In other words

Last Sunday, I went to Staines [a neighbour town] with Sri to run some errands. On our way back, we took a bus. I paid for both tickets as I happened to have enough coins – one for myself up to the college and one for him two stops before mine. When I was about to get off in front of the campus, the driver asked everyone to have their tickets ready for inspection. That’s when I realised that I had given mine to Sri and I kept the cheaper ticket with me. I’ve been living here for more than 4 years and it was the first time the driver asked for tickets. Story of my life. I remained positive, however, as I thought that with only a few passengers on and off the bus at that time of a Sunday evening, the driver might recall me getting on 10 minutes before and confusing him by paying two different fares.

When I approached to him and about to explain what had happened, “Excuse me” was as far as I could get. He started to yell at me that I should be fined for the ‘offence’ I committed. After a little while of scolding, he eventually cooled down a bit and said he would let me off only this time with a charge of the discrepancy (for the two stops) instead of fining me £10 or so, but insisted that I promise that I would ‘never do it again’.

I must admit I was quite taken aback. I understand you might say he was doing his job by the book. Still, all the way from the bus stop to home, I was sobbing like a little girl. Luckily, there was no one around on campus on a cold and misty Sunday evening. I rushed back home, had a good cry and gradually calmed down. Then I started to reflect upon why I cried. I am not saying that I never cry. (Well, I cannot never; I’m my mum’s daughter, aren’t I?) It’s just that after landing on the wrong side of thirty, I have a principle that as a lady I don’t cry without a roof over my head.

The most immediate reason I could think of was that it hurt my pride – my only pride of being a good citizen. Comparable to Foucault’s idea of self-surveillance, Confucianism teaches the importance of “watchfulness over oneself when one is alone” (愼獨: shendu in Chinese, shindok in Korean). To put it another way, even if it had been an automated bus without a driver nor a CCTV, my thoroughly Confucian self still would have paid a correct fare.

One thought led to another and got me to wonder whether in that case I would have been equally upset if there had been no other passengers but just the driver and myself. To be frank with you, perhaps a bit less. I suspect the reason why I was that upset might have been that I didn’t articulate my defence better and I therefore let the others on the bus believe that I was at criminal fault. So, was that more about how I must have looked to others? Me and my ‘face’ culture?

I became all intrigued by the mechanism behind crying. However, after a long reflection, I realised that what I was most unhappy about was not the incident itself but that I cannot explain why I cried in the language I currently have to speak. There are so many adjectives or adjectival verbs in my native language that would describe how I felt at the moment of being yelled at. Off the top of my head, I can name at least four. I was 분하고, 억울하고, 서럽고, 노여웠다.

A Korean-English dictionary would say the first two words mean ‘chagrined’, the third one ‘sad’ and the last one ‘indignant’, but none of these are exactly how I felt. There are no mot-à-mot equivalents to those words in English. The yelling was perhaps uncalled for, but I acknowledged, and regretted, that the whole thing started off from my own mistake of keeping the wrong ticket. So, it was a multi-layered emotion. If I described, however, that I was 분하고, 억울하고, 서럽고, 노여웠노라고, all my Korean-speaking friends would immediately know what the situation was like and how I must have felt.

How does this matter? Am I implying that one language is more sophisticated than another? Hell no. My belief is that languages, like any other cultural artefacts, cannot be compared with one another. (This is why I despise it when people state something like “French is the most romantic language in the world because all the nasal sounds make it melodious”, but this is a topic for another post some other time.)

What intrigued me on this occasion is that some languages have particularly rich vocabularies on certain aspects of life while other languages pay closer attention to other aspects. It should be no surprise, for example, that the Korean language has to have dozens of different words for chili-based flavours (although it is an urban legend that the Eskimos have as many as 400 words for snow). This is why interlingual translation is never a straightforward business. Some single words have to be expressed in other languages using many words. For example, yakamoz in Turkish means ‘the reflection of the moon in water’ and oppholdsvær in Norwegian means ‘a weather just after the rain has stopped’. Hmmm, don’t I sound like Susie from the dictionary corner of Countdown? If you are into this sort of thing, there are nice books like <They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases> and <In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World>, but this is beside the point.

I have always been sympathetic to linguistic relativists like Sapir and Whorf, who have postulated that the language we speak not only reflects but also affects our view of the world. I’m perhaps reading too much into this whole bus ticket incident, but I am now even more convinced that the language does frame how people think. Developed from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, my take is that brought up in the Korean language, I seem to have been trained to be particularly sensitive about social situations like the one that I encountered last Sunday, which was why it was particularly hard for me to take it lightly.

4 thoughts on “In other words

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