A Cool Cabbie, Once Again

I remember the days when, while first really studying Korean, I would take taxis with anticipation in my heart. You see, there is something that nobody tells you when you first arrive in Korea, about the act of learning Korean. Most people just want to learn survival Korean, as they don’t intend to stay long, so they have no idea. Others turn so bitter that they think the whole prospect is insane; or they are too lazy to make any headway; or they are, as I was for a while, burnt out in terms of studying Korean, and have forgotten what the taxi ride can be.

But tonight, it was just like in the old days. After an evening with Lime, having a wonderful 닭도리탕 (a kind of spicy chicken stew) and some hot chocolate (she had coffee), it was time for us to make our respective ways home. I’m still not back into cycling, so I caught a cab home after seeing her off.

Lately, I’ve been using my M3 a lot when in transit. I’m listening to things I’ve not yet gotten to from the oodles of downloads I’ve burned onto CDs over the last year or so, music as well as the well-done radio production by the BBC of the SF trilogy Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. (The radio play makes what I consider a bundle of execrably badly-written novels into a listenable narrative.)

But tonight, when I got in the cab, for some reason I didn’t pop my headphones in right away, and the cab driver struck up a conversation with me in the standard way—by complimenting me on my Korean. He was, in fact, so struck by it that he repeated the supposedly impressive bit back to me:

한신 코아 뒤에는 신동 아 아파트! 뒤에는! 와! 한국말 잘 합니다!

In essence, he was impressed because I could tell him “The Shindonga building that is behind the Hanshin Koa Building.”

Anyway, nothing in the conversation that followed would be news to readers here. He asked about my hometown and I told him about it, and asked about his hometown—he’s from coastal Buan, near here. We talked about our parents and where they were from, and he was amazed that I was born in Africa but not black, until I got it across that my grandfather was from the UK, and my mother was a Quebecois nurse. We talked about ignorant country people and how there are such types in every country (I used the Korean idiom of “a frog in a well” to express the idea), and he was amused to hear about my black friend in high school was was born in England, and how nobody could imagine him being from England and me being from Africa, even as remotely as I was.

Like I said, the conversation didn’t go anywhere too amazing. But what was amazing to me was the good feeling I had talking with this guy for the ten minute drive to my home. He went far out of his way to make me feel welcome, cracking jokes and speaking with very polite Korean (jeon-dae-mal) until he got it clearly that I felt he was older than me and could speak in a more relaxed fashion. By the time we arrived at my home, he was exhorting me to “spend a long time in Korea and enjoy Korea!”, and to stress his point he said, repeatedly, “오래오래!오래오래오래! Looooooooong time!” and smiling in the most friendly and generous way.

It’s been a while since I’ve had that experience, where someone sees you trying to make an effort with the language and responds so overwhelmingly that it makes you want to try even more. Sure, there are the punks on the street whom I’d just tell off if I knew better Korean. There are the students who’d get an earful, and the rude fellows who butt in line, and so on. But there are also genuinely good people, plenty of them, with whom connecting might actually be easier, and more rewarding, with just a little more effort.

It was a good cab ride, and I feel like it’s been too long since the last one, which may be more than just a little my fault.

2 thoughts on “A Cool Cabbie, Once Again

  1. I think I’m a bit less advanced in Korean than, you, but I know what you’re talking about. I always look forward to practicing my Korean with cabbies because 1) they ask a pretty predictable set of questions while usually throwing a new one or two in, and 2) they seem to actually LISTEN to you, and make allowances for foreign pronunciation. Non-cabbies just seem to turn off their brain when my pronunciation is a millimeter off standard Korean.

  2. Yeah, I know what you mean. Many people seem to have very little tolerance for an accent in Korean, and yet understand English that is so heavily accented I have to guess at its meaning. Another funny thing is that kids, when they speak English, sometimes hang onto their accents even when they can speak somewhat more clearly.

    Tonight in class I was trying to get some of the girls to stop adding “euh” after every hard-consonant ending, and it was obvious everyone in the room could hear it. To make my point I spoke in a Korean accent for a few minutes, turning my l’s to rolled r’s and adding “euh” after words like my name or “hard”, as in “studyingeuh ijeu bery hah-deuh”. They could hear it, obviously, as they were all laughing their guts out. And most of them seemed able to minimize the accent much more than I expected. I was amazed.

    Another thing about speaking Korean with kids; when I was able to do (almost perfectly, and definitely comprehensibly) in Korean what I was asking them to do in English, they seemed to have more respect for me, and more willingness to try.

    You’re right, by the way, cabbies listen to you. It’s cool, really; they spend all day in a cab, so I guess meeting anyone who seemed a little different must be a distraction from the boredom of driving. There are exceptions, like the (perhaps slightly mad) cabbie Lime and I met the other day, but most of them are pretty good to practice with —the smaller the city or town, the better.

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