Monday, March 03, 2008

Our Man in Havana

A few months ago I happened to be standing on my own taking some photographs in the vicinity of the Nurimaru building in Haeundae, where the APEC summit was held in 2005. Because I was distracted, I didn't realise an ajeossi was talking to me until he'd repeated his introduction a second time, and after my blank, if not suspicious look elicited a third attempt which I struggled to understand, he finally asked me 'Do you speak English?'

Perhaps it's more of a pertinent question than my ajeossi imagined, because after living here for almost 18 months, the strictly correct answer may well be 'actually, not much any more', and certainly never to strangers who approach me in public. Now that's not to say people don't register my presence when I'm on the streets, and I do get a number of 'hello's, 'how are you?'s and 'hey man's - the latter presumably on the incorrect assumption that I am American - I'm not and a young alcohol-fuelled Korean's best Californian 'hey man' is normally about as understandable as whale-song, and can sound about the same. There is also, it has to be said, a great deal of discrete, and sometimes not so discrete, pointing. I suppose this is what you get for living in areas where you can walk around for days without seeing another foreigner.

I apologised and explained that I wasn't used to people speaking English to me, and then the second surprise came - 'You are British?' - but it was more of a statement than a question, and he'd evidently picked it up from my accent rather than the tired look in my eyes and my vaguely ill-at-ease posture. So it transpires that he's had dinner with the British Ambassador, and he tells me how he really likes my country while I stand there grinding my teeth because it apparently doesn't like me very much. I wonder whether to play along or let rip with what I really think about my experiences with the British Embassy and my country in general, and what he can tell the Ambassador to do next time he sees him. But instead I find myself muttering a diplomatically gracious 'thank you', promising myself it will be the last time I play ambassador to my country, even though it's a role which in reality I have little choice in fulfilling here, one way or another.

My new friend then goes on to explain how he's the boss of an import/export company and he hands me his business card. No, unfortunately I don't recognise the name. Do I teach here? No, I'm a stock market trader. Who do I work for? Myself - and that seemed to catch him out, even though I gather that there are quite a few private Korean traders too. But he's really interested, and wants me to tell him more about trading, even though by now his wife has emerged from a loitering position and is doing what a lot of wives do in such situations, which is turn into a human clock. Unperturbed, he presses me into an explanation of some basic trading principles, before asking for my phone number and when he could call me to talk more.

Well, at the time I mistakenly thought I'd probably be leaving Korea one way or another within the month, and I was a little bored, so I threw caution to the wind, and gave him the number before his wife pulled him away. It was certainly one of the stranger public encounters I've had here. He never did call which didn't particularly surprise me, and I didn't think much more about it; I'm always extremely busy and getting into a commitment of this kind could be bad.

Still, if I were the sort of person that happily settled into a routine I probably wouldn't have uprooted myself and come to live in Korea - recently I got bored with my work again and remembered the meeting with the company boss while I was figuring out reasons for getting out of the apartment, which I've been spending too long stuck inside of late. Retrospectively, knowing a little more about Korean culture now, I wondered whether I was actually supposed to call him, since I suppose I am his junior. He had made a quite a bit of fuss about his contact number on the business card after all, when I reflected on it. I guess I'll never know though.

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