusiastically compared the TCOs of their respective MNCs before they became OBE.

I have, on the other hand, taken graduate courses in the liberal arts. In that case, my paranoid imaginings involved, and not unjustifiably, walking into a classroom full of men/women who adamantly refused to shave their faces/underarms and would greet me by asking how many Bengalese children it took to assemble my running shoes.

As a first-time student in a Korean language course, my fear was that I would arrive in our introductory class and find that, due to a processing error, I was the only one in the class who was not a graduate student in the process of translating his organizational development plan or anti-capitalist polemic into Korean.

I needn't have worried. Of the 14 or so students in the class, all but a few are just that: university students. They come from all over the globe and nearly all of them have been in Korea for less than a few months.

"Why are studying Korean?" the teacher asked each of us on the first day.

"I'm planning to get married next year," I said. "My knee is Korean."

It can only get better from here.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Flight of the Conchords- Business Time

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Computer-Related Problems in Korea

The wrst part abut having a cmputer is the unexpected cmplicatins. Sure, it’s easy t anticipate sme things, like the spread f cmputer viruses, pwer shrtages, and, f curse, a certain slwness when there are several prgrams perating at the same time. Thse kind f prblems are the type yu shuld expect t have.

But hw d yu respnd when certain keys n yur keypad simply stp wrking? Like, fr example, a key that happens t crrespnd with very, very prminent vwel? Vwels, such as A, E, I, , U, and even Y, are virtually essential and they are needed in wrds mre ften than yu might think.

Hw wuld missing this imptrtant letter affect yur daily life? Personally, I depend upn the keypad fr many prjects at wrk. My leisure time is als affected, because, much as it chagrins me, there aren’t any search engines with the web addresses, much less There isn’t any e-mail address available with Htmail, and even my dearest friends and family wuld be perplexed t receive emails frm a persn identifying himself as ‘Rb.’

Nw, maybe yu’re saying, Why can’t he simply cpy the letter “o” frm sme Internet site and paste it whenever he needs t spell a wrd? Well, I’ll tell yu why nt, because I hadn’t thought of it until you just said so. Thanks, I appreciate that.

Computer problems were a fact of life even before I left for Korea almost two years ago. As long as I can remember, the various computers I have employed over the years would malfunction at, it seemed, a rate of roughly once every 40 minutes, forcing me to begin the humiliating task of interacting with “tech people.”

It’s not that all “tech people” are difficult to work with; many of them are wholly knowledgeable and pleasant individuals. It’s just that their all-encompassing knowledge of the various computer problems and solutions appears so practical and necessary as to make your typical liberal-arts major feel rather useless.

You might say that their knowledge of all things binary is equitable to the PlayStation 3, whereas my expertise in the fields of American political science and English composition seem more reminiscent of the Atari 7800.

In Korea, such ego-maiming interactions rarely take place, as all natives of this country, including tech people, consider the following skills admirable:

1) The ability to speak English.

I’d say that the skills of the technologically-inclined have about the same value here as they do in America, but my own have risen to the status of at least the X-Box. Therefore, the tech people here act very differently toward me.

In order to communicate clearly, they accompany their Korean words with gestures so demonstrative as to suggest they have strings attached to each limb. Any failure to make me understand, causes them to rub their brows furiously, apparently berating themselves for not knowing enough English. And why shouldn't they? After all, they spent the whole of their educational years only learning how to help the technologically disinclined regain the use of their livelihood. Can't they also be bothered to learn a tongue that bears almost no similarity to their own, in order to aid the occasional foreigner who hasn't taken the time to learn the language of this, the host nation?

I know you're as outraged by their insensitivity as I am. Fortunately, foreigners here can usually meet people in their neighborhood who, while not particularly adept with computers, can speak both languages. It's generally good practice to have two-three such people handy. The first will call the internet installation/tech service company, describe the problem and make the appointment.

One other person should be near you at all times, possibly at your workplace, in case the company representative calls for any reason. This is necessary because, as near as I can tell, not one of Korea's computer-related companies has a single English-speaking representative. I say this since, although very few foreigners that I have met can speak Korean well, whenever the company needs to contact someone with a name like "I.M. Notasian," they approach the task by calling in the middle of the work day and bombarding us with this unfamiliar language as rapidly as possible.

