Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Evening Latte

Sarah Vaughan drifts through the air as I sit here, awaiting my Chai latte at yet another ubiquitous American coffee chain. The menu is in English, the music is in English, and I can almost forget where I am. It is easy, right now, to lose sight of the fact that my home and I are on opposite sides of the world.
I often think of the fact that, unlike all of the people who lived in the hundreds of years before me, I was born in an era where I can cross the earth in a day. The world has never been more open to those who want to explore it. Nobody thinks about this, which in my opinion accounts for all of the people who talk and talk about travelling but never actually do it -- they have forgotten how easy it is now and how it might not last. But that same ease of travel, the convenience of flying from one continent to the next, has robbed the experience of much of its allure. Nineteenth century travel narratives like Anna and the King of Siam, for example, wrote of brightly coloured foreign lands with strange customs, inscrutable people, exotic aromas. Whether these accounts had any truth or not is almost incidental. Travel writers back then spun fabulous tales, and the Victorian reading public consumed them voraciously. There was more romance in the Age of Sail, even with all of the unpleasantness that must have accompanied long voyages. Travel then must have seemed all the more mysterious for being so inaccessible to the average reader of the time.
There is nothing inaccessible about my experience in this coffee shop. It certainly wasn't necessary for me to come all the way to Korea to find it. The latte has arrived and it is comfortingly identical to all of the lattes I drank in Canada. This is not unwelcome, as it tastes like Christmas, and I reflect with satisfaction that I am going home for Christmas. I can be home and back here in the space of a few days, stepping seamlessly across an ocean.
No, after a year and a half in Korea, the differences lie not in the grand, striking things I expected at first, but in nuances, the tiniest details. No vulgar shouting here when your latte is ready, the ragged voice of the barista barely heard over the customers' gossip. In Korea you are given a small plastic disc when you order. You take it with you to your table, and it lights up and vibrates when your drink has been prepared. I wonder how Canadians would react to these blinking plastic discs. I picture them being waled across tables, tossed in the air, tucked surreptiously into backpacks. The smallest things, I guess, most reflect the larger cultural differences. Blinking plastic discs are possible because theft is not a concern here.
Across the street from me is a huge multiplex theatre with an overpriced department store in the lower levels. Korean is renowned for being a literal language; it harbours few of the illusions so rife in English. Koreans carry this bluntness over into English when they use it, and so the multiplex has the word MEGABOX blazing across it in massive neon letters. It's amusing to me to see the building's purpose laid so bare. Native English speakers are forever assigning slippery names to such places, names that reflect our strangely modern refusal to acknowledge their bleak, utilitarian purpose. We all pretend to be embarassed by big box stores even though we all shop there. Koreans have no such scruples. The store is, indeed, a mega box, so that's what they call it. The Korean letters on the other side confirm this: "Really Big Department Store" would be a good literal translation. This is not to say that the Korean language is without its own deceptions. It must have them, but they are of a different nature, a nature that is not open to me.
Some mysteries, then, can be maintained through less tangible things than lattes and mega department stores.

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