On the Sudden Inappropriateness of Retarded Frog Jokes

It’s weird living in a place where you don’t see physically handicapped people very often. In Iksan, I think they didn’t get out of the house much. I saw one man in a wheelchair a few times, and a crazy guy whose obsession was to jog in front of the university carrying banners and wearing a track suit with his name on it (the name being one character different from the name of a famous Korean runner). I actually saw a few crazy people wandering about the city day-by-day, but I almost never saw anyone with a physical disability.

At Jeonju University, however, there are a lot of students who have physical disabilities. They’re actually sometimes among the better students in English classes, claim my some of my co-workers, because unlike the other students, they have to work like mad to get into whatever program they’re in. Walking around campus, I quite regularly see people who walk funny, have obvious physical disabilities, or even rely on wheelchairs to get around. What’s weird is how this is surprising to me, when, back in Canada, I never had a second thought seeing people like that. A year and a half of not seeing people like that somehow created a false image of the world in my head.

And it is reflected in the way I speak now, too. One of the words I used to use as a joke, or as a challenge, is jijinah which translates roughly as “retarded”. I used to sometimes joke at the swimming pool that I and my classmates resembled “jijinah gaeguri” (retarded frogs) or “jijina jangeo” (retarded eels) depending on which stroke we were botching at the time. Well, the last time I swam at the Jeonju University pool, the guy waiting in line behind me for the shower was a guy with mental and physical handicaps, in a wheelchair. I suddenly felt just how inappropriate my joke had been.

And while I was changing into my clothes in the change room, a kid walked around the room. For some reason (probably just to get a better look at my face) he took the most awkward route, in front of me, and as he passed by he stared into my face with a kind of vacant, slack-jawed expression. I was about to ask him in Korean if he was mentally retarded, when I realized that he just might be, which would make the question extremely gauche (whereas, in Iksan, when this sort of thing happened, I usually asked the question knowing that the kid wasn’t retarded, and that the conversation would inevitably turn to other things, like me telling the boy I came from the moon, or Japan, or from outer space, when he asked me if I was American).

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