“Just a little” has been just enough

After almost 4 years of living in South Korea, I am extremely proud, (sarcastically, of course, as this is embarrassing), that I can say six words and five phrases in Korean. They are:

Words: Hello. Water. Thank-you. Foreigner. Cold. Australian. (I’m adding in Americano here, (South Korea’s version of a long black coffee), but it really doesn’t count as it is the same in Korean as it is in English!)

Phrases: It’s OK. Just a little. You’re cute. How much? I don’t have.

(I do very rarely use the phrase “You’re cute” in conversation. I happen to have only learnt it because, in the very beginning, that phrase was often thrown at me when I was out with my children, (I have always assumed that the phrase applied to them and not to me but I am happy to be wrong about that), and I was worried that the commentary may have actually been: stop your child screaming; your child is snotty; or your child needs to stop stealing food. Three options that are as equally possible as “cute” where my children are involved.)

Because I was slightly bored over the long summer break, a few months back now, where I stayed at home, alone, inside with only my three children for company, (I love them dearly. I do!), I thought it could be entertaining to keep a tally of the words and phrases I used when I did, eventually, have the opportunity to leave the house without three smiling shadows. But, as I failed to leave the house as much as I wanted/needed to, this experiment was forced to wait until school returned/rescued me.

School went back in the middle of August. It is now the beginning of December. Which means that, over the past 3.5 months, I have been able to leave the house by myself, sometimes even for things that are not chores like food shopping, dry clean drop offs and costume creations, (for the kids of course), and so I began, and have now concluded, the experiment.

And the results are? Well, I can’t tell you that right now because that would make for a very short story and, anyway, I need to set the scene first.

You might think that my conversations with Koreans have been limited due to my use of only six words and five phrases — because unless the person I am attempting to converse with uses those, and only those, exact same words and phrases back to me, then our engagement could only go so far. Like this:

Me: “Hello.”

Stranger: “Hello.”

Me: “Cold.”

Stranger: Usually no response.

Me: “Americano.” (Again, remember this is the same in Korean and in English so I really should not be counting it)

Stranger: “Foreigner!” (Usually posed as a statement, not a question).

Me: “Australian. How much?”

Stranger: Shows me the price on a calculator. (Thankfully, everyone uses calculators on stores, (I especially love the blinged up ones), to show you the price as opposed to telling you. Immensely helpful when you, (me), don’t know any of the words for numbers).

Me: “It’s ok.”

Stranger: No response.

Me: “Thank-you.”

Stranger: “You’re cute.” (I may be making this bit up.)

Me: “Goodbye.”

If this example was the totality of the interaction that I have had over the past four years then, yes, I would have struggled to make any sort of connection. But, I’m proud to report that I’ve got friends in my neighbourhood! Armed with only these five words and six phrases, I feel I have experienced meaningful, often witty, and mostly joyous, repartee with the locals, (the people in my little area of Seoul), that has led to a sense of belonging in a place that is not my own.

During the past four years I have had: complex consultations with the grocer about the source of his salmon/beef/chicken/pork in the salmon/beef/chicken/pork salad; pleasing interactions with the baker discussing the merits of the multi-grain loaf; deep and detailed discussions with the shop assistant of the benefits of buying more black tops; and many humorous tete a tetes with the car park attendant over the weather. I have also: argued with the tailor over the appropriate length of the dress that he was altering into a shirt for me; strenuously resisted the watermelon farmer’s efforts at encouraging me to buy the big size watermelon off the back of his truck; and have endlessly debated with the slim, white haired, rotting teeth, obsessive badminton player that I pass most days on my walk up the mountain as to whether or not I should join him for a quick session of badminton, (this is where the phrase, “You’re cute”, is not an appropriate choice). And I have even had a coffee named after me, (the “Julie”), at the local coffee shop after much consternation with the barista over just how much milk is acceptable in a macchiato.

You may laugh and say: “Julie, none of this could have possibly happened because, remember, you only know 5 words and 6 phrases in Korean.” To which I would respond with you’re being rude and don’t point this out to me or I will cry. I would then comment that it really is amazing what you can understand without any language. And, I would follow this up by saying that, maybe, my life has been better without knowing in great detail, or any detail at all, what is really being said.

Which leads me to the top 3 most used words and phrases. Drum roll…

Number three on the list: “Just a little.” Weird, right. Who would have thought that “Just a little” would be in any way useful, especially being useful around 5 to 6 times a day. But it is, just a little, (boom!). Kim chi? Just a little. Americano? Just a little. You’re cute! Just a little. Cold? Just a little. Australian? Just a little. (We should unpack that last comment but I’ll save that for a later post).

