Protect the Environment, Save Bumf

With minor modifications, I think this has to be my favorite new slogan:

Protect Environment Saving Bumf

This sign can be found in the bathrooms of Jinan airport in China.1 A loose translation of the Chinese might go something like this, “Support the protection of the environment, use only what [toilet] paper you need.” (or “be economical in your use of paper”) I had never heard the word bumf before so I thought it might be a misspelling but the closest word I could think of that made sense was “Bambi.”

Bumf is, in fact, a real word. I must have missed it during my GRE preparations. From the OED:

[Short for bum-fodder (see BUM n.1 4).]

Toilet-paper; hence, paper (esp. with contemptuous implication), documents collectively. Also attrib.

1889 BARRÈRE & LELAND Dict. Slang, Bumf (schoolboys), paper… A bumf-hunt is a paper-chase. 1912 V. WOOLF Let. 16 Nov. in Woolf & Strachey Lett. (1956) 46 Is this letter written upon Bumf? It looks like it. 1930 WYNDHAM LEWIS Apes of God (1932) v. 161 Low-lid fodder or high-brow bumph! 1930 E. RAYMOND Jesting Army I. vi. 90 The Brigadier pushed back the mess accounts to me and said, ‘You’ll keep all that bumf till next time, won’t you, padre?’ 1938 E. WAUGH Scoop II. iv. 211, I shall get a daily pile of bumf from the Ministry of Mines. 1957 M. K. JOSEPH I’ll soldier no More (1958) 21 Matthews is bringing the bumf… He says be sure and type it on Army Form A2.

bum-fodder, L. anitergium, hence, worthless literature.

The more I think about it, this slogan has many possible uses that go beyond bathroom walls. You know that US law which is designed to reduce paperwork? You can find reference to it at the bottom of many government documents in the small print. They could rename the law, “Protect the environment, reduce bumf!”

You know the kind of academic scholarship with a gargantuan theoretical superstructure which ultimately has absolutely nothing interesting to say? We could start a movement under the slogan, “Protect the environment, reduce bumf!”

The possibilities are nearly inexhaustible. The word bumf clearly deserves a period of renewal.

  1. Apparently, I am not the only one on the internet who has noticed this sign. Another Konrad has posted a picture of the sign on flickr. Other references can be found here and there. []

A Japanese Speaking Chinese Officer in the Korean War

I went to 춘천 in Kangwon province this past Monday to scout out what the state of local history was in the province and what materials I might be able to find on life there in the early postwar period (1945-50). The city library’s reference room was closed (how did I miss that when writing down the opening times the night before I left?) but I made a trip to the cultural section at city hall to get some suggestions and made a trip to the headquarters of the oldest provincial newspaper, 강원일보 where I was delighted to meet some very friendly journalists. I learnt that the only copies of the issues of that newspaper from 1945-50 are in the national library in Seoul. The only issue they seemed to have in the newspaper’s headquarters from that period was a single page of a single 1947 issue pasted onto a piece of wood in the lobby. They did, however, take me into their archives and let me make a copy of the memoir of the earliest head of their paper, who was also in charge of the special investigative committee on treasonous activities in the province in 1949, a work that I was having difficulty in finding.

The most interesting conversation I had that day, however, was not with journalists or city officials. As I was sitting in an underground shopping center, looking over a map of the city, an old man sat next to me and stared at me as I looked at the map. I have had this experience quite often in Korea and it usually leads to fascinating conversations with retired men who love to share their experiences during the Korean war, their interactions with Americans during the Korean war, their belief that Park Chung-hee was the best thing to come out of Korea since the hangul writing system, and that the coming of democracy has sent Korea off its rails.

When I noticed the guy was staring at me, I struck up a conversation. He originally answered in English but when we determined that my bad Korean was still better than his English, we settled upon Korean as our language of discussion. This doesn’t always turn out to be the case. Another fascinating random conversation I had with an old man outside the national library in 2005 was conducted almost entirely in Japanese.

The old man told me he had been a KATUSA (Korea Augmentation Troops to the United States Army) working with US soldiers in the Korean War, 1950-1953. That would explain the fact that he spoke some English. I told him I was spending the day trying to learn more about Kangwon provincial history and was told by city officials that very few materials are left from the early postwar period. I asked him if he had ever written anything down about his experiences since he was a “living historical archive.”

He said that he hadn’t but was willing to answer any questions I had. I asked him to talk about living in 춘천 from 1945-50. When he proceeded to tell me half a dozen stories I felt a deep frustration with myself that my Korean listening skills are so bad that I could understand less than half of what he was telling me.

