Kimchi and Coffee

Justin Eckl

(Brent Schwert)

This morning I woke up with the Russian word for “free” – besplatno – (that’s free as in price-wise, not the soaring eagle kind) in my head. The significance for this lies less with any semantic attributes of that word, but the fact that I’m thinking in Russian at all sort of alarms me.
See, I studied Russian at this very school, but it’s been three years since I’ve had a class or even tried to do anything more than glance at some Cyrillic to see if I could still pronounce it correctly.
In Korea, I studied Korean and after about six months of fairly regular studying there I was about as proficient in Korean as I was after two years of studying Russian here.
Of course, daily practice including communicating with/yelling at children in Korean helped. I just didn’t know how much “living there” was going to be a factor in my ability to speak, or at least remember how to speak, Korean. Now that I’ve been out of the country for a few months, I don’t know if I’ll be able to muster much more than an “anyung haseyo” – hello – when I get back there.
The way besplatno fits into this is that at some point in Korea, I told myself that I had completely forgotten all the Russian I had learned in the two fairly arduous years I had dedicated to that language at Lawrence.
In one particular chance encounter with a Russian guy at a public bathhouse in Korea, I realized that the only thing I could remember how to say in Russian was, “I studied Russian, but I forgot everything.” The rest of what I was communicating with was a jumbled mass of Korean and Russian.
Actually, I realized what was happening was I was forgetting my Russian at the same rate I was picking up Korean (only so much room in the old foreign-language section of the brain and there’s already remnants of high-school French still lingering).
At the same time, this didn’t bother me any more than knowing that those literally hundreds of hours of studying had not amounted to much more than the ability to say I’d forgotten everything I’d learned. But I had no plans to go to Russia at all. However, I was planning on coming back to Korea, so if Russian was going to sacrifice itself for Korean’s sake, then so be it.
What’s worrying me is that this besplatno episode is not an isolated case. Lately, I’ve been spitting more Russian than the tsar’s family blindfolded and huddled in the back of a room. Maybe it’s being back at Lawrence. Maybe it’s all the vodka. Either way, I’m frightened and somewhat amused by what my brain is choosing to remember.

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