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

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A minor grievance

What's worse than feeling like a ridiculed extra in Batman & Robin? Not much. Except maybe feeling so in the subway in Korea.

You deserve an explanation.

I'm seriously sick of being gawked at, especially by children who are old enough to have been told to know better. I got on the subway today and was lucky enough to score a seat. Pity it was across from two sisters, of I'd guess seven, in matching purple duffel coats.

One of the boons of coming from a multi-cultural society is that when I see a Korean-Canadian or a Korean tourist walking down the street, I've never felt the urge to dare my friends to see which one has the guts to say "annyong haseyo!" and run away squealing. Similarly, I've never walked into a bagel shop in Quebec and snickered when the clerk at the counter said "bonjour." It may sound snide to put it like that, but seriously, these are the things we don't consider being from a country that is not ethnically homogeneous, and going to one to that almost exclusively is.

Anyway, the insincere "hellos" are not what bugs me. What I find irritating is when kids think it's hilarious to speak English near you, but not directly to you, and in a tone insinuating: "Look at this, I'm speaking English— isn't that ridiculous! I'm Korean, I shouldn't be speaking your language. It sounds like I have a mouthful of cheese! How absurd!"

Again, I'm not trying to be a jerk here, but this really gets on my nerves. If you think a white dude with curly hair is the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen— fine— just have the decency not to mock me openly. That's all I ask.

So the two sisters sat, across the subway car, in their matching purple jackets like two overripe plums in a discount fruit bin. They had been staring and giggling for awhile by now.

"Hello my name is blah blah blah..." one said to the other with that special rise-and-fall tone children reserve for discussing the especially lame.

"I am 7 years old."

Snicker snicker snicker. (Remember? This isn't my language, that's why it's so funny!)

"Ice to meet you."

This is where I rolled my eyes and pretended to try and sleep when I really wanted to say:

"Nice! It's nice to meet you... what, are you channeling Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze? If this subway ride was the Batman movie franchise, you are Joel Schumacher and you almost ruined it. But there is hope. Because if this subway ride is the Batman movie franchise as previously established, then all I have to do is hold on for a little longer because at the end of the ride I get to enjoy the day with Shane who is every bit as cool as Michael Caine's Alfred in Batman Begins, and that means I get to be Christian Bale as Batman, and that means that both the grueling subway ride and the ill-fated movie franchise are saved, yet this metaphor is crumbling so by the time I open my eyes in 3... 2... 1 I expect you to piss off and learn some respect."

By the time I opened my eyes, they had gone; now walking across the subway platform; a precocious and duffel-coated plum in each of their mother's hands.


Jon Allen said...

Hey, lighten up a little :)
Sounds like you had a bad day.

Just Say hello to them. I find that either shuts them up completely or makes them so shy they run away.

Of course there is always the one that then knows a few more words, usually "Beckham" and "Manchester United"

Anonymous said...

I have now shared a sentence with Michael Caine and Alfred Pennyworth. Kickin'

By the way, I'm sick of the gawkers too. White people ain't that rare.

Sam said...


Agreed. I didn't mean to come off as so bitchy. The stares sometimes have a fly-paper effect.

True on the "Beckham" front. One of my students wrote a story about how Beckham showed up at soccer practice and spilled milk on his jersey and cried...

Jono said...

Consider, also, for your own benefit, that it may not be mocking, exactly. Consider that the exposure thes kids have had of North American's is sensationalized to a rediculous degree. Think, for example, how Craig percieves the Japanese. :P

It seems to me, more likely, that you are an object of wonder and curiosity, and speaking in what little English they have is probably a nervous attempt to have this beautiful celebrity acknowledge them. It's not every day, you know, the a bonified King's Graduate just comes waltzing onto the subway with impossible locks of rebellious hair and eyes the color of the sky.

Sam said...

That is often the case, but there are those who snicker at the sight of a goofy outsider with hair like an "ajumma" and a mouthful of buttery words.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of kids who think I'm this amazing creature with armhair of spun-gold.

Then to some, I'm channeling Chuckie Le Blanc in grade 9 French. It's easy to tell the difference.

Jono said...

Oh how acutely definitive was that description.

For those kids...
Remember, you're bigger than them, faster, and you have the Canadian Consolate on your side. HACK THE BONE!!!