The Foreigner at the Table

Something tells me I'm not putting this together right... (Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by yourinmyhair)

Something tells me I’m not putting this together right…
(Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by yourinmyhair)

Sometimes, it takes stepping outside your language culture to understand the parts of it that you take for granted. So often, we think about language learning as merely a process of picking up a manageable set of grammatical rules and filling in the blanks with vocabulary. It requires tons of memorization and practice, but get those things down and you’ll be chattering away in Farsi or Mandarin or whatever language you’ve decided to dedicate your brain space to in no time.

The thing is, communication just isn’t as simple as all that. For one thing, literal translation is inadequate to interpret what a speaker intended to convey. Why is it that in English a person is a number of years old, but in Spanish, he or she has a number of years? What about face-saving expressions like “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” uttered by a person who is decidedly not sorry?

Then, there are the rules about how a conversation is conducted. Speakers take turns. There are appropriate moments to interrupt and for clarification or to add your opinion and there are inappropriate ones. There are relevant questions and observations and irrelevant ones. You can probably remember a time when somebody with limited social awareness derailed a conversation you were engaged in over and over and over again by making inquiries and comments that did not fit.

Imagine that the person who skipped socializing day at school is you. How does the group feel about talking to you? Now, imagine that you suck at conversation because most of it is happening in a language you don’t really understand.

Congratulations. You are me.

Every day, I sit at the lunch table among Korean teachers, and they speak Korean. Of course, they speak Korean; this is Korea—this is their everyday life, and even those who do speak some English are not going to constantly choose the language that limits their expression and makes them uncomfortable over the one that they live their lives in, whether there is a speaker of that language sitting across from them or not. I know I didn’t when the seats were reversed.

I never chose to have a conversation with my colleagues in Spanish when I worked for The Literacy Center even though I have limited ability in the language, even though some of them speak it fluently, even though we were often in conversations with native Spanish speakers. Had one of those Spanish speakers chimed in with something to say, I would have listened and tried to understand, and tried to engage them in conversation a little. Then, I would have gone back to the conversation I was having in English before that person spoke up.

In the two years that I worked for The Literacy Center, this never happened. In two years, I didn’t notice that this never happened.

Doesn't anyone want to talk to me? (Photo Credit: Copyright All rights reserved by lugzgirl)

Doesn’t anyone want to talk to me?
(Photo Credit: Copyright All rights reserved by lugzgirl)

Cut back to me, now, the foreigner at the lunch table. There is a conversation happening around me in Korean. I catch a word here and there, a name, the word for “this.” Sometimes I know they are talking about the new school some teachers will be moving to in March. Sometimes I know nothing. I am silent. I would like to talk to the science teacher about where she will be teaching next year, to discuss whether she is happy about the move or not, to find out if her school is larger or smaller than ours, to find out what she thought of the teachers she met when she visited it.

I cannot have this conversation. The only thing I’ve heard to clue me in to the discussion is the word “Dongbaek,” spoken with rising intonation and her affirmative “mmm” plus slight head nod. I cannot have this conversation, and it’s not just because I don’t speak Korean and can barely tell where one sentence ends and the next begins. I can speak to this group in English, and most of them can answer me in English.

But I don’t want to speak just to hear my voice. I am not a child figuring out how this conversing stuff works. I know how to have a conversation. I want to contribute meaningfully to this one. If I ask something that’s already been asked or that is related to “Dongbaek” but not what they are talking about, I am the social failure. I am the penny on the tracks that derails the train that was taking everyone else where they wanted to go. I am the noise they are humoring until they can get back to what they are talking about.

Nope. I’m not going to be that person. Not today. Today, I will be silent until someone invites me into the conversation. Today I will wait until I know it is my turn to speak. It happens less often now that the novelty of my presence has worn off.

I am the foreigner at the table. I am silent. I am waiting.

 

This article and others about language and literacy can be found on ThinkLiteracyBlog.wordpress.com.