Number 2 is much less surprising given that one word of the phrase is the most used word in the world, at least according to my in-depth Google search just then. It is: “It’s OK!” In Korean, it is written like this 괜찮아, and my pronunciation turns that into something sounding like “kwen ji nie o.” Over the past 3.5 months, I have used this phrase, on average, 9 times a day. Like:

It’s OK that I don’t have something that random person is requesting. It’s OK that I do have something that random person is requesting, (usually a reusable shopping bag). It’s OK Rubbish Man that: I don’t know what you are saying, why you are yelling at me again, (I swear I have sorted it all properly); why a gate was built around our house; why CCTV cameras were installed; and why the police were called in an attempt to stop the rubbish wars of 2016 escalating any further. It’s OK that you, Director Man, are refusing to place me, or my scooter, in your K-drama, (actually, it is not but I will pretend). And it’s OK, (just a little), that I don’t know what you are saying and you don’t know what I am saying.

Moving onto Number One, and I say to you for reading, and, as it turns out, to all the peeps in my neighbourhood around 16 times a day, “Thank-you!” It really is amazing how one little word, which I pronounce wrongly most of the time — apparently I should say, (this is my soundings of the word, not the exact word), “Kum sa hup ne dar” and not “Kum sup ne da” — adds value. Add a smile onto the end of that and anything is possible: the stain in your brown dress will go away, an extra loaf of bread will be added as service, you will score endless additional cups of coffee for only one thousand won, (one dollar), all without knowing any extra words or phrases than those listed above!

Recently, I was driving to school with some friends in intolerable Seoul traffic, detouring via Starbucks drive through before picking up kids from school for their usual Thursday night sausage, play in the park and pie for dinner, and one of the friends asked me: “What will you miss most about living in Korea?” (My time in South Korea is up in two weeks.)

The very first thing that popped into my mind was that I will no longer feel special. Why do I feel special? Well, not only because I persist in wearing Korean fashion that is not designed for someone like me, but because I chose to believe that, with only a very, very tenuous grasp of the language, the tailor, the baker, the grocer and the shop assistant, have all chosen to put up with me and even, in my mind anyway, find me to be a little bit entertaining, what with my exaggerated use of hand signals, crazy face pulling, (stretchy, brow-straightening smiles), and my slightly over the top head nodding that are used to great effect as replacements for real words.

I’m moving home to a place where, notionally, I understand the language and will, most likely, be expected to speak it when I am out and about. I have to say that I am finding this idea slightly distressing, mostly because I will be able to understand what is being said back to me and, in all likelihood, it won’t always be comments like, “It is just so lovely that you are in this shop again Julie. Have you done something to your hair because you are looking fabulous!” And I won’t feel so special anymore.

Well, that just won’t cut it. So, as I see it, here are my options.

One: take a vow of silence, or at least choose to engage in a minimal way, particularly with my children and especially with my children over the upcoming summer vacation, (the second in one year thanks to moving hemispheres), using only my top three phrases that have worked so well here in Korea. Summer holidays will therefore go something like this: Ice cream? Just a little. IPad? Just a little. What do fish eat? Thank-you, (I never said the conversations had to make sense). What’s for dinner? Just a little, (of whatever happens to be in the fridge). My sister is so annoying. It’s OK. However, while this might work for just a little bit, but it’s highly unlikely that this will work long-term.

Two: I prove, in some unique way, to my new but old neighbourhood (we’re moving back to the same place we left 4 years ago), that I belong, but in a very special way. Like, I wear a big blue hat everywhere, I consistently carry an umbrella, or I adopt the overalls look as my uniform, (like the coffee man in Canberra who only ever wore overalls (he had seven pairs of identical overalls — one for every day of the week. No stalking was involved to obtain that fact)) and that made him special, (he also didn’t really talk to anyone. Just grunted as he made your coffee)).

Three: I deal with the fact that I have left Seoul and I was most likely never really special at all, (although, damn you, Mr Director Man, I could have made your K-Pop Drama just a little bit better). For the sake of family harmony, and a deep seated hatred of overalls, (something about wearing them way too often in the 80’s), Option 3 will have to be the answer. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t, secretly, hold onto the belief that, with just a little bit of Korean, accompanied by just a lot of slightly ridiculous hand gestures, crazy face pulling and excessive head nodding, made the peeps in my hood forgive the fact that I could say nothing more and treated me just a little bit more specially because of it. And that just a little has been just enough for me to love Seoul forever.

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