By Madeline Lau
I’ve had interesting experiences as an Asian Pacific studies major at Loyola Marymount University.
Working for the Asian Studies department, I often send letters to China, order catering for Daoism Conferences and design programs and fliers for visiting scholars and events. Occasionally, I am given random and bizarre assignments. I had a memorable experience about two weeks ago.
My international business professor asked my boyfriend, Andy, and I to give a tour to Korean businesspeople visiting Los Angeles for an international conference. Since Korea is my main area of interest I agreed, on the grounds that Andy, also Korean, would be the interpreter.
“Ahh, no, they speak English, they can practice with you,” said my teacher (funnily enough, also Korean), “and they will like you. Give them a good tour, make sure they see the city views.”
With a few sort of out-of-the-way Korean expressions, I went with Andy to give the campus tour. The weirdness started when we walked in the room where we were met with a collective gasp of deep surprise.
Andy said hello in Korean and I followed suite, even bowing a little, to which the Koreans began to murmur.
“They are impressed with you!” my teacher said. “This is good. Now go.”
Leading about 40 businesspeople who could only say “Herro, how ah you” in English, through our school began to seem daunting. Andy was sharing facts about LMU’s architecture in Korean while I was worried about falling down the stairs or making an inexcusable faux pas in front of our tourists.
I felt like they were watching me, an awkward American girl, waiting for an excuse to cackle. We shuffled into an elevator that began shaking and clunking. I chose to try a few Korean words I knew crying out “kanchana! kanchana! (It’s okay, it’s okay!).” My attempt at Korean was met with peals of laughter and them quickly correcting me by saying “Kanchanna-yo! More formal!
When we reached the ground floor I was ready for Andy to take over, feeling extremely awkward and left out of the loop, but he said “They think you’re funny.” Greeeat.
As we ushered our group through campus I kept seeing people I knew looking at me and whispering to one another “what is going on?” It must have been disarming to see a crowd of Asian professionals taking pictures and chain smoking at every chance being led through campus by a frizzy-haired girl in yellow shoes, but what can I say? I was just doing my job.
We took the Koreans to our school’s chapel, past some of the older buildings on campus and into the new library, which didn’t seem to impress them. Although the library left them ambivalent, they found the views of the city from the bluff enchanting. They took pictures at double time and approached some random students (who, of course, I knew) to take cheesy peace sign tourist pics with them.
Then their attitudes toward me seemed to change, inexplicably. One-by-one, they approached me to ask about my interest in Korea and plan to study there. Some gave me their business cards and invited me to hang out if I was ever in their city and some told me they, too, had gone to the school where I will be studying Korean this summer.
I was touched by their friendliness and surprised to see my presence wasn’t for their amusement. Then the cameras came out and I was reminded of my original purpose, understanding why my professor wanted to send a wacky American girl along with his useful Korean advisee.
“You take picture with us?” they asked as the shutters clicked, reminding me of a recent trip to a Korean hair salon where I was told I looked like a “big Barbie.” “How tall are you? Is this your boyfriend? Is he taller than you?” I raced around trying to be in all the pictures, bowing to show thanks and attempting to answer their questions while Andy chuckled. After we took the group picture, the tour bus rolled up and they left as quickly as they had come.
I felt like a parent who had just taken her child to school for the first day as I turned to Andy to tell him I missed them already. He laughed and reminded me that we can always call them when we’re in Korea.
Koreans, prepare to be my tour guides!