Monday, 20 July 2009

Telephone Korean

For the better part of fifteen years, I was a telephone Korean.

It all started the third year I was in Japan. By this time, my Japanese language skill had progressed past the run-Spot-run stage and moved into True Communication. One day, I called the Tokyo YWCA to ask about membership. There was a brief silence as the woman at the other end registered my non-native Japanese, then all of a sudden she started speaking to me in Korean.

I interrupted as soon as I could get a word in edgewise. "Sorry, I don't speak Korean."

This was followed by another brief silence as the lady at the other end absorbed this information, then she rebounded. "Oh. You are Chinese?"

"No, I'm--"

"From Taiwan?"

"No! I'm American and I just want--"


"No!" I spluttered, wondering why I had to account for my race. "I'm hakujin." This is white person in Japanese and it finally got the YWCA lady to hush up and listen.

"Really?" She sounded provokingly skeptical.


"Well, you certainly sound Korean."

This was news to me: I'd been to Korea four times and not one Korean person had ever told me my Japanese sounded Korean.

"Are you Korean?" I asked her. There are a lot of Koreans who live in Japan.

"No, but I'm studying Korean." She sounded a little disappointed.

When I met this woman at the YWCA a few hours later, she shook her head and looked even more disappointed. "You really sounded Korean, you know!"

A few months later, I called a travel company in Tokyo that arranged ship voyages. My boyfriend and I were planning a trip to Europe and wanted to book tickets on the ferry from Norway to England. But as soon as I'd said "Hello, I'd like to book--" the woman who answered the phone interrupted me. "I'm sorry, but our lines don't sail to Korea."

"Well, that's fine, then, because I don't want to go to Korea, I want--"

"You'll have to call a different number for the ferry to Pusan. Shall I give it to you?"

"Please listen to me! I don't want to go to Korea, we want to sail from Norway to England!"

The woman sounded puzzled. "Ah. But you are Korean, right?"

Not again! "No! I'm an American and my boyfriend is British and we want to sail from Norway to England."

Fifteen minutes later, I'd managed to book two tickets from Esbjerg to Harwich and I'd given the lady our names and passport details. But I could still hear the doubt in her voice: I got the feeling she would have to see my actual photograph before she'd give up thinking I was a Korean national.

Over the next fourteen years, I don't think I could count the times I got mistaken for a Korean over the telephone. Pizza delivery places. Telemarketers. Exterminators. Plumbers. Receptionists at swimming pools, restaurants, and cinemas -- all of them wanted to speak to me in Korean or know how long a Korean like me had been studying Japanese. My husband thought it was hilarious. I thought it was a pain in the neck.

During our last few months in Japan, I had to arrange for a company to ship our household goods back to the U.K. I called half a dozen companies to get that many estimates, and I was a telephone Korean many times over, gently explaining again and again that we were sending our effects to London, not Seoul or Pusan.

In retrospect, I know my Japanese pronunciation didn't really sound Korean. Some of our friends in Japan were Korean and they all confirmed this. Being mistaken for a Korean was really a compliment: it meant that my Japanese, though non-native, was at least in the ballpark. It also showed a little prejudice: there is a strong feeling in Japan that if a foreigner speaks Japanese reasonably well, he or she must be an Asian. So whenever strangers heard my foreign-but-intelligible Japanese over the telephone, they envisioned an Asian face at the end of the line. They could tell that I didn't sound 100% native, so they figured I must be the closest thing to a Japanese person: a Korean. When my husband spoke Japanese over the phone, no one ever took him for any kind of Asian. And when our daughters spoke Japanese on the telephone, strangers always assumed they were Japanese.

No, I was the one and only Korean in our family. And who would have thought how much I'd grow to miss it?

Here in Scotland, whenever I have to telephone a stranger, I will often hear that same short pause I used to hear in Japan as my foreignness is registered.

"American or Canadian?" the stranger will ask.

