Saturday, December 3, 2011

Blessed Are Those With (Numerous) Voices

As we cut across the meadows from Argyle Place to Greyfriars through an avenue of parched autumn leaves, I found myself wondering if I knew my friend beside me. Kim Jongwook was deeply moved by the clear daylight making colour-thick clouds around us.

I don't think I will miss Edinburgh,” he said.

I smiled, my hands kept for warmth in my pockets. A moment later he corrected himself. “I mean, forget. I won't forget Edinburgh”

It's okay.” I said. “I knew what you meant.”

And though I did at that moment understand him without the parameter of being correct, it did make me doubt how well I knew this fine man. For two days I had wandered with him over the city, discovering more of my beloved Edinburgh as we went – the sphinxes on the roofs of the Scottish National Bank and Gallery, the stained glass and vaulted ceilings of St Giles, the fearsome and divine St Michael hanging from the roof of the War Memorial in Edinburgh castle.

Although his English is much better after six months in Australia, Jongwook still speaks with a Korean rigidness, his sentences formed as if they come pre-packaged to him. From beyond his language he leaps a great divide toward me and I am grateful for it though still I wonder – is he the same guy as he was at home?

I guess I'm obsessed with doubt. In a rare moment of clarity two years back I looked over my work, comparing it to its character, and realised that the neurosis and paranoia that make up my darker side are parallel with the motivation of every one of my characters – generally they are consumed and fixed by not knowing. Whereas I have to live with it.

What does this have to do with my friend Jongwook? Well, I caught myself wondering if I really knew because I only knew him through a language foreign to him. I found myself wondering – would that joke be something he would say if we were speaking Korean?

Jongwook is a funny guy and is great at finding the comedy in his fish-out-of-water situation. It is this patience and resolve I admire. When he visited my girlfriend's parents, Jeff (Lara's father) used a crude euphemism for going to the toilet and Jongwook didn't know what the expression meant. Jeff, I'm sure, would have explained it with one of his wide, face-brightening smiles, sly old silver fox lecturing in BS that he is. Later that week at Jeff's local, in front of the neighbours, Jongwook stood up after his schooner of lager and delivered straight-faced to his guests and their friends the following charmer:

I have to splash my boots.”

When Jeff related the story over Skype he said it went over like a brush fire. The neighbours shrieked, Jeff snorted his beer, Lyn (Lara's mum) would have made one sharp, high note. And I can just imagine Jongwook walking to the bathroom, a bashful smirk cowering below his nose.

I wonder if this is truly my friend. Or at least, I wonder how much of him I don't know. I want to be able to share the jokes that would come to him as his language bubbles and froths out of his mind. But I can't. It is the first metaphysical conundrum of the language barrier that I believe holds up to scrutiny – that your personality can't fit into the slim usage of an unnatural speech.

Until then I'll comfort myself with the man's friendship. In the end, it's all I need anyway.

Daniel East may be rowing back to the Antipodes, but his heart will always be in Edinburgh.

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