Monday, June 27, 2011

The Unauthorized Autobiography of Captain Polyglot

I am an expert at all things that are not Korean. You may not believe this. And I may not believe this. But all the Korean employees at my workplace unequivocally believe this. They believe it the same way 4-year-olds believe in Santa Claus. And with utter confidence in my far-reaching knowledge of all things not Korean, they ask me for information regarding words in French, German, Portuguese, etc.

Sadly, though, I am not what you'd call a "language person." It's true that while in university, I took one year of accelerated classes in Italian and was always at the top of my class, but in spite of my almost-adequate grasp of Italian while in uni, my knowledge of it has receded in the years since so that now the only thing I feel confident about in Italian is how to order an ice cream. Really, this is the most important phrase anyone can use in Italy, anyway, so that's all good. But to return to the shores of my now-distant main point, my knowledge of ordering ice cream has become the basis for my understanding of all Romantic languages, so that I feel sufficiently informed to take a stab at defining pretty much any foreign word that my coworkers present to me.

Also, I cheat and use the Internet.

"Oh yes, ajdiwureojaksldfj, yes, of course I'm familiar with it. I'm just a little busy now. Give me a minute and {Google, Google, Google, Wiki, Wiki}, yes, it means 'the velvet canvas on which religious icons are painted by Polish farmhands.' And it's pronounced *imitates cat unsuccessfully trying to rid itself of a hairball*."

As you might imagine, this system works very well for me. By which I mean, I still have a job.

Sometimes, though, my coworkers will hand me a paper with a word that's -- not to be judgmental or anything -- totally weird.

I take the piece of paper and squint at it. Pretend astigmatism makes an excellent stall for time.

"That's not an English word. No, it's sure not," I'll observe as I stare at a word in Yiddish? Russian? Something-stan?

"Errm, it's not even written in the Roman alphabet," I'll then point out, in what I intend as a mild protest.

"Yes, that's true," my coworkers will respond, smiling. "And how do you pronounce it?"

The result of which is that one of our language CDs may or may not have a speaker mentioning farflugen where a Yiddish-Russian-Something-stan word would actually be more appropriate. Because farflugen is the most exotic-sounding word I know. I think the Swedish chef from The Muppets used to say it, so I guess that makes farflugen Swedish. Who says you can't learn by watching prodigious quantities of TV?

Sometimes, to be perfectly frank, I feel I'm not the best person for this job. However, I seem to be the company favourite, as out of the three native English speakers in my office, I am decidedly the one most often chosen to answer questions about all things not Korean.

I once overheard a conversation between a Korean coworker and one of the other native English speakers, Evil Disney Princess (a moniker bestowed for her unique ability to say the meanest things imaginable in a voice sweet as honey), about a certain English word. I didn't hear the whole convo, but distinctly heard EDP advise that "The dictionary is wrong about that word."

Perhaps that is why I've been designated as Captain Polyglot. I never tilt at Oxford or Webster. And as for Roget, I feel absolute adulation, affection, devotion, emotion, passion, rapture, relish, and respect.

Anyway, I was just kidding about that farflugen stuff. But if you ever hear the word "onomatopoeia" seemingly used out of context on an EFL CD. Well, that one just might be me.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Train to Nowhere, Japan

"I want to go to a small town," I say vaguely. "One that has nice cherry blossoms."

"Where?" the woman at the tourist help desk in Nara asks.

"Where do you like to see the cherry blossoms?" I counter.

She pauses thoughtfully for a moment and then uses her pen to scratch out a name on a scrap of paper. Immediately afterward, I walk to the train station to buy a ticket there. Even though the train stations in Japan are uniformly Neat and Orderly, I still have trouble figuring out which ticket to buy, so I press my finger against the round, red "help" button at the bottom of the automated ticket machine. Instead of a help screen appearing on the machine, as I'd anticipated, a square in the wall next to it snaps open, revealing a sort of camouflaged window I'd not noticed when it was closed, and a Neat and Orderly ticket agent pops his head out the window.

"May I help you?" he asks. It's an Alice in Wonderland moment.

I show the man my scrap of paper and he guides me through the correct series of buttons to push on the machine.

{decorative tiles on traditional Japanese roof}

My destination, whose name I remember as Yashimoto though I can find no evidence of its existence from the Internet or guidebooks, is a tiny town where any visitor can attain insta-celebrity status by virtue of blonde hair! blue eyes! As I slowly walk through the town, a few people come up to me to shake my hand. A few others greet me with, "Hello-welcome-how-are-you?" and then quickly dash away before I can form a reply.