The foreigner must then keep them on the phone long enough to find a Korean co-worker and ask them to please stop whatever important task they are doing and help him/her get his computer serviced.

One of these bilingual Koreans, or possibly a third, should then be at your home when the service technician arrives. This speeds up the process and spares the foreigner the discomfort of having to watch a qualified technician scold his own lack of bilinguality.

Being in a foreign country will teach you how much you need other people, because even some simple tasks are very complicated due to language barriers. But, though it takes longer, even the most maddening tech problems can be solved, and everything will be all rght.

All rght.

All rght ... oh dear, not agan.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


An Advanced Stage to Avoid

Every now and then I stop to reflect on the fact that I 'm getting older. This should not surprise me, nor should it surprise anyone else who is aware that "getting older" is in fact the natural state of all living, cell-dividing organisms. Of course I know this is the case, but I don't really "know" it except in certain instances where it is profoundly, and sometimes painfully, illustrated for me.

One good example occurs during the eating of Snickers bars. When I was younger, my general philosophy toward the eating of Snickers bars was, "This is a cost-effective way to temporarily assuage my hunger, better allowing me to focus on the task at hand. " In recent times, my outlook has evolved partially, yet crucially: "This is a cost-effective way to temporarily assuage my hunger, better all-OWWWW!..."

Did you notice the change? It deviates from the original manifesto during the precise moment I bite with the upper front molar on the right side of my mouth. This is one of the teeth in the oral canal I call my own which currently marked with a tiny black spot that acts as a kind of horizontally-suspended anti-chocolate landmine. This is a recent development, and big surprise: who could have predicated that I, after more than two decades of Snickers-bar consumption, would have painful spots on my teeth now, of all times?

Revelations such as these prompt me to do other things that remind me of my advancing age, such as visit the dentist's office. When I was young, the dentist's office was a fun place, because I got to read Sports Illustrated in the waiting room, older women would compliment me on how I doing such an able job at getting bigger, and when I left I was given a new toothbrush that I could begin ignoring immediately.

As I grew older, I realized that dental employees did not, in fact, clean my teeth for free while living off a diet of water and tooth paste. All of those years, some other person had actually been paying them, or at least paying an insurance office that, in turn paid the dental clinic. At some point, I haven't calculated when, I became the person who had to do that.

Also, the reading of Sports Illustrated became less enjoyable as those inside the magazine started accruing more tattoos, paternity suits and zeroes on their contracts. I had also stopped growing in any measurable way that chipper older women appreciated, and I came to realize that the purpose of a toothbrush is not to ignore it, but apparently to ward off the Advanced Stages of Periodontitis.

I think this is a poster found inside most dental clinics all over America, showing the gradual erosion of the teeth until the Fourth Stage, at which point they resemble piano keys that have been run through a wine press. The dental hygienists say they 're ready to see you, but they 're really just ready to make you wait for them while you study the minute details of this poster.

When they finally do arrive, you're ready to do anything they tell you to avoid the advanced stages, except of course give up Snickers bars (trust me when I say this is not a physical possibility).

Since moving to Korea, I have begun using a dental clinic in Seoul near my workplace. I have not seen the Advanced Stages of Periodontitis poster there, but there is another that displays screws being put into people's teeth and then inserted into the gums. I can 't understand the Korean words on the poster yet, but I have plenty of time to speculate about its meaning while I sit waiting for appointments.

Maybe it says that this is a new anesthetized surgical treatment for people who’ve lost teeth, I wonder. Or maybe it says that they reserve the right to do this to me without anesthesia during appointments if I don't floss enough.

The latter wouldn't surprise me too much, because dental hygienists in any country are rarely satisfied with my efforts.

"You need to more cleaning*," the woman in the Seoul clinic says.

In order to correct my dental deficiencies, they tilt my chair back, cover my face with a green cloth that only exposes the mouth, and they begin scraping away, followed by an actual flossing demonstration they hope I'll remember later. I rarely recall their example, because I 'm lost in other details such as: 1) keeping my mouth open as wide as possible, and 2) keeping my tongue lying flat on the bottom of the mouth, lest it get in the way of the hookish-scraping object being used.

