I recently took the KTX from Seoul to Daegu. I had high hopes of doing lots of work while on the train. This did not happen. One of the reasons for my lack of productivity was the loud little
shit child in the next row. I figure he was about 5 years old. Among the many annoying things he did was yelling at babies who were crying, telling them that they were being loud and annoying. His younger brother pointed on the flaw in the logic of yelling about this but he continued undeterred. Lots of yelling. I tried to be understanding but it was a tough task for me. I figured his grandma not up for the challenge of keeping him in line for 2 hours so I tried be forgiving. My generosity dissipated a bit when I realized his mom was in the seat behind me, seemingly oblivious to her son screaming.
I did not start this post to excoriate the parenting skills of that mother. I wanted to share something the little tyke said. About an hour into the two hour journey, after all his screaming and smashing his toys against the window he took notice of me. I suppose
tall, charming, handsome white people are not super common on Korean trains. He took note. He registered his surprise with his grandma. “Wow, It’s an English language person” he exclaimed (in Korean). He didn’t say I was a British or English person, mind. He said I was an English language person, a 영어사람. This struck me as fascinating.
It was less fascinating when he shouted out “A, B, C, D” and commented in Korean to his grandmother on my big nose. He, in turn, was amazed when I told him in Korean that I’d understood what he said. Cognitive dissonance made an appearance on the train that day when a white person spoke Korean and made claims about understanding some parts of the language. The little fellow asked his grandmother how it was possible that an “English language person” could speak Korean. How could someone that looks like me (with my big nose and all) be there on the train speaking Korean?
I have to wonder if I’d be 영어사람 if I were an African American or Korean American L1 user of English. What if I were a Nigerian or Filipino? I am not sure. I am sure that somewhere in his 5 years on this earth he picked up that people who look like me are English users. I have no way of knowing exactly where this came from but I guess the little tot’s life experiences to this point might have backed up that hypothesis. It was all very interesting to me. Instead of simply being an annoyance and hindrance to the work I thought I *should be doing he gave me some insights and some things to think about.
Thoughts about language, race, nationality, identity, native speakers, native speakerism, media, hiring practices for teachers in Korea and the world, and English Education in general raced to my head. I didn’t and don’t have any easy explanations but I appreciate the chance to think about these things.
I thought it was a fascinating experience so I shared it with my students, grad students and future interpreters/translators, who told me this word 영어사람 was not a common one. They also shared their opinion that he was just a confused kid still learning Korean and that Koreans don’t classify people based on language in this way. I personally wonder if this confused little kid was onto something. I also wondered how our industry might have helped him think in this way and what the implications of such thoughts might be for our industry.