Written by Ashley Kim ETA’09-11
Sliding into the backseat after the others while trying to minimize exposure to the afternoon monsoon, I collapsed my umbrella and closed the door, failing to make a singular swift motion out of the two tasks. I fumbled for the laminated yellow card in my pocket, as the others hesitated.
“Jung-moon ga-ju-se-yo.” (“Take me to main gate, please.”) I read the Hangeul aloud, just as clumsily as I’d entered the cab. The driver barely nodded in response, leaving me wondering whether he’d understood what I’d said. As he pulled out of the parking lot, though, I sat back uneasily and hoped we’d get there.
As the rain fell in sheets and our breath took its toll on the windows, we sat in near silence. I still felt a bit overwhelmed, having just undertaken my first trip to E-Mart (also my first trip off the Orientation site without a Korean speaker). I hadn’t even been able to ask the cashier for a bag for my purchases, mincing the pronunciation of a word I thought I’d heard the Korean in front of me use, before resorting to pointing at the plastic bags below the register. Relieved that I’d made it out of the store with my neon orange bags, I was nonetheless a bit disappointed. Before coming to Korea, I naively imagined living in the country would make my brain absorb the language as if by osmosis. Although I had been learning a lot in class, I realized how much more I needed to learn before I’d be able to navigate life comfortably.
As I gazed out the window, resisting the urge to wipe the condensation from the glass with my hand, the driver commented (to himself) about the weather. When I realized I understood what he had said, my spirits lifted and I replied, “Neh, bi-ga ma-ni o-ne-yo” (“Yes, it sure is raining a lot”), which, followed by a nod on his part, ended the exchange.
Since that brief exchange with a Kangwon-do taxi driver, I’ve developed a fondness for making conversations with taxi drivers. The habit has organic roots — I’m from Kentucky, a state where small talk with strangers is not out of the ordinary but rather a common courtesy. In Korea this kind of interaction has been noticeably absent. A Korean friend of mine explained that Koreans generally assume everyone is in a hurry, and thus wasting a customer’s time with chatter could be considered rude. I realized that taxis evade this rule after the first few times a taxi driver, immediately after I told him where to go started a conversation by asking, “Chung-guk saram?” (“Are you Chinese?”) or something similar, as his eyes studied my semi-Asian appearance in the rear-view mirror.
After that realization, I started to use my time in taxis as an opportunity to practice Korean. I would search for questions to ask, even if I already knew the answers. Once, on the way to buy Chuseok gifts, I asked the driver what sort of things he thought would be suitable for my principal, co-teachers, and host family. All the way there we talked back and forth, deciding that socks were the safest and most appropriate. Then, as we pulled up to Lotte Mart, he told me that he would help me find the socks. He walked ahead of me into the store, informed the first clerk he came to that I was a foreigner, and asked her to show me to the socks. I thanked him, bowing awkwardly, and then proceeded to buy socks for everyone.
Thus, I have come to value taxi conversations as more than just a way to practice language. Through conversations with kind taxi drivers, I’ve been introduced to local restaurants, learned how to properly give directions to my house, and even made a friend. More than that, they have also shared their lives with me. Most recently, a man told me about how his daughter, weary of the intensity of Korean high school, decided to study on her own via a distance education program. We ended up having an interesting conversation about the Korean education system; it was refreshing to meet a parent who supported such a decision, given the extreme educational competition. While I speak English at school and with most of my Korean friends, talking with cab drivers gives me a chance not only to practice my Korean, but also to talk with a more diverse range of people who aren’t necessarily fluent in English.
After nearly two years in Korea, I am generally able to do my shopping, banking, coffee ordering and other daily tasks in Korean without much consequence. Recently, though, my Korean has hit a frustrating plateau, what a fellow ETA poignantly dubbed, “intermediate-level purgatory.” My inability to have detailed conversations about new topics in Korean with people I am already well acquainted with often leaves me frustrated and unconfident. But there’s something about the backseat of a cab, though, that makes it easier and more comfortable for me to speak Korean. Maybe it’s because the subject matter of taxi-cab chit-chat is generally quite basic, or because there’s no direct eye contact. Or maybe it’s because I know from the beginning that the conversation is destined to last only a fixed period of time. Whatever the reason, I get an instant boost in confidence when I enter a cab.
When I imagined how the role of “cultural ambassador” might manifest itself, I would never have predicted my chatting from the backseat of a cab. A friend once asked me if I ever get annoyed having to explain my situation so many times, but as a naturally curious person myself, I understand the drivers’ curiosity and I don’t mind. I realize that I may be one of the few foreigners the drivers have been able to talk to. Though my friends joke about my chatting with drivers or warn me not to be too outgoing, I have come to relish the opportunity to engage with the people whose cab I happen to find myself in. I will remember the people I have met and conversations I have had as some of the highlights of my time in Korea.