Thursday, September 8, 2011

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sigh

I was once walking in a district in Seoul, Korea, called Itaewan, where I was marvelling at all of the nightclubs with English names. That wasn’t uncommon; English was popular for many establishments. What surprised me was a sign for a nightclub called Viagra. The so-called wonder drug was recently on the market, so it was a particularly catchy English word.

Club Viagra was on a bit of a hill, and a long flight of concrete steps lead up to the entrance. Fascinated by the club, lit up in neon, I couldn't resist taking a photo. Years later, I posted it on my Web photo album with my other pictures of Korea. When I wrote a caption for the photo, one instantly came to mind and I quickly typed it in:

You have to get up to get in. 

My most humourous memories of my two-year stay in Korea are of the quirky uses of the English language. 

In 1997, the Internet was still pretty young, but that didn’t prevent a number of Internet cafés from opening. Hotmail was in its infancy, not yet owned by the invasive Microsoft, and Yahoo was more readily accepted as a term of exclamation—Yahoo!

I’m no lawyer (I don’t even play one on TV) but I’m pretty sure there is some copyright infringement going on here. For those of you who can’t see this picture clearly, this is a nic-nac store, selling stuffies, things to dangle from backpacks and rear-view mirrors, bangles, trinkets... in a word: junk. They don’t sell anything to do with the Internet.

There was a similar store, called Barbie, spelled with the same font as Mattel’s logo and complete with a picture of the revered doll. I’m pretty sure this store came into existence soon after the song Barbie Girl was released. Don’t bother asking if they sold any Barbies. 

Signs were everywhere in Korea, even on mountainsides. Lori and I would often get out of the cities on the weekends to escape the pollution, the smog, and the congestion, but not the signs. One weekend, we ventured about an hour north to a mountain called Taedunsan, which overlooked the city of Taejeon. There was a girder bridge leading to the top that had—you guessed it—a sign. But the sign was in both Hangul and English. At least, it looked like it was English, only I couldn’t understand what it was supposed to be telling me.
Pay no attention to the guy in the goofy hat. 

Grammar aside, I could understand the first rule—yes, they were rules. The second rule started off okay but then fell apart: I would never trifle with a girder bridge.

The third rule just didn’t make sense. What is a wrah drinker? No variations of pronunciation could help me out. To this day, I have no idea who I could and could not pass on that girder bridge...

A few blocks away from where I lived, a gas station with a garage and car wash opened. It was owned by Lucky Goldstar, affectionately known around the globe as LG. When it first opened, it was shining brilliantly with its large signage and little multicoloured, triangle flags lined its perimeter. When I saw it, I also thought they might sell fast food; in particular, hamburgers. Perhaps they were even going to expand to a drive-thru, because there was an image of an automobile tucked in with some lettuce between a hamburger bun.

But no, there was a spelling mistake in the sign. It didn’t say “Burger Car,” what I assumed was the Konglish term for “Drive Thru;” it said “Bugger Car”... Hmmm...  
I quickly read the sign in Hangul, the Korean language, which is an extremely phonetic language. Reading the sign in Hangul, I pronounced the name out loud. Now, try to say “burger” with a slight British accent and you’ll get the idea as to why “burger” became “bugger.” Do you now see the importance of a dictionary?  

One great thing about Korean gas stations is that when you filled up your car at one, they always gave you sensible gifts, such as air fresheners, bags for storing your trash—keeping the inside of your car clean. My favourite gift was the packs of tissues. 

One day, Lori and I were with a friend, filling up her tank at Bugger Car, and a friendly attendant gave us a shiny package of tissues. I instantly saw that there was English written on the package and asked my friend if I could see it. Maybe the name of the gas station was spelled correctly.

Don’t ask me where this catch phrase came from. But in Korea, where Club Viagra and Bugger Car exist, somehow I wasn’t overly surprised by Wank Passion Tissues. 

Now that you have seen how English has been used—or misused—in a foreign country, just make sure that the next time you see a t-shirt or a painting in Canada with a foreign language on it, make sure you learn what it means before you display it in public.

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