I asked him if he had any funny stories about driving a taxi and he thought for a moment.
“Three years ago I picked up two drunk customers,” he said. “They wanted to go to a farm at the top of a mountain. Maybe they lived there, I don’t know. I answered the call and dropped them off at the top.
“The road was very narrow on the way down. And dark. Suddenly, I stopped because a boar ran onto the road. It was big. I had never seen one before. It was so big. I heard they can attack people.” He held his hands next to his mouth with the index fingers up like tusks and swooped his head at me.
“I worried that if I used the car horn, maybe it would attack. I turned off the lights and the engine. It was me and him on the mountain in the dark. I was so scared. He didn’t move. Just sit in front.”
After fifteen minutes of staring each other down, the boar moved on. But Mr. K would never forget his moment on the mountain with the wild.
I met Mr. K because I was late to work. I usually took a bus to work, but I had to get a cab if I was late. This wasn’t a problem. Taxis are everywhere in Korea. And they’re cheap. My school is five miles away, and I can get there for just five bucks.
There’s a taxi stand right next to my bus stop. During the slow hours, taxis line up here to wait for customers. I can look out the window right now and see the taxi line. There’s seven cabs. But during rush hour, people line up to wait for taxis. There’s no need to call one. You can stand on any street and immediately find a taxi.
So I stood on the street and waited until a taxi picked me up. I got in and told the driver, Mr. K, my school’s address. Halfway through the drive, he asked me in clear English for help understanding the lyrics of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” He played drums in a rock band and they were covering it. I helped him with the lyrics and he gave me his number, telling me to call him if I ever needed a taxi.
I never did need a taxi. I bought a bike. But two weeks ago I decided I’d love to know what it’s like to be a taxi driver in Korea for a day. I called Mr. K for the first time and we arranged to get lunch.
“How old are you?” Mr. K asked. I had just told him how many years I had been teaching English. He was surprised.
“You look so young.”
“Yeah, I don’t know why.”
“Your skin is white and clear.” Despite all the formality of Korean culture, they’re very direct when talking about appearance.
“I guess so.”
“My skin is green and unclear,” he said.
I disagreed. He actually looked very young for his age, and I had told him so before. But he’s a modest man.
He said, “Too much sun on my face.”
“You mean you get too much sun while driving?”
“How many hours a day do you work?”
“Twelve to fourteen hours.”
“Wow. Twelve to fourteen hours in the car? Don’t you get tired?”
“So tired. My back gets sore from sitting all day.”
He explained to me how he tries to get out and stretch while waiting in the taxi line during slow hours, but it’s not so easy. Every time he gets out to stretch, the car in front gets a passenger and the whole line moves up. So he stays in the car all day.
“What was difficult when you first started working as a taxi driver? For example, it was really difficult for me to manage time when I first started teach.”
“The first time I started,” he thought for a moment. “Well, I have to be in the car all the time, like I told you. That was difficult. I do many things in the car. For example, I have an exercise band.” He moved his arms to demonstrate how he uses an elastic resistance band, pulling it across his chest. Like pushing open elevator doors.
Sometimes he practices drumming on a pad he keeps in the car. He pulled up a picture on his phone. It’s a single drum pad that holds onto his leg with a Velcro strap.
He also reads while waiting for passengers. He even met his girlfriend because she was a customer.
Mr. K gets a lot done in that taxi cab.
When he finished, I asked him, “What hours do you like the most? Night hours or day hours?”
“I liked the night hours when I first started, so I did that for about two years. It’s better money. But it’s too much trouble. Now I work daytime hours from seven in the morning until nine or ten.”
“What kind of trouble did you have with the night hours?”
“I had a lot of trouble. Drunk people. Rude people.”
“What do people do that’s rude?”
“I look young. Many customers talk to me like…” his voice trailed off as he searched for an English word on his phone. He showed it to me: discrimination.
He explained that he’s in his forties, so customers should use word choice to respect that. But they didn’t. Even after he told them his age.
Korean, like most languages other than English, has formality structures built into the language. Korean sentence structure ends with the verb. The verbs can end with an “eh,” “ayo,” or “imnida” sound. These verb endings are respectively informal, formal, and very formal.
There’s no equivalent in English. But if you know any Spanish, it’s a little like “tú” and “usted.” One is informal and used when you can speak casually. The other is formal for when you need to use language that keeps a respectful distance. Latin Americans are pretty relaxed about the difference, but it’s very important to Koreans.
I don’t think about formal and informal structures often as an English speaker—an American English speaker on top of that. But it’s a theme that I’m seeing in my conversations with Koreans. In fact, it reminded me of a story that the convenience store owner from the previous post told me.
He once had a female employee that was in her fifties. A male customer, also in his fifties, came in and spoke to her using the informal “eh.” That pissed off the employee, and they got into a shouting match.
When Koreans meet each other socially, one of the first questions they ask is how old everyone is because they need to know what types of words and tense endings to use with each other. This is difficult to explain because Americans and Koreans, as far as I can tell, are at polar opposites of the cultural slider scale with this. I mean, we do respect age differences. But if we were put on a mathematical graph of “age distinction” next to Korea, you could basically round our value down to zero.
The closest English equivalent I can think of would be if you go to a restaurant and say, “Could I have a water, please,” instead of, “Get me a water.” Even then, the later is offensive or charming based on the speaker’s tone. But assuming it’s said in an offensive way, that’s the best comparison I can do for you. One is a regular transaction. The other feels like belittling someone because of their position. And in Korean, that’s just the difference between ending a sentence with “ayo” or “eh.”
Whatever language you speak, just be kind to people. You have no idea how hard they might work and what wild boars on a dark mountain they may have survived.