The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language

This morning is a Saturday, and Saturdays are always a tough day to write a blog post. I dug through my purse to find my external hard drive, hoping that going over some old pictures would spark something that I could use. I quickly realized that I’d accidentally left my external hard drive at work and there would be no access to photographs until Monday. Shucks.

So, I headed over to the Daily Post, who has been posting different prompts for NaBloPoMo writers everyday. Most of these have been much more geared towards personal blogs, and I haven’t had a chance to use a single one yet. But the most recent prompt was a strike of luck. It read:

You get to choose one superpower. Pick one of these, and explain your choice:

– the ability to speak and understand any language
– the ability to travel through time
– the ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, as a travel/expat blogger, I’m sure you can guess which one of these superpowers I would choose. Time travel, obviously! Jokes. No, I’m convinced that being able to speak and understand any language would be the ultimate superpower, for a myriad of reasons. I’m going to tell you about each and every one of them

Easier & Carefree Travel

This is a pretty obvious benefit. You could literally go anywhere in the world and find a place to sleep, eat and sightsee with minimal effort. Your safety automatically doubles, because if you’re lost you can ask for help, you can get warnings ahead of time about unsafe areas of the region and you are more likely to talk yourself out of any potentially bad situations. You can ask about bigger towels at some tiny, cheap motel and you can read the street signs in the area. Learning the language in a country you’ll be traveling in just makes everything, all around, way better.

A good Spanish word to learn is "Peligro", which means danger. Which is also not something you'd expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.
A good Spanish word to learn is “Peligro”, which means danger. Which is also not something you’d expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.

Hear People’s Stories

Sit down with your hostel owner and a cup of coffee and learn about his family, how he came to open a hostel, what makes him happy in life. Ask the person next to you on the plane where they’re going and what they do for a living. See an elderly Jewish grandmother in Germany and be able to listen to, understand and learn from her experiences in World War II. Ask a little girl what her favorite color is, her favorite book is and whether she has any younger siblings. People are fascinating and they have incredible stories to tell, especially those that live a different life than you. And from people like that, there are endless amounts to learn.

Always Find A Job

This reason is a bit superficial, but you instantly have job security. If you’re ever, and I mean ever, unemployed, speaking rare, difficult languages will solve your problem and quickly. Where there isn’t a translation position (which there always is), there are other corporate positions that just need someone to relay information between two global units of the same company. Talk about breathing easy!

Secret Eavesdropping

Oh, the things people say to each other when they’re alone… or think that no one can understand them. This one is especially lucrative, because you can always pretend you don’t speak a native language and hear both sides of a negotiation. Of course, this also comes with a downside: people say stupid, annoying things all the time. You’ll never again have the illusion that people abroad are less obsessed with the superficial than people in your country.

This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I'm happy not to eavesdrop on.
This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I’m happy not to eavesdrop on.

Insane Dreams

Have you ever had one of those bilingual dreams, where one person is speaking English and then in your dream you’re trying to come up with the German words for your response? And then French or Korean or Spanish comes out of nowhere and you wake up super confused? No? Just me? Well, if you can fluently speak and understand every language, everywhere, then you’re going to have some absolutely crazy dreams. That’s pretty cool.

Better Informed

You know when the news only reports one side of an international story? You know when all the newspapers all say the same thing, because there was only one person who was able to translate the Cantonese and that exact translation is the same source for every TV station? Speaking every language would put an end to these limited information scenerios. You could tune into foreign broadcasts, read the newspaper in Spain and even shoot out an email to a contact in Ghana. You would be the best-informed person around.

LEARN spanish travel informed
Learning Spanish means you can read about news in all of South America, from South American sources. That’s pretty valuable.

I’m going to let out a little of my teacher side, now. While it’s probably impossible to learn all of the 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the entire world, it’s totally possible to cultivate a little slice of this superpower. Just by virtue of being able to read this, you’re already able to communicate with nearly 10% of the entire world (a little over half of those people speak English as a second language). If you learn Mandarin, just one second language, you’ve just upped your percentage to 20-25%, depending on that ESL overlap. If you learn Spanish, with 406 million native speakers, you’ve just racked up another 5% of the world with whom you can have a conversation, not adding in second language learners.

You see what I’m saying here? You can actually have 1/4th of a superpower, if you want. Yeah, it’ll take a few years of hard work and looking like a fool (with your pants on the ground! Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And true, it’s not something you can mindlessly do, you’ll have to put in the time and effort. But you could have one fourth of a superpower! Isn’t that awesome?

