While I usually rely on the subway for transportation around Seoul, I probably still get in a cab around once a week. If I’m alone, I usually use this as an opportunity to chat with the taxi driver, who in 99 out of 100 cases are men over 50. In most cases they also have a very strong 사투리, a regional accent, which makes for a quite challenging listening exercise indeed. Usually, my conversations with them go something like this:
Me: Please take me to XYZ
Driver: Wow, your Korean is amazing. How long have you been living here?
Me: Since the end of July
Driver: And you already speak Korean!
Me: Well, I learned for two years before moving here, so…
Driver: Where are you from?
Driver: Denmark, Denmark… Oh! LEGO, right! And milk? (Denmark milk is a brand in Korea)
Driver: Are you a student here?
Me: Well, actually, I’m a visiting professor at Sogang.
Driver: You? Professor?! Not student?! You are teaching?? (Their levels of surprise span from incredulousness to utter shock)
Driver: Wow! That’s amazing
Why it always surprises people when I tell them I’m not a student is not entirely clear to me. Granted, I don’t have the deepest wrinkles on my forehead yet, but I also don’t think I look like a 20-year-old. Well, age can be a tricky thing I guess.
Depending on the lenght of the drive, we may continue the conversation talking about anything from differences in weather between Denmark and Korea, the state of the Korean economy, how I’ve learned Korean, where I’ve visited in Korea, whether I’m married, what I like about Korea etc. It’s usually quite standard. However, on two occasions I’ve had some quite interesting experiences with taxi drivers.
The first one was when my friend from Denmark was visiting a couple of weeks ago. We had walked around Insadong in the evening and wanted to take a cab home. My friend had left her computer in my apartment, which I needed to go and fetch on the way to Hongdae, where she was renting an Airbnb place. Since it was my friend’s first time riding a cab in Korea, I had promised to ride with her to Hongdae before going back to Sogang. I told the driver to pull over at Sogang’s back gate, so I could get my friends laptop. He seemed less than pleased with the instructions, but did as I asked. Back in the car with my friend’s laptop in hand, I told him to go to Hongdae. He complained that he was hungry and didn’t want to take us any farther. I persuaded him to take us to Hongdae, but after letting my friend off, he refused to drive me back to Sogang. I said that I could take another cab home, and hugged my friend goodbye before crossing the street. On the other side of the street, I saw a cab with the “vacant” sign lit up, so I just hopped in and told the driver to take me to Sogang university’s back gate. “You again!? I just told you I didn’t want to take you there – I said I had to eat!!” Haha! Without knowing it, I had accidently hailed the same cab again, and even the cranky driver had to admit that the situation was absolutely hilarious. I apologized in my most humble Korean, and he then agreed to drive me home. He softened up, when he found out that I could actually speak Korean quite well, and we continued to laugh at the situation the entire ride. I told him to just let me off at the front gate and hurry to the nearest restaurant for his way overdue dinner.
I had another surreal taxi experience yesterday, when I took a cab from Gwanghwamun to my apartment at Sogang. This driver had the strongest dialect I’ve ever heard in real life, and I was struggling just trying to make sense of his words. After I’d given him directions, he said something to me, that I didn’t understand, and when I politely asked him to repeat he turned around and practically shouted “한국말 잘 한다고~!!” (I said that you speak Korean well!!) Haha, well I just proved that wrong. He continued asking me where I was from and made no effort to pretend he knew anything about Denmark. “그것 나라인가?” (Is that a country?) He was also on the verge of accusing me of lying when I said that I was teaching at Sogang, but somehow I managed to convince him that I was not a student. He then started addressing me as 교수님 but continued to talk in 반말, which is the informal way of speaking, usually only used among close friends or by elders to younger people. The next question was if I was an 아가씨 (agasshi meaning unmarried woman, a word only used by older people). I said that I was married and lived with my husband in Seoul. He wanted to know if I had children and I said no. How long since I was married? Six years. Six years??!! Who is married for six years and has no children. What was wrong with me?! Didn’t I know that having a family was the most important thing in the world?? I also had a responsibility to society. Didn’t I know that Korea’s alarmingly low birthrate was a problem? Who would take care of the elderly, if people have no children? He continued his rant, and I was relieved when my building was finally within sight, and I could tell him to pull over and let me off. When I paid and said goodbye, he yelled after me: “애기 낳아!!” (Have some children, woman!!) On my way up the stairs I just couldn’t stop laughing at how surreal this experience was. Oh, how I love this brutal Korean honesty. Wonder what will happen next time I take a cab.