Speaking Americanese

Today I was walking home from the Teacher Training luncheon and I ran into a couple of kids, one of whom I sort of know. She’s a student of my co-worker and friend Kimberley’s. So anyway, she knows me by name, and I know her face, because she’s the daughter of the woman who runs our apartment’s local little corner shop (“the super”). Anyway, the girl quickly greeted me, “Hi Gord!”

It was odd enough because I’m used to people calling me Go-duh, the Korean pronunciation of my name. But anyway, I said to the girl, since she’s an English student, “How are you?” After I asked a couple of times, she didn’t know what I meant, nor did her friend, so they asked me in Korean. I explained (in Korean), and then we had a whole conversation (also in Korean) as we walked back to the same place, the Jae Il building where I live.

Girl #1: Hi Gord!
Gord: Hi! (pause) How are you?
Girls #1&2: (silence)
Gord: (pause) How are you?
Girls #1&2: (silence)
[switch to Korean]
Gord: Hey, study the English you does with Kimberley?
Girl #1: Yes. But my friend doesn’t understand you.
Girl #2: What does “How are you?” mean?
Gord: Um, how you is feeling is today?
Girl #2: How do you say, “I’m fine” in English?
Gord: You say, “I’m fine!”
Girl #1: What does I’m fine mean?
Gord: It means, “My feel is today is good.”
Girl #2: How do you say that again?
Gord: “I’m fine.”
Girl #1: My friend doesn’t speak English.
Girl #2: Yeah, I don’t speak Americanese.
Gord: What? I’m not American.
Girl #2: A-MER-I-CAN-ESE! I don’t speak Americanese.
Gord: Ah, Americanese? We don’t say it be Americanese. We say it be English. English is coming from England. No America. England language. So English.
Girl #1: She doesn’t know any English at all. Hey, do you like kimchi?
Gord: If I don’t the kimchi, I like, if I don’t, life in Korea is living hard, no? So, I like the kimchi.
Girl #2 (pointing at a truck full of raw cabbages): Is that kimchi?
Gord: Hey! No. It’s not spicy. And not red-coloring. Not kimchi. Only cabbage! Oh my God!
Girl #2: You speak Korean well!
Gord: No I don’t! I is many thinking and no can saying.
Girl #2 (laughing): Do you like Korea?
Gord: Yes, it’s a good.
Girl #1: I’m going to the store. Bye!
Gord & Girl #2: Bye!
Girl #2 (to Gord): Wow, that was neat!
Gord: Good, yes, funny! Ha funny nicely! Bye!

6 thoughts on “Speaking Americanese

  1. The closest thing I’ve seen recently to this manner of relating conversations is Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. The book is mostly about the joys of learning French from a psychopathic Frenchwoman while living in France, where the burdens of speaking nonsense are alleviated by the fact that you can get cheap health care and smoke pretty much anywhere you want. The technique is used relatively sparingly, though, and Sedaris typically opts for the absurd declarative sentence. In your case it might go something like, “I told the man I might shortly desire a tureen of flaming cabbage, so for a few dollars he sold me a bowl of kimchi.”

  2. Gord: I would like to see a commentary after on the whole conversation from your perspective, and also possibly from theirs. I also would love to see a piece on the whole “insult” of speaking Americanese. In this current climate between Canada and the U.S., that is an interesting assumption. Hope you are well. Miss you. I actually started a poem the other day…

  3. Michele,

    Thanks for the comment. Do you think that commentary would make sense in a fiction-styled memoir context? Certainly not from their POV, but from mine? I don’t know exactly what I would want to say, directly, about it.

    To be honest, the whole Americanese thing didn’t actually bother me, really… maybe because some of my closest friends here are American, and also because most of them are not flagwaving patriotic idiots (hell, most of them are quite unhappy about Bush in general), and probably also just because I am used to “English” and “foreign” being equated with “American”.

    For one thing, there was a time when it was basically true that any foreigners in Korea were Americans. This was a fact of life for a long, long time. On top of that, a huge amount of foreign media is American. Not all of it, and sometimes I think to a lesser degree than we find in Canada – because when it’s subtitled and you can’t understand the speech in the movie, what would make you differentiate between say Hollywood and French film? – but still, the pop culture is so saturated with things American, and certainly right now the most politically charged foreign presence in Korea is American. So, I am used to kids declaring, “Migukin Wa!” (“American headed this way!”).

    For another thing, I find far less difference between Canadians and Americans here than I did when I was living in Canada, not having regular face-to- face contact with Americans. Don’t get me wrong, I know some rather obnoxious Americans here. But I know a couple of Aussies and a Kiwi like that, and you should just hear my Ozzie and American friends talking about the shameless, moronic nationalism of some of my countrymen here. I’ve heard of people walking about on July 1st (Canada Day, for the non-Canadian readers out there) with not just the (admittedly cheesy but not insane) Maple Leaf T-shirt, but also a full-on Canadian flag worn as part of some wacko postmodernist identity costume.

    And I have heard more than my fair share of idiot Canadians going on and on about how bad and crazy the USA is and how much better Canada is… while, meanwhile, Canada is as rapidly as possible Americanizing every institution in the country.

    There are many things I find in common between Canada and South Korea, one of the more striking things being our similar inferiority complexes when faced with America (which I discuss more here). Canadianness and South Koreanness have other things in common, too, of course, more than I’ll detail here as I think I’ll do it more indirectly in my writing soon.

    But I have to also observe now that, in Korea, surrounded by this vast sea of sometimes-familiar-and-sometimes-totally-alien culture, I have found a hell of a lot more in common with my American friends than I ever thought was possible.

    On top of that, I found that what the girl said was in some ways a better reflection of the Korean reality than calling the language “English”, because after all the only reason people in Korea, and Japan, and Thailand, and UAE, and Brazil, and numberless other countries around the world, are struggling the uphill, sometimes Sisyphian battle of learning this language I’m writing in, is because of American political and economic power. If China had conquered the world, I’d be the poor fool trying to master the singsong tones of Mandarin and read those frustratingly enigmatic characters. It’s at least partly an accident of history, sure, and not a positive evaluation of actual American superiority over the rest of us, but regardless English is the world’s second language not because of Oxford’s learning, nor the trends in Europe, nor because it’s particularly sensible or easy to learn (it really isn’t!).

    It’s the world’s second language because it is Americanese, and because America is powerful enough to get away with all the silly shit the country is doing right now. That’s a fact of life, and as much as it may rankle, it’s something we Canadians have to accept and move past, I think. We’re a fine, wonderful country, we have a big grouchy muscular brother next door, but instead of sitting about resenting him, we should get to the business of improving ourselves… Chretien’s not sending troops into Bush’s Crusade is one step in the right direction, at least.

    Given all of that, I didn’t have room to bring out old Canadian bristliness about America, which seems to me to be so much a reaction.

    I miss you too. Good job on starting a poem! I did too, just yesterday, the first one in weeks and weeks. When you have a draft done, so send it my way! :)

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