Mockingbirds

EDIT EDIT: I did my first spoken word reading in Korea last night at a bar in KSU called Cafe Radio. It was so great to be back in front of a microphone reading my words again. When I was there, I was surprised by how much I had missed the concept of reading poetry in general. Of course, I miss Barley Rhymes and Hops on Birch, because they are populated and run by the best people in the world.

As it turns out, though, I also miss just sharing my work. I miss having a reason to put poetry together. I miss the bravery it takes to stand up in front of people (beer in hand, of course) and lay everything bare, to be open, to say here I am–well, part of me–take me or leave me.

WordZ Only gave me the opportunity to do that again. I’m looking forward to attending many more events in the future, and writing a lot more because of it.

Tell me what you think of my reading in the comments!

EDIT: Nick was actually featured reading this poem in Episode 3 of Barley Rhymes’s web series! Yay! Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTd4lmi88_U#t=449

I don’t really fit here.

Korea is beautiful. The ocean, the mountains, the forests… I see amazing, beautiful things everyday. But I don’t fit. I think maybe there are places where you feel immediately at home, as if you always should have been there, and there are other places that you merely exist in, no matter how much they have to offer. For me, Busan is the latter. There is nothing wrong with this place, but it’s just so very far from the person I am.

I wrote a poem on this theme, my first in quite a while, and I wanted to share it here with you all. (My brother also read it at the best spoken word poetry EVER, Barley Rhymes! You should definitely check out their web series. Nick doesn’t appear, but tons of other great poets do!)

Enjoy.

Mockingbirds

There are birds here,
black and white,
that look like mockingbirds.


A thin, dark-haired woman,
smiles, wrinkling the corners of her narrow eyes.
Every morning she tells me
about something beautiful.
Today, she says
that when a Korean hears the song
of the black and white birds,
she will know
good luck is coming.


I step out of her car
and the bird we’ve been watching
picks insects
from between blades of grass–
silently.


In the hills behind my school building,
there are dozens of tiny farms.
One day, I stand on a road and watch.
A man squats over a row of cabbage
while the birds
fly in arcs from field to forest
above his head,
landing first on green house,
then rooftop,
then nesting in the nearby trees,
singing.


The sun sinks and their black bodies are silhouetted
against the grey and pale pink sky’s
dimming light.


Sixteen birds on a wire
turn their backs to my bus as it passes.
If they are singing, it is a sound
I don’t hear.


Are you mocking me,
bird in the grass
with your beak too full of bugs
to speak?


Or do you know
I’ve already had my share of luck,
enough to bring me here
to a country road
where you shower a man with your song,
to a setting so pastoral,
it seems pulled from a painting
in a history book,
removed from time
and set here
on this hill
just far enough from the highway
for the song birds to stay.


One evening, I walk through woods.
My path winds its way
around houses with crumbling concrete walls
that were once washed in brilliant white,
and then between fences
built to keep farms
and farmers in,
and then between clumps of bamboo shoots
and trees with fall reddened leaves.


Among the farm plots
sit small shacks, of plastic sheeting
placed against itself at right angles.
From one shelter,
across the ravine,
I hear saxophone notes.
They follow one another slowly,
then a few burst forth
all at once,
unable to endure the wait,
to sit back in a man’s breath
while the others
ring out clear,
in the cool air,
building a melody that settles
on foreign ears,
ears that are deaf to all language but this.


The notes rise and fall
and drag from her a sweet sadness.
She thinks of her home
and she smiles and cries all at once.
The notes penetrate her chest
and massage her heart
until its beats slow,
fill her lungs until her breath
comes deep
and low.
Her eyes close.


She stands there,
her non-conforming blonde hair,
her clothes that aren’t right,
her voice only capable of forming words
that don’t belong here,
and she listens.


The notes sweep up the hillside and break
against the edges of the ravine,
like water over the spillway of a dam.
The melody surrounds her
until she is no longer separate
from this country, from this world,
until she is no longer a woman
among the trees and
the breeze and
the sound.
She is sound.
She is breeze.


She opens her eyes
and a bird that’s not a mockingbird
flies silently by.


My luck has all been spent,
she thinks,
chest tightening,
eyes closing.


Alone in the forest,
slow saxophone tones
carry her home.