When everyone around me speaks Korean I find it easy for my thoughts to drift towards other things, even though I should be listening and trying to learn. It gets tiring and whether it's just the summer-induced fatigue getting to me, age or simply laziness, my concentration's not what it used to be. So on the very rare occasions when someone unexpected speaks English to me, I often react - if indeed I'm sufficiently tuned in to react at all - with the kind of special look I normally reserve for the times when I find something unpleasant under the fridge.
So when the guy behind the counter at a 7-Eleven or similar convenience store asked "Is there anything I can help you with sir?", there was a moment when the two Koreans I was with suddenly looked up from staring at the snacks and furtively glanced in different directions trying to ascertain where this disembodied non-Korean voice had come from. I remained largely oblivious to the development until the voice tried again. This time he finally got my attention.
And thus began my bi-monthly 'are you a teacher?' conversation, to which replying no invariably results in looks of disbelief and confusion, and occasionally the accusatory face of someone who believes you are lying on the quite reasonable grounds that almost every Westerner in Busan is here for that purpose - officially at least. It probably does not help that due to the heat I am sporting the latest in dishevelled I-am-5000-miles-away-from-my-wardrobe teacher fashion along with a spaced-out look normally associated with drink, drugs or in my case, extreme boredom.
So I am not a teacher and I am not here on holiday and actually I live here although obviously this seems an unlikely story because I clearly can't speak much Korean, and I could mention that I'm a stock market trader but that either raises more questions than it answers, or results in expressions even blanker than mine probably is, and as for that whole business with living here because my government's conspired to keep me from going back home do you really want to know or does that sound even more unbelievable? Are you with the Underground Railroad? No? Then what is there to say?
It was pointed out to me afterwards that he probably wanted to practice his English, but after almost a year of being embedded in Korean society I realise I have all but lost my ability to make small-talk in my native language, and amidst the cultural isolation, possibly much of the sense of my self-identity as well. Nevertheless, two months from now, when my next unexpected English conversation takes place, I must do better, if only for the sake of someone else's language practice.
Korean tags: 영어, 연습, 심심하다