I have spent this evening at a potluck dinner at a friend’s house. All of us are expats; mostly Asian and European. Most of us work in finance or IT and natter to our fellows in the nigh-impenetrable jargon of our chosen professions. One lady is a visiting friend from Korea who cheerfully takes photos of everything in the house and poses for photos while rocking the typical Asian peace sign. It makes me feel a bit nostalgic for Asia, where I lived for many years. I have albums of photos from my time there where every single person in each photo is rocking that cocked-wrist peace sign.
Non-verbal culture differences: Flip that palm to face yourself and you have the insulting English V sign, remnant of the warlike Harry’s smackdown at Agincourt. One of my British co-workers has posted albums of photos on Facebook where every single person in each photo is flipping that V sign. The Hogwarts-esque scarves draped about the wearers hint that those photos were taken before, during or just after a football match. (Possibly before, during or after a football riot.) Duality of man, baby.
We’ve prepared a hodgepodge of Asian dishes for dinner, most of it authentic or close enough. There really isn’t what you would call a good Chinese grocery store in our vicinity. Hell, there isn’t even a Chinese restaurant for 500 miles. So some of the spices and ingredients have been obtained during overseas trips to metropolitan areas with Asian populations large enough to keep Asian grocery stores in business. You need enough local consumer demand to sustain the industry that produces and supplies the exotic stuff.
Another one of the Korean ladies is wed to a laid-back Aussie. She explains her Korean pancake recipe in halting but enthusiastic English, with frequent vocabulary assistance from her husband. She also ventures some funny and racy anecdotes, supplementing the stories with hand gestures and Korean onomatopoeia. I wonder how she and her monolingual husband can really communicate complicated concepts to each other, but they seem happy enough together. Perhaps there are hand gestures enough to cover all marital eventualities. Maybe they agree to disagree via Babelfish. Slam doors and smash plates without Babelfish. Our hosts are another East-West combo meal. He’s European and she’s from Hong Kong. Her English is better than his. Both speak English fluently, but with noticeable accents. English is the third or fourth language for both of them.
Nowadays, I’m trying to learn Japanese again. So I hang out in Japanese chatrooms and try to decipher the glyphs that scroll past and occasionally venture my own simple sentences. (“おはよう。” Read. Read. Scroll down. Refer to dictionary. What was that he said about onigiri? Oh bugger, he’s leaving the chat. “お休み。” No doubt. Must have been boring talking to me.) I’ve been trying to learn Japanese for two decades now, but I have never been able to make the sustained effort to get really good. Maybe because Japanese was always optional for me. I have never HAD to learn. While we are all clustered around the island in the fragrant kitchen, our hostess presses the wrong thing on her complicated Japanese rice cooker and needs help finding the CANCEL button. The buttons are all in Japanese hiragana. I have no idea what any of the buttons mean. I press the orange button marked “とりけし” because orange is most likely to mean CANCEL. It works. Later on, Google tells me とりけし does indeed mean CANCEL. It is normally written with Kanji thusly: 取り消し, which our Hong Kong hostess would have been able to understand, being that the Kanji means the same thing in Chinese.
As I ride back home tonight on my scooter, I think of all the effort it must have taken the Korean lady to learn English. Even if you are lucky enough to have a total immersion environment or access to good training materials, you still must make the effort to learn. Otherwise the Anglophone world will always be something you see through a filter. (“More intensity!”) 20 years ago on the BBSes or on IRC, I met folks from a wide variety of geographic, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. All you needed was a phone line and a computer and an awareness that the nascent Net existed. First Contact novelty aside, it was pretty tedious to communicate with someone who could input only broken English text, and you felt the disappointment of seeing their IP and wishing they could tell you what it was like where they were. 20 years on, it’s still the same (except with webcams!). Translation tools are ubiquitous but imperfect. Even the great Babelfish still only gives you the gist, and the lack of language skills is still an impediment. IRC is still segregated along linguistic lines, and so is the web. You can’t interact in real time with someone unless you both speak the same language, even if it is geek speak.
Nearing home on my scooter, I pass a bunch of tourists clustered at the side of the road. They are slightly lost and are perplexedly comparing information on their smartphones. One of their number has used her iPhone to find directions on Google Maps. Unfortunately, this conflicts with the Mapquest directions that her fellow tourist has downloaded onto his Blackberry. They are standing directly underneath the sign for the restaurant that they are looking for but they have not looked up yet. I feel like that sometimes. So much data available to me, but I don’t make good use of it.
I try to keep learning because deep down I think it will make me a better person. Not just because of the knowledge gained, but because of the the fact I am still making an effort. More and more I find myself coasting along at a comfortable level, professionally speaking. The work is not unchallenging, but there has to be something more than this paycheck. (It’s a nice paycheck. Nothing to be sneezed at, as Terry Pratchett would put it, in such fearsome economic times.) But I do not want to look up five years from now and find myself doing exactly the same thing. I see too many people in my field going about their work all glassy-eyed with ennui. Isn’t that the definition of sheeple?
When I pull into my driveway and pull off my motorcycle helmet, I take my eyes off the road, I look up and I finally see that the sky is full of stars.