It was mid-November in 2012, and the days were growing colder in Milan. The cold breeze signalled the impending arrival of winter and the encroachment of the day in which I would have to go back to Toronto. Long past seemed the days under the hot Tuscan sun in the month of August in Siena, in which cold weather seemed like a foreign concept in the dry and cloudless weather. At that particular moment, the cold was not foremost in my mind, as I was soon due to leave to majestic Paris.
Paris may seem like an eventual destination for an exchange student in Europe. One of Europe’s great capitals with a worldwide recognition and reputation for culture and beauty, it experiences innumerable tourists annually, who wish to have a taste of a fantasised Parisian life. Cities like Budapest and Shanghai have been given titles like the “Paris of the East” or the “Paris of the Orient” respectively, as if Paris holds the absolute measure of a beautiful city. To contrast, no one would dare call Paris the “Shanghai of West” or compare Paris at all in such a manner. There is a unique romantic mystique associated with the name Paris that prevents the demeaning suggestion of such titles. Perhaps all this is just speaking from a North American point of view, but Paris can only be described as Paris.
Despite Paris being Paris, it was not a location that was originally on my list of places to go to. I was very happy in Italy and enjoyed the culture and the lifestyle. Most of the travelling I did was to Italian cities. It felt like every new Italian city I visited was a puzzle piece which helped me piece together a greater understanding of the country. Ironically, with more pieces came a realization that the picture was exponentially larger than I thought.
However, there was a French friend I wished to visit in Paris. We had met two years prior in the summer of 2010 in Seoul. We were studying in the same Korean language program. He developed an interest in Korean culture due to his Korean girlfriend. Being a relatively cheap and short flight, I took the opportunity to go see him.
There is always an emotion that is part anxiety and part anticipation when seeing a friend that you have not seen for a long time. Change is always happening to people, and you are not certain whether the previous connection you and the friend once shared still holds. Change is particularly prevalent for people in their 20s, who still are going through a period of many decisions. Add the fact that you have also changed as well, and we get a further compounded problem. Maybe it is just the physical features that are the remnants of an old friendship, and the feeling of comfort you get along with the familiar face, which is a solid, physical affirmation of a previous shared connection. Maybe this feeling of ease is the most fundamental glue in a friendship, with the rest being details that are whisked off with the passing of time.
When we met at Crimée Station, it was a relief to find out that the friendship was still there. There was one big difference that I immediately noticed, and it was in the language we used to communicate. Two years prior, we used English due to his insufficient Korean. At this meeting, we used Korean. While acquainting ourselves with each other anew, I started to find out how excellent his Korean grew to be, far surpassing my own abilities in my first language. It was an interesting turn of events. In the month of our friendship in Korea, I had always thought that he was reticent and reserved. I was finding that he was not. I was seeing aspects to his personality that were put behind an opaque wall when we used English to communicate. With Korean, his self was able to shine through. Meanwhile, it was the opposite for me, as my Korean put me behind the opaque wall this time.
For lunch at his place, we were joined by another Frenchman, an acquaintance of my friend who also spoke very good Korean. Together, we ate a nice simple lunch of some bread, potatoes and blood sausages with a cocktail. Afterwards came the drinking of an alcohol made of oranges that was as strong as vodka and reminded me an orange version of the Italian limoncello. Of course, the primary language of our increasingly drunken communications was Korean. Two Frenchmen and a Canadian in Paris, who would have thought.
Continuing through the afternoon fuelled by drinking games involving the Nintendo Wii, we started to think of options for dinner. Naturally, we decided on a Korean Barbeque restaurant, not even discussing any French style bistros. Away in the Parisian subway we went, speeding off in tunnels below the surface to some location in Paris I still do not know to this day, while the orange liquor slowly withdrew to the bottom with each passing of hands.
It was the first Korean restaurant I went to while in Europe, as Italy did not have enough of a substantial Korean population to justify such a luxury. While in the restaurant I remember flashes of merriment; drinking a soju cocktail which involved a loud banging on the table for its creation, which brought the owner up to our table to quiet us down, although afterwards he was appeased with a taste of the cocktail; meeting French-Koreans, some who were ironically not able to speak Korean at all, while the Frenchmen at our table spoke fluently; eating wonderful tasting meat with each bite bringing me a supreme happiness, while the drinks contributed with a bright and dreamy glow. Afterwards, the two Frenchmen and the Canadian walked downstairs to the basement of the Korean barbeque restaurant in Paris to sing karaoke on a Korean karaoke machine, bringing an appropriate end to all festivities.
After sobering up and reflecting on this experience while walking on Parisian streets, I began to think about language. The use of language is an aspect of communication we do not think too deeply on, for the reasons that it is a part of daily life so basic that it is unnoticeable. We can often be oblivious to the role it plays in our communications with other people.
As a student in the University of Toronto in the Rotman Commerce Bachelor’s program, which holds a 50% international student population, I had the chance to interact and work with many international students. I always believed that they were shy and afraid to express their opinions. I did not like working with them in group projects for this reason. Now in Taiwan as an exchange student, there are times when I am put in the same situation. One of my classes requires group work every lecture, and the class is comprised of all Taiwanese students except me. My group members have been very accommodating and have spoken English so that I can also contribute my opinions. There was one class when they communicated in Mandarin instead, and I was unable to contribute although I had done the work beforehand. I think they probably thought I did not do the work for that class. Just like my French friend when I first met him, just like the international students in the University of Toronto and just like me here, we may find ourselves in situations in which one of the parties involved in a communication is stuck behind the opaque wall of an unfamiliar language. In an increasingly global environment, perhaps patience and understanding is required for better communications, and not unfair judgements.
Languages are also interesting due to the special characteristics each language holds. Korean is a language which has many graduations of formality and respect. There are two main methods of speaking, one which is an informal way a person would use with friends, and an informal method, which one would use with strangers, elders and peoples of higher position. This method carries with it implicit assumptions of respect and formality. Age is an important determinant in creating the context the relationship operates in. If an individual is even one year older than another, the former has an authority over the latter. The younger individual must address the older person with special titles which come with implications of respect and deference, while it is the other way around for older individuals to younger individuals. Furthermore, the informal method of speaking is often used by the younger individual when communicating with an older individual.
As my French friend is 3 years older than me, I did not know how to address him in the correct way when using Korean to speak. I remember avoiding using his name or any title to address him, due to the ambiguous nature of the current relationship. There was a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our interactions, until without thinking I called him “hyung,” the proper address for an older male. After addressing him in this fashion the first time, the once cloudy and ambiguous relationship became as clear as day with this single admission. At the same time, there was a feeling that it signalled the start of a relationship with a slight submission from me to him.
I saw him twice afterwards in Paris, once in a Starbucks completely incidentally while on a guided tour, and finally in another Korean restaurant for lunch, where the waitress commented on his proficiency in the language, and told him that he was so lucky to have a good friend to learn from. She was referring to me, so I kept my mouth shut and smiled so she would not find out the truth about our actual abilities. And thus went my first experience in Paris, city of lights, city of romance, city of beauty. It was an unexpected surprise, finding a culture so close to my heart in a location that was so foreign to me. The five days in Paris ended quickly and I soon found myself boarding the plane back to Milan, my temporary home which held the promise of more adventures to come.