As far away as Kenya you'll hear Korean

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As far away as Kenya you'll hear Korean

Koreans are a hard-working, adventurous tribe, and sometimes it seems like we're everywhere. We certainly make ourselves known wherever we go.

As an 11-year-old living with my family in Kenya, I still remember how amazed and a little embarrassed I was when locals would recognize my mother and me as Koreans. When we ventured to the outdoor markets, the Kenyan vendors -- whose native tongue is Swahili but who also speak English -- would see us approaching and suddenly start shouting in Korean. They would say "Ajumma, iri-wa," or "Ma'am, come here," or "I-gaw ssa-yo, ssa," or "This is really cheap stuff."

Those fruit and vegetable vendors spoke Korean because the Korean women were so stubborn. While the expatriate community spoke English with the Kenyans, we proud Koreans couldn't be bothered with haggling in English, or Swahili for that matter. Instead, the ajummas taught the market folk essential Korean.

The funny thing is, I never heard those vendors coaxing their French, Indian or Filipino customers to their stalls with French, Hindi or Tagalog. Only the Koreans got the special treatment. Of course, in Kenya's department stores and boutiques it didn't happen -- at these fancy places everybody had to act in a more civilized manner.

I had a similar experience in Hong Kong a few years ago. In Hong Kong's Mongkok street market, when my friend and I passed the vendors, they would cry out, "Yeo-gi-bo-se-yo" ("Look here"), "Unni, i-ri-wa"("Come here") and other words to catch our attention. My girl pal and I would giggle, trying to pretend we didn't understand Korean. But the vendors knew we were Koreans.

I reckon the big test that people have when they see tourists like me and my friend is guessing whether we are Korean or Japanese. But they always seem to know. I have a Korean friend in Los Angeles who says Hispanic shopkeepers can instinctively tell Koreans from Japanese. Koreans are everywhere, so the Hispanics pick up the language, my friend explains.

I once asked a Kenyan vendor how he could tell Korean and Japanese housewives apart. "Ah, the Korean ajummas always ask for a discount," he said, with a hearty laugh. "No exceptions." Ouch, that hurt. So we're known as a stingy tribe as well as one that insists on speaking our own language. Thanks to our scrappy ajummas.

by Choi Jie-ho
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