"American," I always tell them. And sometimes, I just can't help myself: "Korean-American, that is."


Charlie said...

Funny story, Mary. I think this fits the category, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Ello said...

Ha! That's hysterical! Awesome story Mary! I love it! We are both Korean Americans!

Robin said...

That's a riot! It is a big compliment. If I try to speak another language, people just speak English to me. They know exactly what I am. A spaz.

MG Higgins said...

What a wonderful, funny story. Reading it was the nicest afternoon break I could have asked for.

Anonymous said...

Great post. You do the US proud. Unfortunately, I'm on the other end of the spectrum and am the type of American that gives the US a bad reputation. I so butcher the mother tongue of any foreign nation I happen to be in that any native immediately thinks to themselves, "Only someone from the US could speak my language like that!"

adrienne said...

Funny story! I can bet it's hard to determine accents over the phone. My husband's favorite game is to make people guess where he's from (they always ask). So far no one has ever guessed correctly - and that's in person.

kara said...

my good friend is japanese, like, in the face...and everywhere we go people think she's latina. even latinas. spanish is spoken to her on a regular basis. it makes me laugh every time. and we taquitos in honor of her people.

Kit said...

So it was really a high compliment! At least over the phone you don't get the response where you look foreign, so they automatically assume they won't be able to understand you and you have to keep talking to get past the barrier of stubborn non-comprehension, then that dawning wave of amazement when they discover they can understand...

Kim Ayres said...

When I was in Canada, a few people asked me what part of Australia I was from. When I started to counter, they would apologise and say oh, yeah, New Zealanders don't like being mistaken for Australians, do they...

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- I felt like such a charlatan at first, but after a while I knew I'd joined the club, willy nilly. Whenever I meet other Koreans, I always feel a little wistful: they have no idea I'm really one of them.

Ello -- You're right: we're both ARE Korean-Americans, just in slightly different ways. Now pass the kimchi and be quick about it -- I'm hungry.

Robin -- Well, you've never heard me speak French or Turkish, two languages I can butcher with the best of them. No French person ever takes me for a Catalan; no Turkish person ever wonders if I'm from Kazakhstan. The day that happens, you can bet I'll be back here to crow about it.

MC -- Actually, reading your kind compliment was the nicest morning break I could have asked for, so thank you very much.

Des -- Sadly, I'm only able to manage this in Japanese -- I live up (or down) to the American image whenever I labor away at my other languages. The day that I say something in Turkish and get mistaken for someone from Kyrgyzstan will be a very proud day for me. In another couple of years, who knows?

Adrienne -- I'm intrigued by your husband's ability to keep his nationality a secret. The minute I open my mouth here, I can just see people thinking, "Ah, here's a Yank." I don't think I could sound British if I tried, even though I'm around Brits and semi-Brits all the time. I wonder if your husband gets as tired of being asked where he's from as I do...?

Kara -- Japanese and Spanish actually have similar phonetic systems, so maybe that's why people get confused with your friend. I had a Native-American friend (she called herself an Indian) and people were always speaking to her in Chinese. To my knowledge, the only thing she could ever say in Cantonese was "I'm not Chinese." It never worked, though she got a lot of practice saying it.

Kit -- You are so right: in person, the way I looked was a huge impediment in Japan. Some people actually shied away from me, assuming that I would not be able to communicate. On the phone, I still stumbled, but people always put it down to my being Korean. But I LOVED that dawning wave of amazement when people realized that they could understand what I was saying -- it made all the years of study completely worth it.

Kim -- It's your open, friendly manner, you see. Most Canadians expect Britons to be reserved and stand-offish. When you acted so congenial, you threw people and they assumed you must be from Australia -- or New Zealand. Did you finally set them straight, or did you take it and run with it?

Carolie said...

What a wonderful story, Mary! I really love these little vignettes. Thank you!

Charles Gramlich said...

