Friday 17 May 2013

Indistinguishable from Magic

2.    You take me 今すぐ

Neither my brother nor I speak a word of Korean. Well, we managed to eventually get ‘thank you’ and had a phrasebook that we utilized principally by waving it around ostentatiously in the hope that someone nearby with some English ability would take pity on us and help out. But by and large we fell back on the tried and tested Brit Abroad methodology of waving, pointing, and talking in English VERY. LOUDLY. AND. SLOWLY. When in Rome, eh?

So you’ll appreciate our feeling of mild panic as we, grease-filled and salt-caked, climbed into the taxi and realized that none of those options would really work here. The driver pulled away as soon as we climbed in and was facing away from us, as you would obviously hope for in such a situation. Under these conditions waving your hands or a phrasebook in his face aren’t really an option, and in fact would be downright counterproductive unless your desired destination is the nearest hospital or morgue.

Could have been worse.

The guy clearly had no English and like bone-headed foreigners everywhere stubbornly refused to acknowledge the language’s directly proportional relationship between volume and comprehensibility. There was no possibility of engaging with a sympathetic bystander either, so what to do?

Our man seemed blissfully unconcerned by such matters. He raised an impertinent finger in the air to request silence, then hit a speed-dial number on the phone on his dashboard. We’d only just started to build up a decent head of spluttering indignation at the inappropriateness of making personal calls with the meter running when an accented but otherwise perfectly understandable voice rang out, “Where do you want to go?”

Our first thoughts were that this was an hallucination brought about by the delayed effects of sunstroke. Well, those were our second thoughts, our actual first thoughts were that this was the voice of god herself and that Judgment Day was finally here. It was only when our first response of, “Up please, if it’s all the same to you,” was greeted by a confused request for clarification that we realized that this wasn’t some strange voodoo communion with the Beyond but that our cunning Korean driver, in that crafty, enigmatic, inscrutable way of Orientals everywhere, had hit upon the idea of phoning a translator. In fact, it was an eventuality he seemed to have anticipated in advance.

A proud tradition

In fairness, this was still only 2002 so while mobile phones were common they weren’t quite the all-pervasive, all-singing, all-dancing extra-limbs they represent nowadays. Our dumbfounded shock at the marriage between phone and talker is perhaps a little more understandable in that context, but not by much. If your country is expecting a huge rush of English speakers and you have the technology it makes complete sense to concentrate your resources instead of, say, blindly insisting everyone must spend years of their time studying a language that due to their career choices may only be useful for a couple of weeks in their entire life.

Still, it seemed fairly revolutionary to us at the time. While I obviously overegged the ‘cunning Oriental’ stereotype above, we still had a very real feeling that it wasn’t a solution anyone back home would think of adopting. Largely, perhaps, because most people at home would take the attitude that, “If they want to come here they should learn English.” It’s just not a problem that’s perceived to exist, and so when it’s made clear that there’s an easier way your initial reaction is to baulk like a caveman who’s been shown a cigarette lighter.

It still happens when my folks visit Japan. I’m seriously thinking of charging them a fine for every time I have to bark, “Don’t touch the door!” when we enter or exit a taxi. They always forget and they always react as though they’ve just walked up to the threshold of a lonely mansion on a windswept hill whose door, flanked by guttering torches and with a grotesque demon’s head for a knocker, creaks slowly open upon their approach only to reveal that there’s no-one on the other side.

It’s as though they think the damn things are possessed by the spirits of taxi drivers past, for all that they’re obviously a fairly mundane combination of a mirror and a couple of levers. WOooooOOOooooH!

I think the continued surprise also stems, at least partly, from the fact that this isn’t a problem it occurs to them that needs solving. And to be fair in this instance it doesn’t. People have been opening doors for themselves for hundreds of years and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

But then again, why not? If nothing else it looks cool and is an easy way to impress the credulous, the unsuspecting, and the unprepared. And y’know it does, kinda, look like, well, magic


  1. In Korea the technology addressed a problem that does exist; in Japan it addressed one that doesn't. 'And so it goes...'

    1. Let me mention that I have a Samsung Galaxy III, which I bought in Japan over all the domestic models. The Japanese models have Japanese TV (which is to say, useless), and link you to a special all-Japanese Docomo Internet of functions with typical 'blast from the past' Japanese website design from 'the Bubble', and the interface when switched to 'English' is far from intuitive, not to mention there may be no English manual in print or online. I was here first twenty years ago when Japanese tech was the cutting edge envy of the world. So much for that...

    2. For all that I think David Cameron is a prick, he does occasionally have a nice way with words. Or at least access to good writers. In the dying days of the Blair administration he heckled the man across the dispatch box:

      "You were the future once."

      And I'll just leave that hear for all our enjoyment.

    3. Hear? Good god. Fridays are tough sometimes.

  2. Good to hear that "Brits Abroad" is pretty near identical to "Americans Abroad." Yet another shared cultural tidbit, bringing our two great nations closer together.

  3. God I wish we had that service in cabs in Australia. I can understand it is difficult to learn a foreign language but if you are in a customer facing job, you'd think a basic grasp of the language would be a plus.

    1. The joys of a multi-cultural society.

      I once got a mini-cab back from work in London. It'd been a hard shift and I was knackered so it took me a few minutes to realise that the sat-nav was speaking in Japanese. I rather condescendingly asked the driver if he knew what language it was on the assumption it was broken and he didn't know how to fix it.

      Turns out he was learning Japanese and was noticeably better at it than I was at the time. I 'slept' for the rest of the journey.

  4. After having traveled to an underdeveloped SE Asian country, I have to say looking back on my initial 'adventures' in Japan that I'm a bit embarrassed that I ever got flustered by anything here. I mean, it's just not very hard to get by in Japan, and I'm guessing S. Korea isn't much different...

    1. It's all relative, isn't it? I can definitely sympathise with that initial flustering at all the superficial differences, I just wish the people that visit me here (all of whom I love dearly), would get over it a bit quicker and realise that they are, after all, only superficial differences.

      If you slow down and look at the signs at the station, most have English. It's not quite as intimidating as it first appears. But I guess if you're determined to find something strange and exotic then that's how you're going to find it.