Babel: How Racism Can Build Bridges

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Andrew Sullivan posted this hilarious clip from a Brit named Catherine Tate, somebody or other. Never heard of her. Don’t watch telly, you know, cuz I’m so cerebral. It cracked me up, aside from her comedic skills, because it reminded me of one of those ‘signifigant emotional event’ deals I had as a young adult.

I was originally trained as a Korean linguist during my GI days (USAF, of course.). In the beginning of our year long language training, we had a Mrs. Ahn, who was amazing but so serious. Koreans, like most Asians, take education beyond seriously. She was sweet but for six months, six hours a day that woman never sat down and never stopped moving around the classroom to interact with us and try physically to implant her love for her language into our thick skulls. That’s how hard core, albeit maternal and loving, she was. If you’re out there Mrs. Ahn, you da bomb. That poor woman, trying not to laugh, or die of shock, when we’d use the levels of politeness she’d just taught us to happily address her as if she were either a child or a shoeshine boy when a teacher is all but a god in Asia. Or when we’d try to wheedle the names of body parts out of her (she never broke) or free style sentences like “There’s a land mine in my pocket.”

Come the halfway point, we survivors (seriously high attrition rate) graduated to this cool dude young Korean guy (Dr. Lee) as a teacher and encouraged him to let us waste time in all sorts of ways. He’d practice his English on us (it was excellent, much better than ours, but he was trying to get better still) and we spent our time trying to get him to teach us curse words.

One day at lunch, one of us (Army of course.) had been making fun of how ‘Asians’ talk, you know, the horrible stuff—‘ping pong ching long one ah-dah poke flied lice’. When we got back to class, somehow we were determined to find out how ‘Asians’ made fun of (American) English. It took a long time to make him understand what we were asking, but when he finally did – and could take nomore of our goading – his face became gleeful and he let loose. The gist was that, to at least that Korean, Americans sound something like this: sharl, sharl, sharl. There was more but that was the basic idea.

It was such a weird moment. We were so impressed, I don’t know why, I guess to see our mighty selves in the eyes of a (then) Third Worlder. With our encouragement, he got so into it, he went on for a long time, making all sorts of arrogant facial gestures and flinging his hands all over, I think showing how much space Americans take up, how much attention we demand. How we silence others. I do believe we, who were mostly minorities either by race or class, witnessed another minority’s catharsis that day.

Anyway, we all ended up rolling around laughing, in shock really, at how insults had bridged a chasm in every direction—between the American races and between Americans and Koreans. GIs are so weird—this brought us all closer together, one scrawny Korean guy and ten over fed, but still working class Americans learning to do their part for the Cold War.

It was 1980 and I was about to leave America, not to mention the American ghetto, for the first time. I went on to spend two years in Korea, and more in other parts of the Third World, wondering how many locals saw me lording it around their country in my fancy uniform. Sharl, sharl, sharl.


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