My new friend was 12 years old when the colonial period ended in 1945 so he had attended elementary school under Japanese rule and learned some Japanese as a result. He says the next few years after liberation were horrible and he listed various trees and plants that his family tried to eat in order to live through a time of severe food shortages. He had some story about smuggling from North Korea that I would have loved to have understood. He also launched into a long and complicated story involving a cow which he seemed to love telling but which I just couldn’t make heads or tails out of.

I asked him if he had family in areas of Kangwon province which were under North Korean control in the early postwar, some of which later came under South Korean control as a result of changes in the lines of control. He said no, but this triggered a story about his life as a soldier during the war.

He told me, “I would not be here alive today if it wasn’t for the help of a Chinese officer.”

I could tell I was going to be interested in this story so as he told it, I repeatedly asked him to clarify and explain things I didn’t understand which helped raise the percentage of the story I came away with.

As far as I could gather my friend and a few other soldiers were in complete disarray in the second retreat in the winter of 1950-1 and found themselves way behind enemy lines. They were soon captured by a unit of Chinese troops who were quickly making their way south after China’s entry into the war. I have no idea to what degree he exaggerates the desperate situation at the time but the man told me that he believed the Chinese troops were going to summarily shoot the group of captured soldiers he was a part of before they continued south, rather than keep them as POWs.

Then, he says, a Chinese officer approached the group of captured Korean troops and asked if any of them spoke Japanese. My friend then began to have a conversation with this Chinese officer in Japanese. At this point in the story, my friend looked away from me, staring off into space, and recited the entire conversation he had with this officer in Japanese. Perhaps he has told this story a hundred times but I was interested in the fact that he recited the whole conversation to me in a language that he could not know that I did, in fact, understand. Essentially the conversation consisted of my new friend begging the officer not to kill him, the officer offering him a cigarette and assuring him that he was not going to let him and his friends get killed. He told my friend that he had gone to junior high school in Manchuria when it was the puppet state of 満州国, and had there learnt the Japanese language. The officer told him that they had both therefore, “suffered under the same Japanese rule.” Finally, my friend claims that the officer said that he really hated Mao Zedong. This, in my opinion, is the most implausible part of the story, for a number of reasons.

At any rate, after finishing his retelling, in Japanese, of the conversation he claims to have had with the officer, my friend switched back into Korean and told me the officer told the troops that were holding him and his friends (I don’t know how many there were of them) to release them, and continue moving south.

Hearing his perfect Japanese during the retelling of the conversation, I thought I could continue our conversation in Japanese, which I speak much better than Korean, but he didn’t seem understand anything I said in Japanese. It was as if the words in that conversation he had with the officer was the only Japanese he knew or still remembered. I asked him if he ever used Japanese after that encounter and he said, no, it was the last time he had spoken Japanese.

I was running out of time and had to get moving to find the Kangwon ilbo newspaper building so I couldn’t stay to ask him more about this story or other experiences but it was really wonderful to spend the hour or so with him on that bench outside the bookstore. Hearing this kind of story fills a student of history like me with excitement but it is so hard to know what to make of this kind of retelling. What can a historian do with this kind of material, if anything?

Travel Language Notes

Some notes from my recent trip to the United States for Christmas from Seoul:

Transitions – When going to and from East Asia, I love passing through airports like San Francisco and LA (one gets a similar experience passing through London when I visit Norway). On the way back to the US I transferred in San Francisco. After spending 6 months in Korea, the most immediately striking thing was the amazing diversity. From the time I disembarked to the time I got on to the second leg of my journey I counted 6 languages. “So what?” you might ask, it is an international airport, after all. Yes, but I counted 6 language among the airport staff, not among the traveling passengers.

On the way back to Seoul, I passed through LA. The process is reversed. Going from a place like Oklahoma, with only slightly more diversity than Korea, the transfer in LA has the effect of easing me back into Asia. Announcements at the airport are given in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, as if to reacquaint me with the languages of the region.

Asian food can be found everywhere, except strangely, passed security in the international terminal. All they have is a hot dog stand which also offers sandwiches and chicken noodle soup. A Chinese couple in front of me with the strong southern “s”es in their accent had the following exchange: Woman:”Chicken noodle是什麽樣的noodle?” Man:”是一種soup.” They decided to order six small Chicken noodle soups and three sandwiches for the family. I hope they weren’t disappointed.

TSA Language Skills – On my way back to Seoul, I had to change to the international terminal at the airport in LA, going through security again. The lines were hectic and full of people, a scene which, in my experience, is often made worse by stressed out and yelling TSA officials. As if to confirm my stereotypes of TSA, I heard one TSA official get frustrated with a passenger and then yell from somewhere closer to the X-ray machines, “Make sure you have all signed your passport!”

