Learning Korean With Noisy Salesmen
When I first came to Korea, I had very few expectations about moving abroad. With only a few expectations based on nothing at all Korean, I ended up making many assumptions along the way.
Assumptions aren’t always bad. It depends what you do after making assumptions that can be bad. Luckily for me, after awhile, I fell into a group of Koreans that were quick to show me the err in my ways or just to educate the silly foreigner. The education has proven immeasurable and also has given me many funny stories along the way.
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One of the more humorous confusions came early on…
I kept hearing these very noisy loudspeaker voices filling the air with words that I couldn’t understand at all. Growing up in a suburb in Ohio, I had nothing I could possibly relate this to and imagined it was some city-style of spreading news akin to, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” Consider that I also lived in a part of Seoul near an air base and there’s apparently no law like there is in the States about breaking the sound barrier over residential areas so I kept hearing booms as well. I imagined, in this still-at-war country, they were saying things like, “just practicing”, “don’t worry, preparing for battle”, “breaking the sound barrier today at 4PM”. It was weeks or maybe months later when I was crossing the street that I realized what was actually going on.
Sitting just next to the crosswalk hawking some bananas and other fruit suddenly out from this loudspeaker atop the front of the truck I heard very clearly, “banana, blah, blah blah” and then there it was again, “banana, blah, blah blah”. I couldn’t understand everything that was being said but because banana is banana (바나나) in Korean, I quickly realized this truck was just listing what he was selling in a very loud manner so that all could hear. I laughed at myself as I crossed the street and started trying to tune in a bit more to the other noisy “news” I’d been hearing in the mornings.
“Mango, banana, tomato” (망고, 바나나, 토마토).
All of the words that are the same in Korean suddenly started to become clear and I realized the news was the kind for fruit and veggie loving consumers in the area.
In Korea, farmers will drive in to the city with trucks full of everything from fruits and veggies to fish and they drive through the neighborhoods with loud speakers on full blast telling you what they have so that you can run out and purchase the goods.
Fast forward a couple years and I’m still listening closely as these noisy drive-bys occur. By now I’ve gotten used to the food selling kind of trucks and am realizing there are even more raucous trucks out there making the rounds. There’s a guy that sharpens your knives and the guy from the coast selling seafood and fish, for example. I’ve taken some Korean classes but nothing super serious and I hear through my open window, “naengjango, compyutuh, kotakchi.. ssamnida” (냉장고, 컴퓨터, 코탁치 삽니다). Having taught small children that are of course humored by body parts, smells and the things we produce, I recognized that last word immediately. Snot! Booger! ((Pat myself on the back.)) A couple seconds later and I’m wondering why on earth this guy would be yelling about his nasal issues to everyone that was forced to listen. He’s not selling them obviously… is he some sort of driving clinic? What is he talking about?
Honey, did you just hear that?
Why is that guy yelling about his runny nose?
What are you talking about?
That guy outside through the loudspeaker. See! There it is again! Kotakchi!
He isn’t saying kotakchi.
That’s what I heard.
He’s saying “saetakgi”.
I don’t know what that is. It sounds like he’s saying “kotakchi” to me.
If you don’t know what “saetakgi” is, then of course you think it sounds like “kotakchi”.
Yes, it’s “kotakchi”.
No, it isn’t!
After that for many months it was a joke between us. We’d go into truck salesman voice and repeat the sentence over and over. Of course my friends found it funny as well. The guy was actually trying to buy old fridges, computers and other electronic goods that people didn’t need anymore to recycle them.
When your vocabulary is relatively small in another language, any word you hear becomes whatever it most closely resembles in the relatively small vocabulary that you have and saetakgi (세탁기) had a similar ending sound and that was enough for me.