Written by Jesse Mahautmr ETA’10-11
Before I ever really knew him, he was already looking out for me. It took just minutes after landing in Korea to have him securely placed in my pocket. He told me I could use him as much as I might need, and that I certainly did. Primarily at Orientation, during which my deficiencies in Korean were most glaring, he was a crutch I relied upon heavily. With every stopover by the university’s convenience store, every excursion into the neighboring Goesan city limits, he was my loyal companion, speaking for me with store clerks and thus saving me from embarrassment. He never complained, nor did he ever urge me to study Korean harder in order to gain some semblance of self-sufficiency. I knew it well, and so did he — this was far from a symbiotic friendship, as he stood to gain nothing from it.
Over time he slowly caught on, and as a result our relationship quickly turned sour. We gradually saw each other less and less until eventually we just stopped trying. My conscience getting the better of me, I sought to rectify our strained relationship and looked for him all over, but always to no avail. From time to time we’d cross paths when I’d least expect it, but the awkwardness was always just so overwhelming that nothing more substantive than a simple “hi” could ever be managed. It didn’t help that, on one of these occasions mid-Orientation, I ran into him in a Goesan stationary store and had no choice but to rely on his aid, the very thing that had wedged us apart in the first place. Without a doubt, this event is what propelled our relationship toward separation, because after it, we spent not a minute with each other for a good few weeks.
His disappearance from my life produced all those symptoms you’d expect from a typical bad break-up, as I was left to fend for myself on the mean streets of Goesan without the security blanket onto which I had become so accustomed to clinging since day one in Korea. As with any healing process, the first few days were the toughest to get past. Once those hurdles were cleared, however, I slowly began to gain that sense of self-reliance that always had seemed so far off in the distance. With the Korean language, I practiced more frequently; I listened more observantly; I studied more intensely. I knew that, if I put in the investment, the payoff was sure to be imminent.
Sure enough, toward the end of Orientation, my “veni, vidi, vici” moment finally did come to fruition; upon being told by the convenience store cashier how much I needed to pay for my goods, I successfully handed to her the exact amount, all on my own, without any of those “lost in translation” moments that had typified my every attempt prior. Only then did I realize that I could finally move on from him, that I didn’t need to depend on him to ensure my survival.
I didn’t see him again until the last day of orientation, when all of us were departing for our various locales around Korea. I tried to convince myself otherwise, but who was I kidding? He looked good. In my time away from him, I had forgotten just how comfortable it always had been to have him close to me. But that was all in the past, and I knew that reverting to this old mentality would do no good, especially in regards to the personal growth I had experienced while on my own.
When we met for the first time in weeks, I let out a sigh of relief at just how casual this exchange was proving to be. After the initial exchanges of laughter, I told him just how self-sufficient I had finally become, and he congratulated me on my newfound sense of independence. I apologized to him for my past transgressions and assured him I hoped to remain close friends, emphasizing that I would now only use him in cases of absolute necessity. I’m extremely grateful I was able to salvage our relationship, for life in Korea would be downright impossible without having him in those times of need.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: I’m so happy to have you back in my life, King Sejong the Great. May you continue to sit prominently on the back of that 만원 (manwon, or 10,000 won) bill, my friend. I hope you rest comfortably in my back pocket for whenever I might require your denomination.
When people in Korea begin a conversation with me, it doesn’t take long for them to realize just how far they’re going to get with me. As soon as I reluctantly open my mouth, they quickly discover, much to their chagrin, that I am not one of their own, despite my seemingly Korean appearance. In order to avoid their looks of disappointment, I always strive early on to keep a low profile and camouflage with my surroundings as best as I possibly can. A “blend, don’t break” mentality, I like to call it, I know I can pull it off so long as I draw no unneeded attention to my language deficiency. And that’s why I always considered King Sejong to be one of my closest allies.
Don’t know how much those cookies and chips cost? Just drop a 만원! Such was the strategy I employed without relent throughout most of Orientation. It was much easier to do this than it was to humbly apologize to the clerk and admit to her my lack of listening comprehension. As long as the value of my goods lay somewhere between zero and ten-thousand won, a range so wide that no more than quick price-eyeballing was necessary, then I was in the clear. What about those times when I might be too close to that threshold? Check-out twice, of course, and drop a 만원 each time to boot!
My 만원 dependency was a short-term fix to a long-term situation, and I soon learned the hard way that this strategy would not be the panacea to get me through my grant year. Once my stockpile of 만원 bills had disappeared, I knew that King Sejong would not be returning until my next payday, and I’d have to make do with the friends he left behind.
My motivation to master convenience-store dialogue was necessitated by the fact that I had no other option: if I wanted that late-night ramen, then I needed to learn. The adaptation of my reliance, from simply dropping a 만원 to actually learning the Korean language, closely parallels the differences between two forms of biological mimicry commonly witnessed in many diverse ecosystems.
In the first type of mimicry, termed Batesian mimicry, a harmless species replicates only the appearance and other ostensible features of a second, more harmful species. The mimic, however, does not incorporate whatever it is that actually makes the harmful species harmful. Thus the Batesian mimic utilizes subterfuge to dissuade potential predators from preying on it. Superficial at best, thinly veiled at worst, the Batesian mimic is akin to a knockoff Prada handbag, in that each, although roughly similar in outward appearance, severely lacks features when compared to what is genuine. The second form of mimicry, Mullerian, is much more robust than the former. Mullerian mimics adopt the actual harmful characteristics from the species it seeks to impersonate. This form of imitation is undoubtedly more powerful at staving off predation than is Batesian mimicry, since Mullerian mimics actually function as more elaborate replications of the original species.
Upon first arriving in Korea, the methods I utilized to adjust to my new environment were definitely of a Batesian variety. I had the Korean appearance down closely enough — I can thank my genetics for that — so all I had to do was adhere as tightly as I could to my “blend, don’t break” mentality. I soon discovered though that, even though those 만원 bills were able to help me out, a much more sustainable approach for greater longevity in Korea required becoming more Mullerian in my mentality. Thus I knew that I needed to let go of King Sejong’s hand; I needed to adapt more multi-dimensionally if I did not want to encounter the same hiccups over and over again throughout my grant year in Korea. While it certainly is still a work-in-progress, judging by how far I’ve come since then, I think I’m exactly where I need to be. I’m sure the Sejongs in my pocket would have to agree.