Only during her momentary pauses do I realize that my hands are probably clenched on my stomach so tightly as to turn pinkish in color. That is, after all, a rather sharp object being used only millimeters away from soft, pink flesh.

"Is this painful?" she asks. I shake my head no. After all, she said "painful," not "terribly uncomfortable and unnerving."

"Okay, finished," she says. "Your teeth clean now, but you need to more effort flossing.”

I nod my head in agreement and slip away as soon as I can. I may be getting older, but I may have another 50 years of visits to the dental clinic ahead of me. I want to avoid giving them excuses to put the screws in for as long as possible.

*This a common way for Koreans to structure their sentences. The lady who cooks in our cafeteria says "You need to more fat" when she wants me to get seconds. Students who encourage their classmates to try harder say "You need to more fighting."

Sunday, September 02, 2007


A Ringing Success

You might choose one of many different ways to measure the things which are difficult for a man to accomplish, but my favorite way is to compare such things to sports-related injuries.
Take, for example, the task of buying jewelry that is appropriate for a woman. It doesn't sound that difficult at first, until people start asking really specific questions that involve precise measurements we've never used before, like "cut" and "carat," and suddenly the whole experience begins to feel like a sprained ankle.
It gets worse when the man has to think about buying such a piece of jewelry in a country were no one selling it speaks his language, such as Korea. One might be under the impression that the nice but insistent Korean jewelry vendor is asking questions such as, "In what cut would you like this carat?" or "In what carat would you like this cut?" If we knew for sure that this was the manner of question they were asking, we could at least take comfort in the fact that we wouldn't even know the answer in English.
However, it's particularly frustrating when you suspect that it's a simple question, like "Will you pay in cash or in incremental installments for the next few decades?" It's particularly frustrating because you know that you'd understand what kind of questions they were asking if you'd bothered to study the language a bit harder, rather than spend most of your free time watching Wallace & Gromit in Three Amazing Adventures.
Even if the task is eventually performed successfully, buying jewelry for a woman in a non-English speaking country is a challenge that can leave a man with a feeling normally associated with a strained hamstring.
Harder than any of these would be buying a piece of jewelry for a woman, knowing that this is a purchase that is likely to change the course of one’s life. How can a man best choose an item that will summarize everything he has ever felt for a woman in all the months he has known her, all in something that will fit on her finger?
How can he purchase something that encapsulates everything he wants to promise her? Furthermore, if he finds such an item, will he be able to purchase it in cash, or will he have to pay in installments for the next several decades? This goes beyond a strained or sprained anything, and into hyper-extended knee territory.
As hard as these may seem, imagine how hard it must be to make a life-changing jewelry purchase for a woman in a foreign country. Picture yourself standing before a nice but insistent Korean jewelry vendor as they promote an assortment of items, any of which appears to have life-changing potential but nearly all of which look awfully similar.
"This one can summarize everything you've in the months you've known her and it fits on her finger," the nice but insistent vendor says.
"What?" you might reply.
"Or you may choose this one, which encapsulates everything you want to promise her," this nice but insistent Korean says.
"Huh?" you might respond.
If handled improperly, this is a situation so difficult that it has hernia potential. Fortunately, there is a proper way to handle such an occasion, and that is to befriend an English-speaking native of this country, preferably female, and preferably one who has been married herself. You should have her handle most of the communicating, as well as a good deal of the selection. Your main duty will be to make the final choice, and then wait for her to signal you as to when and how much you have to pay.
Of course, there’s really more to it than that. For example, you won't feel like you're looking hard enough unless you visit at least three such stores, seen all the permutations of price within them, as well as the possible ways that they can stack a diamond on top of a piece of something called "white gold."
However, if you have chosen the correct married-English-speaking-native woman to guide you, after the third store she will say something like, "We should choose now. If you go to anymore stores, I think you will just be more confused."
"My intestines hurt," you might respond.
I can knowledgably say all of these things, because I have endured this journey in a foreign land and I have emerged with the prize in hand. The price of it is not important (not to you, anyway, but to me it's equal to an awful lot of Wallace & Gromit DVDs), all that matters is that it was fit to give to the person for whom it was intended.
Now, whatever hernia-inducing journeys lie ahead of me in this foreign land, I'll have someone to face them with.

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