Another young blonde TSA official, hair shaved in short military fashion checked boarding passes and passports nearby. A family of Malaysians were ahead of me. As the woman in the family, who seemed to be the one responsible, handed the young man her passport I heard him speak to her in what sounded like Arabic (it didn’t sound like Malaysian). The woman seemed to understand and replied in the same language. They continued with a short exchange, including something found humorous by both of them, and the young man, who looked barely old enough be out of college, let her and her family through the barrier strap and into a line which had just become shorter than our own.

This was the most pleasant encounter I have ever had with TSA. I had never seen any TSA official speak to anyone in anything but English and the occasional Spanish and was impressed not only at his language skills (which I can hardly judge, since I’m not even sure what language he was speaking – but he seemed to be communicating successfully) but even more the young man’s friendly approach to the woman and her impatient children.

Asiana English – I went through lots of horrible cancellations and rescheduling on my way back to Seoul because of weather problems in Denver, putting me back in Korea 2 days later than I had originally planned. I got put on an Asiana flight to Seoul which is my first time with the airline. I had heard good things and overall the service and food was indeed good. However, I couldn’t help noticing how incredibly bad their English was. Everyone, including the pilot and all the airline stewards and stewardesses who I heard interacting with passengers spoke phenomenally bad English. This was not limited to the Korean employees, because this was also the case with their two Japanese and Chinese staff members.

I sympathize with the fact that the incredible range of nationalities among their passengers (I sat next to passengers from the Philippines, and was otherwise surrounded by Chinese voices) but was amazed that even the standard announcements that get read out in English were sometimes unintelligible due to horrendous pronunciation and their utterances sometimes barely constituted sentences, let alone grammatically correct ones. While I can pick up what I need from announcements in other languages, many of those on the plane will not understand the Korean. Aren’t they reading from a pre-translated card or something? If so, they need to go back and work on it. Whatever the reason is, and I really shouldn’t generalize from a single flight, this trip gave me the distinct impression that Asiana’s hiring practices put far more weight on the physical appearance of their staff than on language skills.

Japanese Dictionaries on Leopard

After my family acquired a “family pack” license, I installed the Mac OS X Leopard operating system on my machine last night and everything went smoothly with the installation. I did a clean install on a new larger hard drive and migrated over my user files using the migration assistant. Things seem to be going fine with a few free updates here and there except for my older Macromedia apps (Dreamweaver 8 and Fireworks MX) which I won’t be able to afford upgrading.

I suppose that some of the smaller things about Leopard will either grow on me or annoy me with time. The only thing I have gotten really excited about so far, however, is the improved “Dictionary” application. It now has four Japanese dictionaries: 大辞泉, プログレッシブ英和・和英中辞典, and 類語例解辞典. They are not shown by default (in the English version of the OS, I assume they are default on Japanese language installations) and you need to activate them in the Dictionary application’s preferences.

I usually use my portable electronic dictionary for J-J, J-E, and E-J (plus C-J, J-C, and Kanji dictionary) and can always look words up various places online.’s dictionary site has 大辞林(国語辞典), エクシード英和, and エクシード和英. Yahoo Japan’s Dictionary site has both 大辞泉 and 大辞林 as well as the same プログレッシブ dictionaries Apple has licensed. However, it is wonderful to have all this accessible offline write on my mac.

Some snapshots, click image for larger version:







I wish they had included the front and back matter for these dictionaries, as they did for the English language dictionary in the new version of the application, with all its interesting reference information.

I also really hope some day that the China and Korea markets will become important enough to Apple that they will consider licensing dictionaries in those languages.

Communicating with Loki

LokiCommunicating with my 16 month nephew Loki (I have recently all but abandoned his name at birth, Liam) is a challenge. He doesn’t seem to understand my attempts to discuss abstract metaphysical issues with him, or even the more concrete banalities of contemporary politics. He is probably experiencing a certain degree of confusion as well since my mother and I speak Norwegian to the child while my father and his father speak to him in English. My sister, Loki’s mother, speaks to him in a mix of English and occasional Norwegian. The baby’s books are also a mix of Norwegian and English language children’s books that we all read to him.

To be honest though, the prospects for a fully bilingual child are not that great. Living in the United States as they do, with a huge majority of those around him speaking English, he may develop decent listening skills and some limited speaking skills in Norwegian, but since my sister is most comfortable speaking in English, this will probably mean that in the long term Loki won’t be growing up in a two language household.

For now, however, he not saying anything at all. I don’t know if he is supposed to be saying anything at 16 months, but even if he is, this is to be expected in a mixed language environment. I apparently didn’t start speaking muddled Norwegian and English until I was two or so.

