Friday, October 15, 2010

Navigating in Seoul: Manila Times column for 14 Oct 2010

Navigating in Seoul


On a long, cramped car ride out of Seoul, I began to have a strange relationship with the GPS.

I had not been long in Korea at all, but noted that every vehicle I had ridden in had been equipped with a global positioning system. They seemed less a novelty than a necessity. And this one could talk. There were seven of us in the car—our driver, four Danes (an illustrator, a writer, a publisher and a graphic designer), myself (the eternal learner) and our guide. The eighth entity was the GPS—a cool yet urgent female voice delivering what seemed to be the same set of syllables every few seconds, as we negotiated the twists and turns from Seoul’s city center to the highway north. In a little while, this invisible woman was driving us crazy.

We were bound for Nami Island, a 4.6 square kilometer resort in a tributary of the Han River. It is hard to define Nami Island in one word: a resort with hotels and lodges, yes, but also a nature park organized around the idea of creativity. Nami recently opened a year-long children’s book festival and the Danes, all playing roles in the creation and publishing books for young readers, were among the guests.

We moved from the extremely modern, well-spaced commercial center (one of them, perhaps— Seoul is a sprawling city with some 15 million inhabitants) into districts that astonished one of the Danes by the sheer number of storefronts lining the streets. Small restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores—the small-scale commerce that characterizes most of Asia. I myself noted the cleanliness, austerity and organization of even these smaller districts, the people in spare gray and black, and of course the shopping—a street market tucked between two city blocks, the coats and shoes set neatly out on the sidewalk.

To the GPS, this cityscape was a system of turns and advances, all of which had to be announced. The robot voice dominated the car. It was, in those first moments, all nonsense.

When you are new in a place, one of the hardest things to deal with is language. Food, music, clothing—all can be negotiated. This must be because globalization has led to a range of familiar products everywhere. As for the discomfort caused by racial or physical differences, that can be overcome—thanks to the media we have seen every type of human being there is on earth, and take our basic humanity as a given. But language! People are conditioned to pay attention to signs, to the human voice. When the signs are unreadable, the voices incomprehensible, we have to negotiate mostly through context and non-verbal cues. But few of us are so saintly. I think the human tendency is to give it all up as gibberish, dig oneself in and ponder the weirdness of the Other.

The International Phonetics Association has devised a method of transcribing the different sounds of human speech, a method that can be used consistently with every language. It had been years since I’d taken a course in phonetics but, listening to the GPS, I found myself unearthing all those transcription signs I’d memorized, then put away.

Ok, I thought. I hear the same syllable over and over, following a number of vowels that occur without pattern. In this syllable, I hear: a plosive (sounds like a p), a front vowel (like an ae) and then a nasal consonant, like an ng but so elusive I’m not sure if it’s the robotic quality of the recording that makes it so. This syllable occurs as often as “Please” would in polite English. Does it function as a polite imperative? Am I transposing my own English practices to a Korean sentence? Do I have a choice? Is Korean a tonal language? I hear tonal shifts but do they denote emotion, or word meaning?

And so on and so on, interrogating myself and the machine, until the cityscape gave way to highway and there were terraced mountains and rice fields on either side.

At some point, I discovered that our “guide,” a young man in a neat gray business suit, was in fact a US-trained lawyer and one of the sons of the owners of the Nami corporation: he ran the head office in the commercial district of Insadong. We were privileged guests, indeed. And as our conversation developed, pooled into two-person eddies, then broadened out again to include everyone in the car, the GPS was forgotten.

Later that day, telling my husband the children’s book publisher about the experience, I was ecstatic and self-congratulatory: I was taking steps toward genuine cultural understanding, I had made the first furtive efforts to crack Korean! Why didn’t people take a more scientific approach to the unknown?

As for him, the GPS had nearly driven him up the wall. To survive he had clung to his sense of humor: instead of my plosives and diphthongs, he had been listening for only one word, again and again, reminding him of his pet peeve, my favorite vice: “Ebay.”


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