This is laugh out loud funny. Your frustration was our entertainment. ;)

Anonymous said...

ROFL! And yes, you are right that it was a compliment. People here never ever think I'm French, but that doesn't mean they guess American...they might guess Spanish or Italian. That's not cuz of my gr-r-r-reat accent, but because there are relatively few Americans.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Thank you for coming to read it. And I love your vignettes too (hint, hint).

Charles -- You are sweet to give me that compliment. Wish I could convert ALL my frustration to entertainment; I'd never stop laughing.

Elizabeth -- I wish I could speak French like a Spaniard! Whenever I've had a go, they immediately say, "Vous etes américaine, n'est ce pas?" And it's not WHAT they say so much as THE WAY they say it. I used to think it would be easier in a former French colony, but I've been given that same pitying look from natives of Mali and Haiti.

Robert the Skeptic said...

A bunch of us went out for lunch at the Benihana (yeah, I know, not authentic Japanese) so I thought I would impress my workmates by speaking a bit of Japanese to the chef hurling the knives in the air. It was after Christmas so I wished him a happy new year in Japanese.

He turned to ma and said: "I don't know what you say. I Korean, we all Korean".

I enjoyed the rest of my lunch in quiet.

Vijaya said...

I'm laughing my head off!!!! I love all these stories, Mary. And you are good to share them with us.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh wow. I am really behind; I didn't know you'd moved back to Scotland. I have just not been keeping up on my blog reading.
Okay, your story is really funny. I have nothing so good as yours, but, in a small way, I can relate.
My Spanish is fairly decent, but I am very pale and don't look the least bit Latina. Thus, when I'm in Spain, as long as I don't speak, but merely respond physically to what is said, locals assume I'm a Spaniard (light-colored but understands Spanish). When I open my mouth, however, my Latina Spanish allows them to peg me as an American immediately (again, light-colored, but speaks like a Mexican, therefore: American).
Also, my own ethnic background includes both German and Danish, and somehow this cross has made me look both Polish and Russian. Normally this is not a problem, but I folkdance -- and a lot of what I do is Polish and Russian or Ukrainian. More than once, when I've been dressed in traditional Polish festival clothes, some older Polish person, moved by my performance on stage, has hugged me, spewing a stream of Polish, while I awkwardly explain that I'm not a Pole, but thank you for the compliment.
Once, after a Russian performance, a woman approached me speaking Russian. I motioned for her to stop and got my director, who speaks Russian. They began to talk, but within seconds had switched to Spanish (which the director also speaks), at which point I joined in and learned that the woman was from Costa Rica but educated in the USSR (this was a while ago). She ended up joining our dance group and learning English, but she still thinks I look more Russian than a lot of Russians do.
There. None of that is as funny as your Korean bit, but at least I can relate very well to what happens to you in Scotland. The second you say anything, everyone knows where you're from.
Have you ever been asked to speak like a cowboy for them? I've gotten that a few times....
(Once, I tried to teach an English uni student how to say, "Howdy. D'ya wanna go to the party?" as a small-town Utahn would say it. The boy worked for 30 minutes, then gave up, laughing hysterically.)

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- I've been to a few Benihana restaurants in the States and every single one of them was staffed almost exclusively by Koreans. At one I went to in San Bernardino, the people I was with could not grasp that Chinese, Koreans and Japanese all speak different languages; they kept encouraging me to communicate with the (Korean) waiters in Japanese no matter how many times I tried to tell them that the waiters were not Japanese... Would that my telephone Korean status crossed over to real life.

Vijaya -- Honestly, you are so good to come and read what I write. If anyone who comes to read this blog is as uplifted and gratified as I am by reading your comments, I would be amazed.

APW -- You always have such interesting stories to do with learning languages! I've been mistaken for being Polish myself, though never in Mexico, where I was always simply a gringa. Especially when I tried to speak Spanish.