Loki is, however, communicating. Since two spoken languages were apparently not enough, the parents have been teaching the child simple signs from American Sign Language. I understand that this is the newest trend in the “teach your kids to do tricks” genre, but I have discovered that it has a real practical value with a 16 month old child that does not yet emit anything more than extremely entertaining gurgles.

Here is my brother-in-law Mike’s posting about this. Here is what he says:

I’ve been teaching Liam sign language for the past few months now, and I wanted to keep a record of the signs he’s learned. Here’s what he knows so far:

  • Light
  • Fan
  • More
  • Water
  • Eat
  • Shoe
  • Dog
  • Bath

    I think that’s all. I proud of him, and myself as well, this is the sort of thing that I would start and then just give up on, and I almost did, but then he just exploded with all these new signs that, after months and months of practice, finally just started popping out of him.

  • I was rather skeptical when I read this but since I have come to visit them in the United States, I am pleasantly surprised to see that this child, who otherwise expresses his likes and dislikes by pushing things away, pointing, and screaming is able to give these signs and convey his desires very nicely.

    Of course, the child speaks a unique dialect of this small set of ASL, having changed many of the signs somewhat.

    I have had a bit of catching up to do to learn his dialect. This morning we were teaching him the word for ‘berry’ so at least I will be able to recognize the newest addition to his gestural vocabulary. Here are some examples of his communication so far:

    Situation #1: Loki is crawling up and down the stairs. He looks pooped. He turns around to me, stands still, and begins slapping his cheek and mouth with his hand in very regular motion. I yell to my sister in the kitchen, “Carleen! What does it mean when he…” -“He is telling you he is thirsty.” We get the boy some water.

    Situation #2: Loki discovers one of his favorite mechanical devices: a small light plugged into the wall which lights up when things are dark (or when you cover it with your hand). The light is not on, but he recognizes the object for what it is. He stands up, turns around and starts flicking his hand behind his right ear. “Carleen! What does it mean when he…” -“He is giving the signal for ‘light.'” UPDATE: Loki also did this whenever he noticed the lights on the Christmas tree.

    Situation #3: Loki is bouncing on the couch next to me while I eat cereal. He stops, walks carefully over to me, looks like he is going to grab my spoon and I give him a stern look to indicate that I don’t want him to grab my spoon. He seems to acknowledge this and then begins to repeatedly and slowly put his clenched fists together. “Carleen! What does it mean when he…” -“He is saying that he is hungry.” We take the boy into the kitchen and feed him. UPDATE: Loki mixes this sign up with the sign for shoe, and thus later in the evening, when he saw one of my shoes, I thought he was hungry.

    For the Love of Hanja: On 以朴制昌 and 朝鮮日報

    I confess that I’m one of those Orientalists who really loves the characters used in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. There have been many voices (e.g.) over the last century or so who have argued for the complete romanization of East Asia’s languages and Korean nationalists (as well as those who claim they only oppose use of Hanja for purely rational or anti-elitist educational goals) have come a long way in championing the widespread use of Hangul (한글) at the expense of Hanja (漢字).

    I am really not interested in getting sucked into the debates about efficiency, literacy, etc. that reduce the question of whether to continue to use these characters to a raw utilitarian cost/benefit analysis. I will say that my fascination with these characters is not because, as a non-Asian, I somehow feel like my years of studying the languages of this region have either a) granted me privileged access to some kind of a secret magical code or b) would be completely wasted if the entire region abandoned the characters tomorrow.

    I honestly believe there is an amazing beauty to the writing system, and I marvel at way that very different languages (all the dialects of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and once upon a time Vietnamese) have incorporated their use and comprise, or at least potentially comprise, a written language bloc (a 漢字圈). My attraction to this idea is perhaps ironic because I am also an opponent to the formation of an “East Asian community” on any significant institutional level (but that is another story).

    So here I am in Korea this year and, as a lover of Hanja, I silently curse the reformers as I try to make my way through academic history books or newspaper articles trying to guess the character compounds “hidden” behind many of the unfamiliar 한글 words. I thus far more enjoy reading books and newspapers published a few decades ago than those published recently, before the gradual Hanja attrition set in, or reading North Korean archival documents written before around 1948, when Hanja quickly drops out of use. And it must be at least one reason why I get an occasional kick out of the very conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo (朝鮮日報) even though my politics are often much closer to the Hangul-only newspaper 한겨레.

    Chosun Ilbo is also almost all Hangul these days, but one gets the distinct impression that they really think Hanja is cool, or at least, kinda neat. I feel like their writers are begging to tell everybody, “Hey look, look at how the character for Japan is a sun, and the character for the United States is the character for beauty,” or “Look how I can put the character for ‘war’ in all kinds of political contexts!” The characters stand out in a headline, even if it takes just the same amount of space to use the Hangul equivalent. Though the context would usually make it clear what was meant without Hanja, the use of the Hanja make certain words stand out and avoids the need to look twice or pause to guess the meaning, almost as if those words were in bold.

