Blogroll: There is the Clown

Written by Luke Icenogle ETA’11-12

This entry originally appeared on a Fulbright grantee’s personal blog and is published with permission here. The views expressed in these entries are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fulbright Korea or the Korea Fulbright Infusion staff.

Several months ago, I entered my school’s cafeteria to the usual progression of gasps, hush, and shouts of  “LUKE TEACHER!” “VERY TALL!” the Korean word for foreigner, and other phrases I can’t understand.

On that day, as I waved back subtly as possible, I noticed my co-teacher was attempting to conceal her laughter with her hand, making brief eye contact with me, only to look away, and briefly back, and away again.

Na teacher, why are you laughing?

“Oh, Luke… that student… when she saw you, she said like that, ‘THERE IS THE CLOWN!’”

I laughed, thinking I must have appeared clown-like to the Korean kindergartner because of my height. Men on stilts dressed as clowns are a common marketing strategy seen on the sidewalks outside Korean outlet stores.

However, later that day, during a conversation with another teacher, I was informed, “Luke, the students like you a lot. More than the previous foreign teacher.”

Oh, that’s good. I try really hard to be a good teacher.

“No, it’s because you are tall. So students like you a lot. And you know your feet are very big. Your shoes are like a clown.”


(I won’t entertain my feelings of defeat as an educator, but I will say that I have not worn those permanently stained “clown” shoes since. That weekend, I replaced them with a similar style, two-and-a-half sizes too small. As a general take-away message, offered perhaps redundantly – maybe no one else reading this is as stupid and vain as I am: don’t buy shoes two-and-a-half sizes too small. If you really think that downsizing will make a noticeable difference, then your feet are more than likely so big that they will still be larger than average. And any aesthetic gains you may think you’ve achieved are nullified by the grimace on your face and awkward adjustments you must make to your gait.)

Anyway, after a recent conversation, I have come to realize that my co-teachers and I underestimated the semantic intentions of the student.

Last week, I was having dinner with a Korean friend who is about to study abroad in Australia for a semester. We got on the topic of language. Specifically, given his limited English skills, he was concerned about his ability to make friends while in an English-speaking country. I assured him that I befriended many foreign students as an undergrad in the States, and that to a native, non-native speakers are actually more fun and easier to befriend than other native speakers. I reminded him of the context in which we met, and how terrible my Korean is, and he recognized that my comically bad language skills make me immediately endearing and entertaining to him. I told him I am viewed as a novelty, which is why I’m so seemingly easy to get along with. He will be viewed in the same way.

I proposed further, however, as your language skills reach an intermediate stage, you become less of a novelty to your friends and less immediately likable to people you meet for the first time. It’s the difference between interacting with an infant and interacting with a middle-schooler. As your language skills continue to improve towards (the unattainable) “fluency,” and the novelty factor between native and non-native speaking friends further diminishes, you surpass your original threshold as a novelty for potential fun. In fact, this phenomenon can be graphed.

It is very difficult to have fun with someone you cannot communicate with (not being able to communicate is really stressful), but even the slightest amount of language skills can make you immediately entertaining. When I say “hello” to my students, they repeat after me, exaggerating my American accent, then run away giggling. Actually, conversations between two language learners communicating to each other in the other’s mother tongue are extremely fun.

Looking to the next stage on the language development axis, for some natives, non-natives’ developing language proficiency not only renders them less fun but can become an active source of anxiety. Particularly amongst Korean students, who experience discomfort knowing that their foreign English teachers can understand their every remark; much less fun than informing your oblivious teacher to his face that he smells like hamburgers. (Of course, this graph reflects a very weak, general trend that is certainly not applicable to the opinions of all people. It has, however, been supported by my experiences.) Additionally, the presence of language ability necessitates a paradigm shift: if this person can communicate with me, how does that change my understanding of them?

When visualizing this trend in my mind, I came to recognize its similarities to another: the uncanny valley.

As an undergrad, I wrote an essay on the uncanny in Jeff Wall’s photography, a topic coincidentally suggested by an exchange student from Spain (yay international friendships!).

In his essay The Uncanny, Freud analyzes the German words heimlich and unheimlich.

Heimlich has two basic definitions:

‘1’ what is familiar and secure and

‘2’ what is concealed, hidden, or kept out of sight.

The negation, unheimlich,

With respect to definition ‘1,’ means what is eerie, unsettling, or weird.

With respect to definition ‘2,’ unheimlich is, “everything … that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.”

Freud shows how the various shades of meaning that can be found in the root word and its negation actually begin to resemble each other, obscuring our understanding of the word as well as our ability to differentiate what is uncanny and what is familiar. Essentially, the sensation of the uncanny occurs when you encounter something seemingly familiar, yet disturbingly wrong. However, while general trends apply to all people, the sensation of the uncanny is highly subjective. For Freud, the origin of the uncanny sensation lies in repressed memories, but the researcher Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” is much more simple.

Mori is famous for acknowledging that the fragile relationship between familiar and creepy is what makes some robots appear cute (Wall-E) while more life-like robots are inexplicably unnerving. As things increase in realism, humans are able to empathize more, until that thing reaches the edge of “the uncanny” valley, at which point they become creepy. Zombies, being human and animate, but not alive, are at the bottom on the valley.

However, as realism continues to increase, eventually the inhuman element becomes undetectable, at which point a viewer identifies a real human, with which they can empathize as an equal. Some theories claim that racism and xenophobia have roots that can be traced back to the phenomenon of the uncanny valley – humans are unable to empathize with other people that they do not identify as equally human because of appearance.

The grey section of this graph represents the uncanny valley – what Pixar hopes to avoid and what makes zombie movies scary:

After the conversation about friendship and language barriers, I realized the meaning of the kindergartner’s clown comment. Clowns occupy the most precarious area of the graph above. Unlike robots – which can go from the most minimally anthropomorphic and adorable (R2-D2) to some of the most creepy (T2) – clowns, being actual humans, reside somewhere in the highly variable V of the valley. Some children enjoy clowns, but studies have shown that the majority of children actually dislike clowns and find them frightening, or even horrifying. The commonality is that through their exaggerated features and inability to speak, clowns lack something that allows us identify with them as also human; they are uncanny.

So I am a clown.

It makes sense now. I’ve made Korean babies cry, not because I was laughing hysterically, waving my arms with sweaty makeup dripping down my face while riding a unicycle, but because my features are alien to them. Last semester my sixth graders called me Avatar, because I’m a tall, skinny alien, just like in the movie. Three months after I had moved into my homestay, my little sister was staring into my eyes:

“Luke. Your eyes are blue.”

Yes, Sohee. You’ve known my eyes are a different color for three months. Why are you telling me now?

“I can’t trust you. You are… mischievous. Like a wolf.”

This, particularly when considered in conjunction with the instantaneous, hilarious, familiar celebrity, is uncanny.

You just have to learn how to laugh at it all, being a novelty in another country, I told my friend.

But it’s nice to meet someone on the other side of the valley.

“There is the Clown” was originally published in Luke Icenogle’s blog “Luke in Limbo” on March 27, 2012.

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