I've had people ask me how cowboys talk and I'm damned if I can tell them. My advice has always been to speak slowly, drawl a little and keep a piece of grass in the mouth at all times.

Lily Cate said...

Oh, I love accents!
When I was a student of the theater, they were quite a hobby of mine.
I'm always a little disappointed to think I probably won't ever be able to tell what my accent sounds like when I speak something other than English.

Anne Spollen said...

Phones and languages and accents --great story, Mary!

I think you guys do an amazing job moving through the world. I get upset when they move where they keep the newspapers in the store. You are going to have an arsenal of stories like these from around the world. Your kids are lucky.

angryparsnip said...

Love the story. . .

I am trying to learn Japanese, as my son and his wife live in Japan. I will gladly take the run spot run stage...My Japanese Daughter-In Law speaks English, but her mother doesn't so I would like to be able to say more than Hello. My three children speak, Japanese, French German and I can barely speak English.

You are my hero. You write and speak several languages so cool !

Are you now in Scotland and not going back to Turkey? or is this a vacation?

Mary Witzl said...

Lily -- I envy you: I cannot do accents for the life of me! For instance, I can't consciously imitate a British accent even after living in the U.K. for (cumulatively) almost a decade. My mother's family came from the South and I grew up surrounded by people who talked like Scarlet O'Hara, but I can't do a Southern accent either. Once in a while, something sneaks in without my realizing it, but I'd give a lot to be able to produce an accent on demand.

AnneS -- I'll make a point of showing our youngest daughter this comment: she does not feel too lucky right now, contemplating leaving her friends for another year of being dissed by bitchy, xenophobic Turkish girls with attitude problems. Sometimes she gets into the spirit of things and sees what a unique opportunity she has, but when we actually go back in September, it's going to be a tough sell!

AP -- We'll be heading back to our jobs in September, wish us well!

I'm pretty good at Japanese, having spent so much time on it. But if you could hear me speaking French, Spanish or Turkish, you'd have a laugh, believe me. I still think the fact that I'm NOT perfect is what makes the whole learning experience fun, though. And far more of an adventure.

angryparsnip said...

Your Wished . . . Big Time ! and with lots of good thoughts coming your way too !

I love the fact that your maybe not perfect but you try. . . I want to be that person, one who tries and I love all the mistakes they make it fun.

Chris Eldin said...

LOVE these stories, Mary! You have such an interesting and layered life. And a beautiful way with words.

Rick said...

What an amazingly weird story!

A Paperback Writer said...

Well, in Mexico, Mary, I'm always known as a gringa anyway-- no matter how good my Spanish is, they listen to the color of my skin.

Martha Flynn said...

so glad to be back on your blog after not having access for a few weeks - tears of hilarity over here!

Eryl Shields said...

Definitely a compliment.

Mary Witzl said...

AP -- I know quite a few brilliant language learners who hear a word once and instantly have it committed to memory forever. I can't help but think that people like me have more headaches over their language learning, but also more fun. And MUCH more satisfaction, too. Gambatte with your Nihongo no benkyo!

Chris -- Awww, thank you! My life has layers all right: I've been going through some of them in the attic all week.

Rick -- It is, isn't it? And if you could see just how Korean I don't look, you'd think it was even weirder.

Love your cat. Your cat looks so much like my beautiful, late cat. Please keep her away from busy roads!

APW -- My skin speaks louder than my mouth too, in Mexico. And all it says is "Soy gringa!"

Martha -- Welcome back! I've been having internet problems myself recently, so it's been hard for me to get to everyone's blog. But with any luck, I'll be able to do my blog rounds this next week -- I'm looking forward to visiting you.

Eryl -- It was, and now all the fun of unwittingly fooling people is gone. I want to go back to Japan and be Korean again.

Postman said...

Hee hee. At least you know now that you're being complimented on your language skills instead of pigeonholed. I'm doomed, though. I wonder if since I learned to speak Korean first my Japanese will sound Korean?