    Sometimes Chosun Ilbo likes to go wild and use four character compounds for their leading headlines. Yesterday’s issue of the newspaper had the headline “與多野多” (Many from the ruling party and many from the opposition) for an article discussing the fact that there are multiple contenders still in the ring for the upcoming December presidential election from both the conservative and ruling progressive political camps. However, that four character compound doesn’t really have a deep historical ring for me (does it for anyone else?).

    One of my favorites, however, was in a headline a few weeks ago: 以朴制昌 which means “To use Park [Geun-hye] to control [Lee Hoi-]Chang” (They probably used the character for Chang 昌 since both leading conservatives running have the last name Lee/Yi 李) Below the headline was a short explanation for some of readers who may not have gotten the meaning: “박근혜와 연대해 이회창 제압” and unlike the paper version of the newspaper, the online versions of the article and other articles which used the compound sometimes put the Hangul before the Hanja or ditch the Hanja altogether (less faith in the Hanja-reading skills of the internet generation perhaps?).

    Park, is the daughter of Korea’s military dictator Park Chung-hee (reigned from 1961-1979) famous for a regime of political oppression, torture, and, no one forgets to mention, economic growth. She fought and lost in the primaries against the current front runner Lee Myung-bak to represent the conservatives in the election. Now Lee Hoi-Chang, another staunch conservative who had once vowed to stay out of this election, has split the conservative vote and Chosun Ilbo was hoping in early November that Park would quickly defuse this challenge from the right with her considerable political weight. While she did eventually weigh in with a statement, Lee Hoi-Chang is still in the race.

    What makes 以朴制昌 cute and gives away the newspaper’s love for an old-fashioned classical education is that it is a play on the old Chinese idiom “using barbarians to control other barbarians” (以夷制夷). This kind of playing with character compounds that echoes an idiom, slogan, or historical event is really common in Chinese, Taiwanese, and to a lesser extent Japanese newspapers, not to mention writing I have come across in all East Asian works aimed at an educated audience, but I admit that I enjoy it when Korean newspapers also join in the game. This may be on the decline, however, as classical references and Hanja compounds increasingly generate either the Korean equivalent of a, “Huh?” or scare away the youth who hate to read a newspaper that plays geeky language games that their grandfather thinks are funny. Ah, kids today.

    With a quick dictionary search, here are a few compounds in Chinese that use this pattern:

    以暴制暴 yǐbàozhìbào f.e. Violence must be met by violence.
    以華制華[-华-华] yǐhuázhìhuá f.e. play off one group of Chinese against the other
    以快制高 yǐkuàizhìgāo f.e. 〈sport〉 play fast against tall players
    以禮制軍[-礼-军] yǐlǐzhìjūn f.e. discipline the army according to propriety
    以夷制夷 yǐyízhìyí f.e. play off one foreign power against another

    A few more that appear with a google wildcard search: 以静制动, 以”动”制冻, 以柔制快 , 以毒制毒

    Foreigner Shock Meltdown

    Catching up on some newspaper reading, I came across a piece (Korean) by Scott Burgeson, of Korean Bug fame, in the September 15th opinion pages of Chosun Ilbo. In the article he describes a phenomenon familiar to most non-Asians who have lived in places including Japan and Korea: a paralyzing shock exhibited by natives of the country when faced with a non-Asian, especially ones who show some proficiency in the language. When Burgeson lived in Japan he called this phenomenon the “Gaijin Shock Meltdown” (GSM) which, adjusted for Korean, becomes “Oegugin Shock Meltdown” (OSM) or “foreigner shock meltdown.” The term designates a real phenomenon but because it depends on a racial trigger, rather than one of nationality, it becomes harder to lock down a term for it (not Asian-looking shock meltdown?).

    He describes one example of OSM in a local convenience store where the attendants have almost never spoken to him in the five years of his nearly daily visits, staring at their register and not even telling him the total cost of his purchases. He talks about how the shock prevents store attendants from even asking him the simple question of whether he wants a bag or not.