That’s why I’ve written a language resource page for Korean and shared other updates on my life, while studying other languages. If other people are inspired to study a foreign language, then they are actively making their own lives better. I’ve experienced these benefits firsthand and they are real. They are significant.

And for me, all of those reasons are what keep me going in my own language studies, be it German, Spanish or now Korean. It’s always, always been worth it. And I can promise it would be for you, too.

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The Characters of Sambong

In a small town, it’s a given that you’ll see some people more than a few times and learn their face, even if you don’t know their name. In a teeny tiny rural Korean town with three roads, it’s even worse (or better?). There are some people that I see every single day, doing the same things, while I do the same things. Sometimes they talk to me, sometimes we just pass each other by with a head-nod of acknowledgement and sometimes it’s a new face, doing the same things the other old, similar face was doing. It’s kind of a weird way of life, but the people that live in my town are the pillars of my existence, in a sense. They make Sambong, my little town, what it is. They color my experience with entertainment and wonderment, causing me to simultaneously scratch my head and laugh hysterically in public.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the characters, the faces, the Korean people of Sambong.

The Exercising Ajumma

Every morning I wake up earlier than the crack of dawn to run with my puppy. I walk to the school track and in the dark morning, through the darkness I always look for the moving shadow. The exercising ajumma is often the same woman, but sometimes a new face appears to do the exact same thing. She does a brisk walk for about 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, and then does strange stretches for another five minutes before disappearing into the new daylight. Her signature stretch is arms raised in a V-shape above her head, holding a scarf taught between them, and twisting to either side. Another favorite is what I like to call the almost-falling-backward-onto-the-bed stretch, where she leans backwards, arms stretched out, as far as she can without falling over and holds the position. Do these stretches actually stretch? I’m not sure. But I would never question her.

The Avid Golfer

About ten minutes into my morning exercise routine, the avid golfer usually arrives. In his mid forties, he comes to the track in his running gear and with a golf club in hand. (I’m totally serious, this guy is real.) He does the same series of exercises: alternating between a brisk walk with the golf club, a (very) short jog with the golf club, some stretching with the golf club and then actually using the golf club for its intended purposes, by doing swinging practice in the nearby sand pit. His reasons for exercising at all are crystal clear.

This is what you've been missing in your exercise routine.
This is what you’ve been missing in your exercise routine.

The Gung-ho Crossing Guard

On one of the three roads in town sits my school and while there is some traffic in the morning, I’m not entirely convinced of the need for a crossing guard. Regardless, he is there every morning, bright and early, in his neon vest and military-style hat. He takes his job extremely seriously, swinging his stiff arms in quick succession; signifying to cars that yes, they may pass, even if no students are in sight, let along trying to cross the road. He reminds me of a robot, on occasion. As I walk closer to him on my way to work each morning, he swings his arm sharply up to his forehead into a salute, and yells “Good morning!”

The Farming Neighbor

This elderly man was clearly hot stuff back in the day, based on his charming smile and confident swag. I don’t see him everyday, but on the stretch of road between home and school, he sometimes walks around his fields or checks on piles of garlic (or potatoes or cabbage) that need to be sorted out for selling. When I see him, he smiles that devious old man smile, waves hello, asks about a random work in English (“pumpkin!”) or just gives up the facade and makes arm hearts at me.

The Sober Laborer

Korea has a bit of a social epidemic on their hands: all the women move to the city and all the men working menial jobs are left in the country, wife-less and bored. I live in a building of one-room apartments, which I’m sure you can imagine attracts exactly this kind of 40-year-old man. The sober laborer is many people who all do the same thing; they smoke, they wear their construction vest, and they stand outside between 6:10-6:25am waiting for the bus to work. All of them say hello to me, as if we’ve talked, because hey… there’s only one foreign girl with a dog in the area. They adore Mary, and frequently use her as an in to ask me weird questions that I don’t understand.

The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.
The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.

The Drunk Laborer

The drunk laborer usually appears outside of restaurants on Saturday and Sunday mornings, though occasionally he appears outside my apartment having a Saturday/Sunday picnic on the rolling table. He says things like “beautiful!” “pretty!” or the classic, “foreigner!” He adores my dog even more than usual. Last week the drunk laborer even gave me arm hearts, although usually he just slurs his words or stumbles down the road, going nowhere with a lit cigarette in hand. By evening, he’s ironically nowhere to be seen.

