Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Korean-Americans Can Speak Together in Korean If They Feel Like It

The world is full of ex-pats, short for ex-patriots, meaning people who take up residence in countries other than their native land. I, for example, am an ex-pat. I live in South East Asia, and it's been so long now that babies that were born the year that I left America are now in high school. I have achieved some facility with the language of my adopted country, but you wouldn't call it fluency. In fact, “my Thai, she's a broke.” I talk to natives all the time, and it usually goes okay. Sometimes not great, but usually okay. It takes a native that is willing to grace me with some patience and speak slowly so that I have any hope of keeping up. Luckily, my country of residence is full of such people, and I deeply appreciate their kindness and their hospitality.

America could learn a lot from my adopted country.

When I sit down for coffee at the local Dunkin Donuts with an American friend, we speak English. We are surrounded by natives, and no one seems to care, or even notice. It's not uncommon, after all, for people here to speak to each other in English. This is in Bangkok, so you might think that no one notices because Bangkok is a big, cosmopolitan city. It's true, there are so many foreigners here that hearing other languages is very common. Even in the countryside, though, it's not a problem. More people would notice, but they would notice out of a sense of interest. Just for entertainment, they might come over and ask a simple question in Thai. Not to test us so much as looking for an exciting opportunity to talk to a foreigner. Even in Bangkok, I get this from Taxi drivers all the time. When I explain where I'm going, in Thai and hitting most of the tones correctly, the drivers will often ask me a simple question to check my hearing comprehension. If I answer, they might smile and start a conversation. At the end of these rides, I sometimes wai (the Thai bow) and say, “thank you, teacher.” That gets a laugh. It's all very casual. Diversity is a fact of life here. Thailand has been a crossroads country for three thousand years.

Diversity is a fact of life in America, too, but somehow the message has not sunk in.

I saw a video very recently about someone yelling at two young women in a mall cafeteria because they were not speaking “American.” We've all seen these videos, “this is America! We speak American!” One of the women told the language police in perfect, native English that she was an American, and that she could speak English perfectly well, but she was Korean-American and her cousin was visiting the family from Korea. That's not enough for people anymore. The harangue went on. “We speak American here!” It's gotten so bad that many Americans are hostile to any fellow American who speaks more than one language. Like they must be spies or something.

More recently, my wife and I were having lunch in a small restaurant in our very diverse Bangkok neighborhood. (It's predominantly Thai Buddhist, but there are many mosques and many, many Thai and ex-pat Muslims in my neighborhood. It's been a Muslim neighborhood for over one hundred years.) We speak together in a combination of Thai and English, mostly English, to be fair. We go to this shop all the time, and no one has ever said anything, or seemed to notice. Certainly the owners and the staff don't care, because we always smile and say, “thank you!” and I always put a nice tip in the jar. The other day three men came in after us and they were speaking together in Korean. After glancing at the menu, which was in Thai, one of the men leaned over and very politely asked us about what we were having, because it looked delicious, and he also had a couple of questions about the menu. Koreans speak loudly, so there's no doubt that it's not Thai. Plus, one fellow was speaking to me in English. Still, no one even looks up.

I see videos from time to time that end with, “go back to your own country!” or, “go back where you came from!” I've seen and read about incidents where some “American patriot” will randomly demand to see proof that someone who appears foreign “belongs here.” In fifteen years in Thailand I've never heard anything remotely like that sentiment.

There is an ill will towards foreigners growing in America, and it is nurtured by political groups and religious organizations who wish to drive wedges between Americans who may have slight variations in their backgrounds. This ill will is directed not only towards actual foreigners, aliens with or without visas, but also towards American citizens who may speak more than one language, who may be recent arrivals or the children of recent arrivals, or it may be directed at established groups of American citizens like black Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, or, through some bizarre misapprehension, Indian Americans (not to be confused with American Indians, who are also still persecuted). The guilty political groups want votes, which they will trade for money. The guilty religious groups want money and political power. In the meantime, gullible Americans are making total assholes of themselves, usually while someone is filming them with a cell phone. It's sickening.

America really does have a lot to learn from Thailand on this subject. Thais are a very diverse people who live comfortably under the umbrella of Thai language and culture. The same could be said of America, except for the comfortable part. The coastal states, and the Blue states in general, make a good show of accepting diversity. But the great heartland of America can't even get along with their racial and religious equivalents in the Blue states. Those Red state people, and, to be fair, many people in Blue states, seem to hate everybody!

This is a terrible situation, and there's no quick fix for it. Maybe we should consider electing politicians who will try to make things better, not worse.

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