Today’s Korea is a very different place from the peninsula I was first stationed in the late 1980’s. It was not uncommon to see donkeys pulling wooden carts through the narrow dirt streets. Folks still huddled around charcoal powered space heaters for warmth in public spaces. Although the country was progressing rapidly towards its place as one of the world’s most modern and technologically advanced nations at that time, there were still reminders of the more traditional ways at every turn.
I worked in the public affairs office at Osan Air Base. The town just outside the main gate is called Seung Ton City, or Seung Ton Shi. One of the primary functions of this office was to act as a liaison between the Korean government, media, business leaders and community at large. Needless to say, because of the nature of our work, there was a never ending stream of Korean citizens in and out of that office. From the moment we opened the doors, to the end of our duty day, I remember high ranking Korean military officers, chamber of commerce members, government officials and, once, even a big time movie director, parading through.
The majority of the Korean people we dealt with on a daily basis were amongst the most highly educated, especially this far from Seoul. (The distance was much further in these days as the train and subway lines were not nearly as expansive. The only way to reach Seoul in 1989 was via a single bus line — if I remember correctly — to the Nambu terminal, and there was nowhere near the abundance of automobiles and highways). These were also the best speakers of English, which was not so common in those days, and many of them spoke our language fairly well.
Among the best English speakers were a few who were very, very competitive. Their desire to perfect the language was thus that they often sought approval amongst us Americans and would flat out ask “How’s my English?” and “Can you hear an accent?” We could often tell when they’d been practicing, or had recently learned a new phrase, because we could detect their anticipation to utilize the new found words. We could see it in their faces the moment they walked into the office – they couldn’t wait to insert something new into a sentence. There were a few times I marveled at the level of preparation. Sometimes, the strategies devised to steer the conversation towards the opportunity to actually employ these learnings was more impressive than the first-time use of the words, or expressions, themselves.
On some occasions, the use of their newly found treasure was dead nuts…..and the level of confidence with which it left their mouths was a joy to see. There was sometimes a smugness to the accomplishment when it was known darn well it was perfect: the grin, the body language, the eyes casually looking around the room to acknowledge the incremental improvement, as if to say, “yeah – I just said that.”
Other times, they weren’t always so sure. A different expression would overcome them…one that was uncertain, and sought approval. I’ll never forget the time Mr. Kim told me “it’s a topsy-turvy world.” Or when Ms. Oh commented that the weather was “capricious.”
I also remember the very best of them, to a degree, as thinking of each other as rivals. While cordial, one man would inquire if his English was better than another man’s….by name. Each knew who the other great speakers were, and were definitely out to establish superiority.
Enter Colonel Lilley, chief of the public affairs office.
Koreans utilize the “R” and the “L” sound and have very similar consonants in their alphabet. However, these sounds are used in almost complete opposite positions as used in English. Therefore, where we might use an L sound in a word, Koreans will often make an R sound, and vice versa (I think I described this correctly???). Therefore, the name and rank “Colonel Lilley” presented a very daunting challenge to even the strongest of English speakers. Remember: some of these folks would go so far as to ask if we could detect an accent. They studied and worked hard to master English….and some of them spoke very, very well. However, this was a time before computers…..before Rosetta Stone. Not many folks had cable television in which to tune in to American programming. English, or any other subject, was learned the old fashioned way.
“Colonel Lilley,” was the Achilles Heel. Because he was the decision maker, he was sought often. Addressing him by name was unavoidable. No matter how well the speaker, his name always came out “Corrurr Rearry.” It got to the point where I started feeling sorry for the Koreans. I began picturing them at home late into the night, in the mirror, practicing his name over, and over, and over. After several months of watching this episode repeat itself, I began to think of Colonel Lilley as a sort of Medusa, and started envisioning Koreans turned to stone all throughout the office as they failed, one by one, to properly pronounce his name, their tongues frozen for eternity in that awkward position between “L” and “R,” desperately attempting to complete the full roll required to pronounce his name properly.
Looking back, I’m sure the Koreans enjoyed visiting our office. When one studies a language, it’s always fun to have an opportunity to speak. I know we genuinely had a good time interacting with them. I made some life-long friends on that job, and picked up a great deal of Korean language (I wish my Korean was half as good as their English!). I always wondered if, deep down, some of them dreaded the fact that they might have to address the good colonel, or if they were relieved to find him absent? I wish I could say I remember the day the Korean Perseus swaggered through those doors, slaying the commander once and for all, but I can’t.
To this very day, among an older generation of Koreans around Seung Ton Shi, the myth of Colonel Lilley lives on. Perhaps his legend in the region is now used as a motivational tool to entice young Koreans to study harder?
“Study your English of you’ll be turned to stone,” I can hear some hal-oboji telling his grandchild.
Perhaps some of those dignitaries from days gone by finally mastered the “R” and the “L.” But I’ve also heard it said that on particularly cold nights, the sounds of “rearry, rearry, rearry,” can be heard echoing in the winds blowing through the mountains and villages of Gyeonggido Province.