    I have definitely experienced a whole range of behaviors that result from this kind of “shock meltdown” during my three years or so of living in Japan, and more recently in my summer stays in Korea. I’m sure Burgeson could have expanded his description of this phenomenon if he had wanted to. I think there are perhaps three kinds of responses generated from this kind of “shock meltdown” worth mentioning:

    1) Faced with a Caucasian (or, I assume, any other not-Asian-looking individual), the Korean or Japanese person in question will have complete a meltdown, and do their utmost to complete the entire transaction (at the post office, store, restaurant, etc.) without making any eye contact or speaking a single word. In extreme cases they can completely crap-out and request help from the manager or other co-worker before even beginning the transaction or confirming that their customers does not, indeed, speak Korean/Japanese.
    2) If the NALI (not Asian looking individual) is in the company of anyone who looks even remotely Asian, they will completely ignore the existence of the NALI and speak/recognize only the Asian looking person. This will continue even if a) the NALI continues to respond to questions and speak passably well in the native language of the Japanese/Korean person in question and/or b) if the Asian looking person in question in fact does not at all know how to speak Japanese/Korean.
    3) Faced with a NALI, the Korean or Japanese person in question will panic and try to communicate in a non-grammatical mix of their native language, really bad English, and hand signals. This can happen even if you speak passably well in the native language of the person and have not yet shown any inability to understand their regular Korean/Japanese.

    (Note: I do not include in the categories of this phenomenon the kind of response in which the person speaks to the NALI completely in English, even if you start and continue the exchange in their native language and even if your ability in their native language is clearly better than their English. I don’t consider this a “shock meltdown” but just an understandable but, depending on their ability in English, occasionally annoying response).

    Why do I not include Chinese and Taiwanese in this? I lived in China twice and have visited Taiwan perhaps half a dozen times. It is true that I have seen this kind of “shock meltdown” in both places. For example, I remember walking through Tiananmen square with a Korean friend of mine who does not speak a word of Chinese many years ago (I didn’t speak any Korean at the time either, but since she spoke excellent Japanese, we communicated entirely in Japanese). It took me considerable effort to convince a rickshaw driving “tour guide” who was accosting us that it really did not do any good to try convincing my Korean friend that we wanted a tour of the traditional hutongs as she did not speak Chinese. The man had the amazing capacity to have an argument with me in Chinese (directing all his responses to my responses to my Korean friend) without seeming to come to terms with the fact that I was speaking in Chinese. This is a good example of (2).

    However, that encounter is so memorable because it was so rare. My own experience living in Beijing and visiting Taipei has been that this kind of meltdown is much less common than in Korea and Japan. In China my experiences living there in 1998 and 1999-2000 was that almost everyone assumed I spoke Chinese and if ever our communication failed, they would express frustration at the fact and cope with the situation by trying to explain what they wanted to say in other words. Young students or highly educated Chinese would occasionally try to conduct the entire exchange in English regardless of our relative language abilities but I gradually came to appreciate that an exchange with me in English presented them with a rare opportunity to practice their language abilities. I have less experience with Taiwan, but on my visits most people also seemed to assume I spoke Chinese and even if they didn’t the resulting encounter rarely resulted in a kind of panicked “meltdown.”

    So what was the point of Burgeson’s article describing this kind of “shock meltdown”? In his own words:

    문제엔 양면이 있다. 첫째, 한국인에겐 한국에 사는 백인은 모두 미국인이고, 유전적으로 영어밖에 못하며, 단기 체류자나 관광객에 불과하다는 고정관념이 박혀 있다. 이런 고루한 편견에서 탈피할 때가 왔다는 내 생각에 한국어를 할 줄 아는 수많은 주한 러시아인・유럽인・캐나다인・호주인・뉴질랜드인・미국인이 동의할 것이다.

    둘째, 김영삼 전(前) 대통령이 ‘세계화’를 외치기 시작한 이래 한국 정부와 미디어와 기업은 “세계화하려면 영어를 해야 한다”고 국민들을 들볶았다. 좋은 얘기긴 한데, 솔직히 내 입장에선 한국인들이 영어를 못해서 불편한 게 아니다. 여기는 한국이고 한국의 공용어는 한국어다. 한국인들이 외국인과 마주쳤을 때 지레 ‘외국인 쇼크 증후군’에 사로잡혀 한국말마저 입에서 떨어지지 않게 되는 것이 문제다.

    Basically he wants to make two points. 1) He thinks this phenomenon reveals a view that Caucasians who live in Korea are all Americans who are inherently incapable of speaking any other language than English and who are in Korea for only a short stay or as tourists. This is a view he thinks is a “narrow-minded prejudice” 2) Globalization is a goal of Korea, and former president Kim Young-sam said that it can only be achieved when all Koreans can speak English. Burgeson thinks that the problem is not that Koreans can’t speak English. After all the Korean language is the language of communication here in Korea. He wants to emphasize the problem of meltdown that Koreans experience as a problem.

    Burgeson goes on to conclude by suggesting that globalization will be achieved when the many foreigners choosing to live in Korea make an effort to learn Korean.