The Student Terrified of Dogs

Some students like puppies, but other students have this deep seeded, unexplainable terror for animals in general. As I approach, the student terrified of dogs will give Mary a wary eye, and as I get closer they’ll shy a little behind their friend, towards the street, away from me. When I get close and I let Mary sniff their feet (because I’m a jerk!), the student terrified of dogs inevitably lets out a high pitched scream, runs sideways or backwards off the sidewalk and never takes (usually) her eyes off of the scary, biting and drooling, flesh ripping thing that is my ten month old, ten pound puppy.

TERRIFYING.
TERRIFYING.

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Photoessay: People Creeping in Germany

I think people are fascinating. Anytime I have a chance to stare, unhindered and undiscovered for more than a minute, I rejoice in it. I don’t like to judge people for what they’re doing necessarily, and I don’t only stare at weirdos (though that’s always interesting). I just find humans, in general, to be so fascinating. The way someone drinks their coffee, carries their bag, avoids or hops over a big crack in the sidewalk.

So obviously, if you give me a camera, I’m gonna take some creepy photographs of people around me. It’s just inevitable. I had a great time photographing people in Germany during my last vacation, of course often without their knowledge. Occasionally I got caught. It was cool, no one paid mind really. And at the end of the day, I’m happy with my creeping (creepy?) results. What do you think?

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Berlin, Germany
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Oops, you caught me. Hello. Berlin, Germany.
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Creeping on a serious family moment in Lübeck, Germany.
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Berlin, Germany
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Can’t even rest on a bench without me sneaking up with a camera, man. Berlin, Germany.
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This man is not impressed with Berlin. Or maybe just the construction directly to his left (not pictured).
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Here’s a tip: pretend you’re taking a photograph of postcards. Berlin, Germany.
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Posing for one photo, ended up in two. Berlin, Germany.
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Yes, I started early: in the airport on the way to Germany.
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How am I supposed to not take a picture of this adorable little man?! Lübeck, Germany.
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Creepin: hipster biker addition. Berlin, Germany.
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Berlin, Germany.
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Waiting for the bus? You’re still not safe from my camera.
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The lighting was too perfect not to. Berlin, Germany.
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Camera takes a picture of the camera takes a picture of some chick with dreads in Berlin, Germany.
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Oops, you’re blinking and you don’t even know I took a picture. Munich, Germany.
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Capturing a solemn moment in the Jewish memorial of Berlin, Germany.
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At first glance, I couldn’t even tell this sleepy kiddo was breathing at all. Thankfully, she was simply dead tired. Berlin, Germany.
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Sorry I creeped your personal, religious moment. Leipzig, Germany.
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Leipzig, Germany.
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I couldn’t help but stare because that ice cream looks DELICIOUS. And they didn’t even leave leftovers. Leipzig, Germany.
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I think I believe in karma now.

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Opposite Travel Styles, Claudia, and Berlin

Not everyone has the same travel style. In fact, even people in love may not necessarily travel well together. When I told Claudia that I’d be in Berlin and we worked out that she’d join me for about a week in Berlin, this wasn’t on my mind. I didn’t think about it. I was just excited to see Claudia after five years and a week with her sounded wonderful, no matter what the circumstances.

And it was. We met at the hostel and exchanged hugs right away. We shared a lot of delicious cocktails outside, took some long walks and generally had a great time in Berlin together. But it wasn’t all cake and champagne, because as we found out within 24 hours, we are complete opposites when it comes to planning. It had me worrying at first. We were supposed to have an amazing week as old friends. How were we going to do this?

Back in the day.
Back in the day.

I’m the kind of traveler that may or may not purchase the Lonely Planet guide ahead of time. I don’t have a list of things I’d like to see ahead of time. My research is kept to a bare minimum and involves mentally adding to a list things people ask if I’ve seen. I’ll sometimes put one thing on my to-see list and spend the better part of the remaining day just wandering the area and finding things to do on my way. I’ll go out of my way to find a highly recommended restaurant. The method to my madness is simply to feel the pulse of a city for a moment. If I feel hungry, I’ll eat, if I’m tired, I’ll go sleep, no matter how much of my mental to-see list was completed. Sometimes this works out really well and I see everything I should, other times I completely miss a huge, iconic part of the city. (Although regardless, I always have a nice time.)

