Thursday, September 3, 2009


I've been in Korea for a month, and one of the most surprising things I've learned about myself concerns language.

When confronted with someone who clearly doesn't speak English my brain does something like this:

Oh, shit they don't speak ANY English. Ok, not English...not English...not English...
I got it!
Hola! Me llamo es Rebecca. Como te llamos? Cervesas por favor. Gracias.

At this point some other, more in touch with reality, part of my brain kicks in with:

You're an idiot. They don't speak English and the only Spanish they might know is Corona. DO NOT attempt to speak SPANISH at the KOREAN!

Which leaves me with pointing at whatever it is I want. If and when my pointing and pantomiming fails I am left with my one and only Korean word:

Gamsahammida (which means thank you)

"Thank you" seems like the kind of phrase with a fairly straight forward usage, but when you find yourself needing to communicate and that is your ONLY phrase it comes to have new meaning. The meaning I try to force into that simple phrase more than any other is:

"Oh god, thank you for still smiling at me even though I am a dumb American who came to your country and doesn't speak your language. Please don't swear at me as I leave your store because my only recourse will to be smile at you and say thank you again. I really do mean well."

Last weekend I found myself trying to convey something entirely different with the word gamsahmmida.

I went out with some of the students mothers. What started as a nice dinner ended with 10 or 11 us at a local bar. Those wonderful women just kept ordering food and beer and soju until our two tables were not only covered, but were beginning to acquire a second layer. At some point the women decided that our bars food just wasn't going to cut it, and so they walked across the street and ordered a whole new spread from another restaurant, which was delivered to our bars table, and cleared by the other restaurants serving staff. Weird, I know.

After accepting these generous women's food and beer all night long, I didn't hesitate to give what was introduced to me as "sea squirt" a try. The initial chew revealed a not too terrible taste accompanied by the texture of a one inch long and 1/4 an inch think piece of snot. Gross, I know, but all things considered I wasn't too upset by the experience. And then the after taste hit me.

I can only imagine that sea squirts after taste, tastes something like dead skunk that's been seasoned by a week in the July sun and then served to you raw. The worst part is that this after taste will haunt you for ten to fifteen minutes and nothing, and I mean not soju (kinda like cheap Vodka), not beer, not water, not other food will abate the taste. About five minutes into this after taste I seriously considered going to the bathroom and rinsing my mouth out with soap. The only reason I didn't was because I figured I just end up with the taste of soap AND sea squirt in my mouth.

After the taste left me, I figured I probably wasn't any worse for the wear and went back to chatting with my table mates. One of the mothers, however, didn't see my sea squirt adventure and insisted I try it. I tried to politely decline, but there is no refusing a drunk Korean woman offering you food. In the end I choked down my second, and hopefully last, piece of sea squirt.

I looked at the woman and managed to get the word "gamsahmmida" out of my mouth with what I hope conveyed, "You are the meanest bastard I've ever met for making me eat that again. I hope you know that if I throw this up it's going in your lap."

Which brings me back to the point of my entry:

I really need to learn more Korean.
I need to move to a Spanish speaking country because I know more Spanish than I thought I did.


  1. You really need to learn to say NO thank you. :)

  2. No thank you is something like Kahn-chahn-ay-o (no idea how it'd be spelled in English, but that's basically it phonetically. Most useful phrase I've learned here.

  3. Wow, it would have been great if someone had told me that when I got here. That brings my total of Korea up to three words. The Harry Potter commercials taught me how to say hello.