    This kind of article uses an effective and well-developed rhetorical approach used in articles by outsiders talking about insiders: Criticize something about the insiders, but make sure you take a shot at your own group as well so that the insiders don’t think you are an ungrateful and bigoted outsider.

    I found Burgeson’s discussion of the “meltdown” phenomenon to be fairly accurate and amusing but, to be honest, I think that his criticism of Koreans is unfair. I don’t think these responses by Koreans or Japanese are in any way a kind of “narrow-minded prejudice.” Instead, Burgeson should have thought a bit more about why this kind of reaction happens.

    While the “shock meltdown” reaction is common in Korea and Japan, this summer I confirmed something that I discovered during my time living in Japan: this phenomenon is largely urban. I did not notice it until my second time living in Japan because my first trip there (a 3 months homestay just outside Tateyama in Chiba prefecture) was in a relatively rural area. At that time (1995), I spoke barely any Japanese, but most people assumed I did and I remembered how fascinated I was at how everyone seemed to delight in telling me long and complicated stories that I understood less than a quarter of. One buddhist monk, whose family I stayed a weekend with, was eager to share great metaphysical lectures with me over dinner, which, to this day, I regret not being able to understand. My experiences in Yokohama (1997-1998) and in Tokyo (2002-2004) presented me with far more examples of “foreigner shock” and far fewer assumptions about my linguistic ability even though, ironically, my language skills were many times better than they were during my first trip. This summer I made some trips outside of Seoul to go hiking and exploring, and with the exception of a few examples of (2) (when everyone spoke to Sayaka and ignored my existence), found local strangers more likely to be comfortable speaking with me in Korean than people I met in Seoul.

    Rather than assuming the “shock” phenomena is an example of narrow-minded prejudice we can ask why this reaction happens? Why is it more common in urban areas with larger number of foreigners, than in rural areas? If most of the foreigners running around Seoul did speak Korean, and all the non-Korean professors working at Korean universities who can’t speak Korean but complain about unfair treatment learnt the language, as Burgeson rightly urges them to, then I find it very hard to believe that this phenomenon would survive. Many Koreans and Japanese, especially in places like Seoul and Tokyo, react in this way precisely because the vast majority of the “big-nosed” Caucasians that Koreans/Japanese come across do speak little or no Korean/Japanese and are overwhelmingly likely to be able to speak at least some English. While it is true that it is frustrating for those of us who have invested huge amounts of time into studying Asian languages to be frequently confronted with paralyzed store clerks and post office workers who have pre-judged us to be English-only speaking Americans, I would say their assumptions and their worry that communication with the person in front of them will be extremely difficult, are based on pretty sound statistics.

    Small Expectations

    While descending some stairs into the Shinchon subway station here in Seoul, Korea this evening, I was stopped by a boy perhaps five or six years old. Blocking my path, he smiled brightly and said, “안녕하세요” (a Korean greeting). I waved to the kid and replied with the same, “안녕하세요.”

    Hearing my reply, the boy suddenly assumed a scornful expression, widened his stance slightly and put his arms on his hips. I was then asked in an angry tone, without, I might add, any of the linguistic deference the Korean language usually dictates in the case of a child addressing someone of my age, “Why didn’t you say it in English?”

    Taken aback, I realized I had completely failed to live up to my responsibilities as a blonde white foreigner in Korea, and quickly repented. I bowed deeply and gave him a very exaggerated English, “Hello!”

    This appeared to satisfy the pretentious little punk. He gave me a very condescending nod of the head, accompanied with an audibly dismissive, “Hmmph,” before allowing me to pass and continuing his way up the stairs.

    Though it made no difference to me, I hope that, as my young friend ages, someone will get the chance to tell him that English is not necessarily the default language of choice for all Caucasions in the world.

    I must say though that, for some reason, this short exchange made my evening.

    Chinese Input Method: QIM

    Apple’s Macintosh operating system and the Chinese language have a long history. Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate college student, well before the advent of Mac OS X and the rise of Unicode, I was already happily inputing Chinese on my Mac and delighted in amazing my friends with the Apple Chinese voice recognition software I had gotten soon after its release in 1996. Meanwhile, PC users I knew across campus and the world were drowning in the technical challenges of mysterious programs such as Twinbridge and its earlier and more obscure competitors. I know from my own experience as a former tech support geek at Columbia University that the legacies of these issues continue to haunt Chinese language departments around the US.

    With Windows XP, however, Microsoft finally started getting their act together and created a typically clunky but still relatively easy method (with about a dozen clicks + the use of your OS cd) for adding Chinese input to a non-Chinese OS. Since then I have felt that the Mac Chinese input options lagged behind, especially in the convenience of inputting traditional characters (繁體/繁体). The “Hanin” input method was something of an improvement, but with tens of millions of customers in China using pirated copies of Windows XP and only a handful using the more expensive Macintosh solutions for their computing, it is not surprising that Apple has lost its innovation edge in the area of Chinese input.

