A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Never Mind the Melons

When you're new to a foreign country every now and then the most harmless thing possible seems terrifying.

Example: one sunny Saturday morning when I first arrived, I woke up and flung open the window shutters to make the most of the fresh air in my dank by dark apartment. No sooner had I sat down with a cup of coffee and the Korea Herald did I hear a megaphone-filtered voice from the street outside. I could tell it came from a passing vehicle, but I have no view out my windows— only the walls of neighbouring buildings.

Now, hearing a voice speak a curt, foreign language through a loudspeaker quickly brings out the worst in my western imagination. I think WWII and Nazi propaganda trucks rolling through the bomb-scrubbed streets. I look down at the newspaper and see stories about North Korean missiles and sanctions and the extension of US "nuclear umbrellas."

"Holy shit," I think, "are we at war? Did it happen while I was asleep? The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) started lobbing shells into Seoul and now the border is flooding with the galvanized, under-fed, 4th largest army in the world?"

No way.

Couldn't happen.


I toss on a jacket and run down the stairs to the street outside. It was far from the proclaimations of doom I had dreamed up.

In fact it was a truck full of fruit.

I've written about the commercial culture on here before, but this was a prime example. Back home it's not uncommon to see a truck set up on the side of the road or in a parking lot, selling smoked mackeral or produce from the Valley. In Korea they aren't so stationary. In what seems to be an effort to maximize their market, the trucks roll slowly through the streets announcing their wares and customers meet them on the sidewalk. Or in bigger cities they just set up at busy crosswalks and try to sell melons to the waiting pedestrians. If the traffic slows, they just drive off to another stop.

What I imagined was a rally cry that the ROK (plain ol' Republic of Korea) wouldn't fall at the hands of the commies, was probably more like: "Melons! I got these weird yellow melons! Buy a sack of oranges! Impress your friends! Fruit and Veggies, get 'em while they're mobile!"

So much for an overactive imagination.

I always wonder though what people are saying as they hawk their wares on the big city streets. They seem to talk constantly, and at an incredible pace, about their products. Sometimes when I go to hang out with Shane in Seoul, we'll make up what we think the vendors are yelling at passerbys.

"Bags! Fake designer handbags! I got a blue one, I got a green one, I got a red one, I got a pink one! Bags, bags, bags, they all do pretty much the same thing! Put things into them and be joyful! I got a dozen bags all lined up on a blanket in the subway! You better buy 'em, because son, they are for SALE! Bags..."

One time we visited the large open-air market street at Insadong. A man was firing off the many reasons why you should buy some fried food from his snack cart, but as Shane and I walked by he changed his pace dramatically.

"Ahh... Fish cakes! Fish cakes! Very delish-i-ous, delish-i-ous!"

So I wonder if it's colour commentary or just very fast repetition. Maybe we got the dumbed down version. Lost in translation was how the cakes would bring long life to us and honour to our ancestors.

I guess I'm just not used to hearing people, and not just sales people, talk so quickly and without stopping, in a language which sounds so very strange to me.

At least now I know the melon vendors aren't shouting: "South Korea ├╝ber alles!"

1 comment:

Shane said...

"Get your bags? We got blue bags, purple bags, bags with a clips! Bags without clips! Bags for throwing at cats! Bags you can wear on your head! See this bag? It's almost exactly like the others, come get it. Buy one! Or spice things up and buy two! My family is very hungry, get your goddamn bags!"