The center of all activity in town seems to revolve around an old castle that is surrounded by a moat and located on a hill. Before reaching the castle itself, I happen upon a nearby temple. On the outside porch of the temple are numerous plexiglass tanks containing small, brightly-coloured fish. This is so curious of a matter, unlike anything I've seen in other temples in Asia, that without thinking I ask the man nearest me, "Why are all those fish at the temple?"

{temple fish}

The man stares at me in concern. I repeat the question slowly, point at the fish in question, smile and shrug. The first man calls over a second man and relays my question to him. The second man deals with me by passing me along to a group of teenage boys who are shyly reluctant to make my acquaintance. After what appears to be a polite debate among all the men of Yashimoto, one of teenagers makes a phone call for an outside opinion about the fish. After about 15 minutes of this, they settle on a conclusion. One of the young men, urged forward by the rest, solemnly makes the pronouncement: "Fish. Good. "

{sidewalk fish tile}

Relieved that the temple fish are not of a malicious nature, I thank the gathered assembly of boys and men (and I honestly am grateful for the amount of effort they'd put into answering my question). We all respectfully bobble up and down, and I continue on my way to the castle.

Lining the stony path to the castle is a row of rosily-striped vendor tents. I stop by one that has a small group of very happy children collected in front of it. I watch as the vendor mixes a concoction of sugar and syrup and colour in a small iron skillet and then carefully dribbles the mixture onto wax paper, swirling it into Japanese characters. He is making giant lollipops with children's names on them.

{a genuine sugar daddy}

The group of children gathered there stops watching the candy making and begins watching me watching the candy making. One of them giggles and whispers something to his friends. With admirable boldness, he then asks if I have a boyfriend and tells me that I am cute. I really want to tell him no, you are so cute and pinch the darling baby-fat of his round cheeks. But such a response would be a blow to the dignified persona he is working so hard to achieve, so instead I point out that I am old, a grown adult, and ask him why he isn't in school on a weekday. He assures me the age difference won't be a problem since he is "also old, in junior high, almost high school."

This is what I get for hanging out at candy booths.

{my name in Japanese, in candy, possibly upside down}

After buying a container of assorted sushi (and an oversized lollipop with my name spelled out in glossy candy form), I settle on the soft grass under some cherry blossom trees and picnic alongside dozens of Japanese families. The sun's brilliance falls across the lawn, adding a glimmer of warmth to the chilly spring day. A few feet away from me, the ancient castle towers.

The lovely Amanda from
has identified the town I visited as Yamatokoriyama with Koriyama-jo [castle].

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bow-Wow Soup in Korea or "What's for Dinner?"

Seolmi and I angle our chopsticks into the various dishes spread across the table. We use them like tiny extended hands to pick up long strands of fried noodles, udon-infused squares of fishcake, and pieces of delectably tender sushi. Our conversation drifts in and out of various topics. I take a bite of the sushi and rave about its deliciousness.

"Mmm, this fish tastes great!" I enthuse.

"Have you had dog or cat?" Seolmi asks.

"No, no! Never!" I protest.

In the shadow of its other culinary offerings, Korea has a reputation for serving bosintang or meong meong soup (the latter of which translates to "bow wow" or "woof woof" soup) in a few, select restaurants tucked away in some of Seoul's poorer alleyways.

Images flash through my mind of all the dogs who have reached cult-like status via Western movies and TV: Beethoven, Benji, Toto, centuplicate (+service) Dalmatians, and the most classic canine of them all, Lassie. It didn't matter how many times little Timmy fell down that well (being so very accident-prone as to make viewers wonder whether he harbored latent suicidal tendencies), the border collie Lassie was always there to save him. No one should ever have Lassie for dinner.

"I would never do that!" I proclaim emphatically. "I would never have dog or cat. For me, it would be like eating a baby!"

I pause in the midst of my raving and look more closely at Seolmi. She has a strange expression on her face that I can't quite read, and her mouth hangs open slightly.

Quickly, I switch the nature of my speech. I've been so insensitive. Maybe Seolmi's parents raised her on woof woof soup. Maybe her grandparents had resorted to eating it due to lack of better food options during the war and the tradition carried down a few generations. Who am I to judge another person's culture, especially someone who is trying to be my friend?

"It's okay if you eat dog," I amend apologetically. "We're from different cultures. I understand that."

Then there is silence. A long silence.

Finally, Seolmi speaks.

"Not eating dog or cat," she says. "Having dog or cat. For pet."