    Well, I have apparently been somewhat out of the loop since mid-2006. Today I took a few minutes to skim through a year or two of the postings on the Google Group “Chinese Mac.” Thanks to this I was able to learn about a fantastic new piece of software for the Mac:

    QIM Input Method ($20)

    You can read a bit more about the software on the internet’s premier resource for (English language) information about inputting Chinese on the Mac.

    I would recommend anyone who inputs Chinese frequently on the Mac to try out QIM, which is fantastic. I dished out the $20 within 10 minutes of confirming that the software works in all the basic work applications I frequently use Chinese in (Omnioutliner, Microsoft Word, Wenlin, Apple Mail, iFlash). QIM produces characters in real time as you type, has amazing shortcut options, and optionally defaults all output to traditional characters.

    Religion and Superstition in a Yonsei Korean Textbook

    I’m sure it is hard to make language textbooks. On top of introducing grammatical patterns, vocabulary, and maintaining a certain level of appropriate difficulty, the writers need to try to make the contents of the readings interesting and hopefully educational. This is something I can appreciate in my last summer of formal language study, here at Yonsei’s Korean Language Institute. This week, one of our lessons is on the topic of superstition 미신(迷信).

    Superstition is a word rich with history, something also true of its uses in Korea, China, and Japan. A quick search on the word in Chinese and Korean historical databases corresponding to different periods will give you an idea of its common uses. The Confucians have used it to attack Buddhists and Daoists. Enlightenment intellectuals have used it to attack Confucianism, Buddhism, Shamanism, and other religious practices. Japanese colonial period scholars have used it to categorize a whole range of Korean cultural practices. Leftists and Communists all over East Asia have used the term (K: mishin, C: mixin, J: meishin) as a derogatory reference to all religious practices. If you visit China’s great wall (at least as of 2000, when I was there last) you are greeted by a sign warning you not to litter, start fires, or “preach feudalistic and superstitious beliefs.” Enlightenment voices and leftist ideologues are not the only ones who use the word, however. Christians also frequently use the term to condescendingly refer to non-Christian religious rituals, practices, and folk customs – while exempting their own religious beliefs.

    The essays for reading in a language textbook need to be short and concise so they must necessary engage in a degree of generalization. They should also state an opinion in order to help spark discussion in class and motivate students to use the new vocabulary they are taught. Usually the opinion is less than controversial. For example, so far this summer we have been told that perhaps women shouldn’t be such slaves to fashion, and that perhaps we ought not to lead rushed and busy lives.

    Sometimes, though, these textbook essays reveal certain interesting biases that were probably not designed to be questioned in the discussion that follows a class reading of the essay. The lesson on superstition is an example of this. Take the following passage (followed by my attempt at a translation):

    …종교를 가지고 있는 사람들은 신앙으로 불안한 마음을 이겨 나가고 종교가 없는 사람들은 자연히 미신에 관심을 가기게 된다. 그래서 사람들은 자기 자신의 미래에 대한 어떤 중요한 결정을 해야 할때, 자신의 생각이나 판단만으로는 불안하기 때문에 남의 말이나 미신을 믿게 된다…아직도 미신에 귀를 기울이는 사람들이 있다.

    “…those with religion overcome the apprehensions in their heart by turning to faith while those without religion naturally become interested in superstition. Thus, since people feel anxiety when they face an important decision concerning their future on the basis of their own thoughts and judgement alone, they come to believe in the words of other people and in superstition…There are still people who give an ear to superstition.”

    A few things I find revealing in this passage: 1) The implied judgement about people “without religion.” 2) The interesting distinction between something called “religion” and something called “superstition” 3) The interesting distinction between something called “religion” and something called “believing the words of other people.”

    This passage is, on the surface, neutral about what kind of “religion” can help us overcome our anxieties. To this extent it is a little less direct than the kind of more overtly Christian elements I have found in several other Korean textbooks which I have discussed in an old blog posting from 2003 here. However, I should note that many of the “superstitions” that get discussed throughout the lesson and in class are clearly derived from Buddhist, Shamanistic, and other religious practices in Korea. Those who believe in such “superstitions” may object to the use of the insulting term. I only ask that, if you want to use the term, let us be a little more even-handed.

    In class, when asked to describe a few superstitions from “my country” I described the widespread superstitious belief that praying to a powerful spirit named “God” will bring you good fortune and that doing bad deeds will result in one’s own spirit going to a horrible place after death. My teacher is experienced enough to know that valuable class time can best be preserved by ignoring smart asses like me, and moved quickly on to the next student.