Friday, October 24, 2014

Eliud Kipchoge's press conference and how language humanizes us

A long time ago, Michael Hurt wrote that language humanizes us. The exact point he made was that speaking Korean in a situation where you are being harassed would earn you the sympathy of bystanders a lot more than speaking English, especially aggressively. I don't want to get into the rest of Hurt's article, but when I tried to imagine a situation where a Chinese immigrant on the Toronto subway was shouting for help in Chinese, I realized just how true it was that language humanizes us, even when we are not otherwise prejudiced against those who do not speak our language or share our culture. Having not seen what happened, all I would see would be someone shouting incoherently, not something that in and of itself would compel me to help.

It was this line in Hurt's post that led me to write online in Korean a few years ago. The decision was partly inspired by the feeling, really a form of paranoia or megalomania, present in English-language discussion of Korea, where opposition to foreign people and ideas are at the centre of Korean society, politics and daily life. In this explanation of Korea, Koreans act in response or in relation to foreigners. Education policy, for example, is supposedly manipulated by teachers unions who are threatened by the presence of Westerners in the school system, to create job cuts for those Westerners. It's almost as though people can't even imagine a world where their existence is insignificant to the mainstream of Korean society.

I wanted to write in Korean to humanize myself as a foreigner first and to access the vast Korean Internet second. As I wrote in Korean, I realized that while many Koreans have prejudices against foreigners, a phenomenon that is as annoying to quantify against Western countries as it is to try and settle whether Pele or Kobe Bryant would be better at track, foreigners simply didn't matter, for better or for worse. As I got over that and stopped using 'Korea' and 'Korean' as a modifier, I realized that language humanizes both ways. In my case, it helped to remove prejudices that I had. For the people who read my Tweets, it wasn't the case that I had suddenly become a person to them, but that my ideas had become accessible and part of their discourse instead of the English-language discourse in Korea that exists in parallel.

I was inspired to write this post by Eliud Kipchoge's press conference after winning the Chicago Marathon two weeks ago. I've been watching Kipchoge run for 11 years, ever since he won a gold medal at the 2003 world championships, but not only had I never heard him speak, my impression of him was formed entirely by his performance at the 2005 world championships. There, having won gold in 2003 and then bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Kipchoge seemed, to me at least, to give up at the end of a race after it became clear that he wouldn't win (Craig Mottram out-leaned Kipchoge for the bronze). To me, Kipchoge was arrogant and sullen, caring only about winning.

That impression, created in a split second from essentially nothing, endured for almost a decade until the press conference Kipchoge in Chicago. LetsRun, which makes it a point to create personalities for stars, saw the interview, uploaded it and highlighted Kipchoge's answers. You need to watch the video, though, to notice that not only does Kipchoge give nice answers to questions like his advice for 5-hour marathoners, but that he looks as though he's enjoying the press conference. Most East African runners are quiet and subdued in their press conferences, which is why LetsRun tries to make stars out of the ones who aren't.

Listening to Kipchoge was an example, from another context and in the interaction of two different cultures, that speaking well in the target language makes you come alive in a way that speaking aggressively in a foreign language simply can't. This holds true for the person who needs help on a subway train, for all the English-language activism that aims to produce change in Korea, and for elite runners who win races in New York and Boston but generate less than one percent of the buzz generated by runners who are also-rans at best.

There has long been a perception that African runners are interchangeable, nameless East Africans who could be swapped out for each other without anyone noticing. In a sense, that's true, just as the winner of a local race could be swapped out for another skinny person without more than a handful of people noticing. That's because spectator sport is about a narrative and about stories, not performance in a vacuum. Performance is in fact secondary to narrative, which is created by knowing players and teams. Athletes, if we knew nothing about them, their histories or their tendencies, would be far less interesting. If they not only couldn't speak to us but didn't speak except for at most twice a year for a few minutes, they would be far less interesting.

This is the problem faced by running as a spectator sport, but it's also the problem faced by outsiders. They may also have a distorted perspective of those on the inside as was the case for myself, and they will often struggle to be fully-fledged human beings to those on the inside even in the absence of overt prejudice. For runners, a classic example of this difference is Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie. Two Ethiopian runners with roughly identical credentials, one is clearly more popular than the other. Bekele is something of a cipher for an athlete who was undefeated at his specialty event for almost a decade.

To bring the story back to Korea, most Westerners in Korea live a non-literate existence to some extent. The average Korean ability of people I meet seems to have improved, but I can still remember naming restaurants based on distinguishing features such as the colour of the sign (three of my favourite restaurants after first coming here were 'red', 'white' and 'yellow') and navigating bus routes by landmarks instead of the names of stops. This may or may not have changed, but I wouldn't be surprised to know that people still employ coping strategies for illiteracy such as using ATMs or websites by memorizing the correct sequence of buttons to press.

Life for such people would obviously improve if they spoke Korean because then they could go about their daily business much more easily, but it would also improve because they would understand the society around them and that they exist, insofar as they are foreigners, at its periphery, not at its centre. It's true that no amount of linguistic ability can overcome prejudice or preconceived notions, which is why learning a bit of Korean actually furthers the prejudicial ranting of some people, but reading a Korean newspaper or watching a Korean newscast would be an eye-opening experience for how little English teachers and even foreigners as a whole factor into the national conversation.