Thor's Korea Diary
Whose Chook Are You Anyway?
@29 May 2002
This should be the point where I enter a telephone booth, strip off my used-to-be-white shirt with the fraying cuffs, and emerge as a superman of the witty, profound, wise, worldly, hip, sonorous, wildly popular, hilarious and reverberating utterance. However, just before takeoff there's an admission to make. My repertoire is limited too. For example, if you talk about football, baseball, golf, netball, balls of any kind ... I will struggle bravely for about two minutes to maintain focus, then my eyes will glaze over. Balls to Thor are as chooks are to Konglish. I am full of admiration for folk who can reach a state of frenzied cleverness about balls, and the people balls control, but to me it is, well, just all balls. On the other hand, if you want to discuss Asian politics, internal combustion engines, memetics, web page design, verb particles or freshening bread with a steam iron, I'm right with you ...
Incomprehension is thus a matter of degree. Happiness may be how well you learn to live with the fuzz. Take something as critical as a life partner. Pity those poor saps, all the millions of them, who stutter tatty cliches on the matchmaking Internet sites - "n.s., g.s.o.h. rock star lookalike chick/hunk wants fireside romance with dream partner...". We'll avert our eyes, not decode the flesh and bone ordinariness behind this. The emotional void it speaks of is familiar enough to us all though. How I dreamt long ago, before graduating to spiritual independence, of meeting that gorgeous soulmate, with whom mutual understanding would shimmer, and the subtlest shades of our auras blend. What mush. So it's all animal genes, huh? Some German researchers (ref. Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 2002) have just decided that humans are intelligent because women select men for intelligence, like peacocks select mates for their tail feathers. Ha, wrong tail feathers again. You can't win. Alas, like most of humanity, I have also learned to survive without exuding a killer scent, and get by on platitudes. I fear that's my karma. Once you settle for communicating like a baboon instead of beaming wisdom like a Yodi, well at least there's brain space left over to admire the sunsets.
So moving to the funny-talk English twilight of China or South Korea was not altogether falling off the edge of the known world. It was just a couple more steps back away from the sunlight. Anyway, when you think about it, a good deal of the fun almost anyone has is in the shadows after dark. Sunlight and shadows? Well, understanding, seeing things this way or that, or not seeing them at all, is mental stuff, sort of. Once I worked in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years. The first time I ventured out it was scary, like being a white ghost in a tide of black bodies, a walking freak geek flittering through a froth of strange vowels. It took a while to realize that amidst midgets with ten centimetre earlobes doubling as tobacco pouches, ebony giants with hands like meat plates, and a babble of 800 languages shared by 1000 tribes in this amazing country, my "foreignness" was utterly uninteresting. After that it was easy to fit in. Along with everyone else, my expectations of deep and meaningful discussion started at ground level zero. Each new stage of understanding, hard won from perching on my head and wiggling my ears, came as a triumphant achievement. An important lesson there. Sharing TV programs, pizzas and slang with the mob we grow up with, we become communication slobs, demand understanding and ideal friendship to arrive as casually as a bus to the shopping centre. But the real world away from mum's kitchen ain't like that.
The secret of perfect communication, and the secret of speaking a foreign language well, is never to have an original idea. If you are utterly predictable, even the dogs and cats will understand your intentions perfectly. My own misfortune in every latitude is to frequently come up with off-centre brain waves. Take fresh bread and the steam iron. The corn bread which now passes for my daily staple in the little South Korean dong (suburb) of Bansong is, well, edible for just a few short hours after it leaves the bakery. None of those dangerous moisturizing agents in this stuff. I pondered this awful problem for a week, until scorching my finger one morning with a puff of steam, inspiration struck. Ouch, uh-huh! It is not a perfect world though. Iron-steamed bread was a great success, but after I'd also ironed bits of gluey bread into my shirts a few times, a little more innovation seemed in order. Why not use one of those plastic steamer things that hucksters in department stores try to flog for smoothing curtains ?
The first rule of shopping in Korea is that if you really want something, it won't be where you expect it. Tissues are sold in vending machines outside toilets, but not in supermarkets. The mandarins that small trucks were frantically selling door to door yesterday have just vanished for at least a year. That simple audio jack for your tape recorder will need a special trip to the one part of the city where a whole block of electronics shops grimly compete. So heading for the local bits-and-pieces shop in search of a steamer-thingummy, I wasn't hugely optimistic. There were pocket knives that promised twenty functions, Mickey Mouse pencil cases, and plastic implements for doing uniquely acrobatic tasks, but no steamer. The lady who works there had seen me before, and expects a little insanity. She is cultured enough to keep her face composed. "Shhhhhh", I hissed, waving my arms in circles. A flicker of doubt crossed her eyes. "Psssst", I hissed, doubling over and running my hand up my trouser legs. "Ne, ne", she crooned soothingly, but didn't move a muscle. You had to be careful with these foreigners. We weren't getting anywhere. Then I spotted an advertising blurb that actually featured curtains. "Wsssssssh", I said, running an index finger down the photographic curtains. The lady beamed and smashed her hands together in that Korean way of exclaiming 'aha!' . Then she hurried away and came back with exactly what I wanted.
At this moment of supreme achievement I should have offered a libation to the gods and come quietly home, a contented man. Flushed with success though, giddy with hubris, I tried to impart the purpose of my purchase. "Fssssh", I growled, steaming an imaginary slice of bread. "Ppang (bread), mmmm", licking my lips. A stricken look swept over the woman's face. "Ppang", I repeated, stating the obvious, and grinning like a maniac. Her voice tense with anxiety, she shouted for help at the curtained back of the shop. Hey, this was getting out of hand. What had I done? After a couple of minutes a leathery little man whom I'd never seen before bounced up. "Can I help you?" has asked in flawless English. Ha, he couldn't fool me. At least ten million Koreans are able to ask "can I help you?" in perfect English, but retreat in confused panic when you smile and drawl "well yes, as a matter of fact I was looking for an early eighteenth century glazed pottery cornucopia...". This time I took pity and just muttered "well no, not really. I was just telling your admirable companion about my patent pending bread steaming invention..." The leathery man had the chutzpah to nod as if he had understood me perfectly. He disappeared behind a shelf of imitation jewelry, and before I could escape came pattering back with an ironing board under one arm, and a Chinese chintz curtain draped over the other.
Ah, so it goes. Anyhow, as I began to say some time ago, it's time to feed the chooks. That's what they pay me for around here. It's pretty easy, eh, once you get the angle. The angle's the thing. You have to go out into the farmyard and toss a handful of grain just so. If you throw it all in a heap there'll be feathers flying everywhere and one hell of a barnyard fight. If you throw it too wide, the chooks are so stupid they'll stand there scratching and clucking that there's nothing to eat. Oh, all right you non-Australian barbarians, chooks are hens & roosters. Or if Chinglish, Japlish or Konglish are your mediums, then chooks are what they make from sawdust and fat in Kentucky Fried, a.k.a. chickens. And if you are old enough and silly enough to know a bit of Australian trivia, 'my chooks' are what a certain grizzled Queensland Premier used to fondly call the hacks from the press, as he fed them their daily deceptions. He had a genius for the incomprehensible utterance, spoken with such conviction and comforting warmth that voters by the millions flocked to his farmyard. Now my chooks, my students, are almost as easy to fool. Heck, they call me "professor". There's a laugh.
* Note on personal names: all
names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.