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By: Elephant Talk Posted: July-05-2009 in
Elephant Talk

I was on the subway today, listening to some prog on the iPod, when a group of three young girls sat down in front of me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because the music in my head was too loud. But somehow I knew by watching them that they weren’t speaking Korean. I took out my earbuds and sure enough they were speaking in fluent English. Not just English but American English. There was a slight accent, but the mannerisms, the colloquialisms, the verbal punctuation told me that this wasn’t simply a trio of good students.

They were young, maybe 17. They talked about their teachers, how strict they are. One was saying how she can’t sleep at night because she’s so worried about her classes. On and on and on like this, and there I am, staring at them with no shame.

This shouldn’t be a rare thing, but it is. It’s also, for some strange reason, strange. This only happened to me once before and I stared then too. The first thing I wonder is if they’re Korean. They could be exchange students from China or Taiwan or Japan. (I still can’t distinguish the features of ethnic Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.) The other thing I wonder is why they’re talking in English. They have accents, so they’re not U.S. natives. Are they practicing? Are they each from different parts of the world and English is their common second language? Are they children of wild geese families, recently home for summer vacation?

I spend my daily life meandering through the crowded streets of Busan absorbing language as ambient sound. I can’t decode 95% of it. It is simply sound with various shades of emotional inflection. So when I hear English being spoken, my brain switches sharply into a state of attention. Hearing becomes listening. I understand. Not only that, but I want to become involved, I want to talk too. It has nothing to do with loneliness or nostalgia or anything like that. There’s some compulsory pull at work. I see it in other foreigners as well. If I’m talking with a group of foreigner friends on the subway and there’s another foreigner I don’t know some distance away, I can see him eavesdropping.

But it’s much more weird when it’s a group of Asian girls in Korea, who in that moment usurp the conventions of the audiovisual contract. What I see and what I hear don’t match. There I am on the subway experiencing a real-world aesthetic disconnect.

I hoped those girls were going to get off at my stop, one of the major university hubs in town. I wanted an answer to the mystery, so I was going to ask their story. But alas they kept on, probably off to enjoy this nice, sunny day at the beach.

Source: Elephant Talk


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