Claudia plans. She had her guidebook, she had read and highlighted things she’d like to visit. She will not stop for the evening until everything is completed and she’ll hurry through one place to make sure that she gets to the next before it closes. She thinks about travel times and knows which bus to take before she gets to the bus stop. She’s prepared and ready for each day before it begins, treating it as a series of things to be conquered. And she does it well, very well. Better yet, I can tell she enjoys it. In the time that we were in Berlin, she managed to fit in a crazy amount of sightseeing. I was impressed.

But we are completely, 200%, 180 degrees different when it comes to planning our time while traveling. Both styles are fine, nice ways to vacation in a new city, but are they compatible?

Our first couple days were a trial. She’d ask me what I want to do and I’d give a noncommittal shrug and say “whatever you want!” This probably drove her crazy, since it was her second time in Berlin and she wanted to make sure I was having a nice vacation; I wouldn’t be back in Berlin anytime soon. Then it would be dinner time, I would get hungry and point out an obscure restaurant some friend on Tumblr told me about with not very exact directions. We’d be on our way to the S-Bahn stop and she would want to sit and figure out our public transportation before boarding the street car, I’d prefer to jump on, head downtown and figure out the exact route while on our way. Claudia loves pizza, I like meaty burritos. Claudia is a vegetarian.

Talk about opposites.

Claudia, planning things.
Claudia, planning things.

But slowly, as the afternoons passed, we somehow figured out how to accommodate each other. She started making her plans and telling me about them, I decided whether I would join or not, or for how long. I let her figure out all of the public transportation ahead of time. She came along when there was something delicious nearby, and I tried to find places in the area from other places she might be more interested in. I quickly learned that Claudia probably wasn’t going to eat the same thing that I wanted, but I should just eat it anyways and then sit through her meal, later. By the end, we were splitting up entirely, but agreed to meet for dinner or drinks at a certain time. When we went to Potsdam, she elected to do a group bus tour and I did an audio guided solo bike tour, instead. We met up afterwards and talked about the things each of us saw (or missed), each of us having enjoyed the tour and also happy to be able to discuss it afterwards.

By giving and taking, doing some things together and plenty of things separate, being clear about what each of us undoubtedly wanted to see or do (or in my case, eat!), we smoothed over the rough patches that inevitably come while traveling with your complete travel planning opposite. The benefit for me of seeing Berlin with Claudia was that she forced me to be a bit more organized than I might have been otherwise, which meant that I saw more of the city. I may have never made it to Potsdam if it weren’t for Claudia, but Potsdam was one of my favorite areas of Berlin. She pushed me to be more efficient, even if I did want to knock her over while she made us run for the subway. I really hate running to catch any kind of train.

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This would have been the perfect moment to knock her over, but instead I just took some pictures.

And I’m sure that she wanted to toss me into oncoming traffic more than a few times as I said, “Eh, it won’t take 30 minutes, probably just 25. We don’t have to leave right now,” or “It doesn’t really matter to me, you can decide,” and “Yeah, I don’t know what my plans are for the morning yet,” ten minutes before bed.

But somehow we did it and still had a great time. We shared cocktails galore, lots of bakery stops in the morning, museum after museum after museum and the joys (terrors) of staying in a party hostel with an actual club outside the window. My last evening in Berlin I spent alone, she’d already flown out, and it was a little quiet and strange. I had a glass of wine outside and endured an hour of a sudden, huge thunderstorm underneath the restaurant umbrella. As the rain came down hard and the wind whipped drops all over my table, I thought to myself that it was a moment I would have liked to have shared. With Claudia.

The final cocktail before she flew home.
The final cocktail before she flew home. Sad day.

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A Reason I Travel: The Good of Humanity

I live in a small town. It’s located in the countryside, the sticks, the middle of nowhere. Everyone here knows each other at least by name, if not also by face. Most have grown up here and never left. The population of >2000 is seriously lacking in women between the ages of 20-30. On the contrary, it’s full of single blue-collar middle-aged men who work at nearby industrial sites.

So at all times, I stick out like cranky babies on airplanes, like a fox in the grocery store, like Paris Hilton at the library. Everywhere I go, people stare at me. I could wear a huge hat, sunglasses, pull my hair up to hide the blonde, wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt that covers all inches of my body… but people would still know. They’re that good. They see a waygook from a mile away. Continue reading A Reason I Travel: The Good of Humanity