More Than Just a Ride

“He was the taxi driver from hell,” is a saying I often hear. Whether it’s because they drive too recklessly or try to arrange you with their grandchildren, people all have their crazy taxi stories. On this particular night, I had stayed out later than usual and missed the last bus, but that wasn’t a problem since taxis generally roam the streets looking for guys like me at this time of night.

I’ve taken a handful of taxis in Korea before, but no driver had ever dared talk to me. Seeing as my Korean skills are still beginner, taxi drivers would certainly need to know a good amount of English in order for us to hold a steady conversation. When it comes to being a qualified taxi driver, language skills are definitely ranked below a working pair of eyes and limbs.

A typical night in the streets of Seoul. Photo by @Pensivite

A typical night in the streets of Seoul. Photo by @Pensivite

With my eagle eyes, I glanced down the street and noticed a glossy, orange car speeding towards me. I flagged him down with my hat and hopped in. Without turning around, he asked where I was going, and I fed him my rehearsed line, “서울대 기숙사로 가주세요  (Please go to Seoul University dormitory)”. He turned around, as if taking notice to my obvious accent, got a good look at me, and shouted,  “우와! 잘생겼네! (Wow! Handsome!)” Of course I politely denied the fact, but it never hurts to listen to your elders.

He then started talking to me in Korean, and to my surprise, I actually knew what he was saying. He tried to explain that he only stopped for me because I was a nice looking foreigner and that he doesn’t usually stop for Koreans. ‘If that were true, you’d be out of business old man’ I thought. He proceeded to ask me where I was from, and I was able to tell him “하와이에서 왔어요 (I came from Hawaii).” That’s probably my second favorite line after “물 좀 주세요 (More water please).”

It didn’t stop there. He seemed to be able to tell that I was ethnically mixed and wanted to know where my parents were from. It was like he attended the same beginner level Korean class as me and knew exactly what I had learned so far. Everything he had asked me, I was able to reply to with the appropriate answer: “제아버지는 미국사람이에요. 그리고 제 어머니는 일본사람이에요 (My dad is American and my mom is Japanese).”

Suddenly, he broke out in Japanese. Music to my earholes, since my Japanese proficiency is somewhere between my Korean and English. At first, I fumbled over words, as it had been a while since I had to speak any Japanese, but slowly it came back to me. I leaned forward, attentively listening to each word that exited his chapped mouth. He shared that he had a lot of good relationships with people living in Japan, and he studied Japanese while in college. Not to mention that he was also studying English now.

I listened to him speaking in Japanese and broken English and tried to respond in Japanese and broken Korean. It was a mess, but not the bad kind. Grammatically, our conversation must have made no sense at all, switching from one language to another mid-sentence, but the fact that it made sense to us was amazing.

It was one of those connecting moments that made me remember why I even bothered to study multiple languages.

The car was filled with laughter and compliments firing at each other back and forth like a machine gun loaded with bouncy balls. At one point in the conversation, he told me that if he was born a woman, he’d like to get married with me. Is there even an appropriate response to that? But nonetheless I had to admit, the ride was a lot of fun. Not a second of silence was spared.

As he dropped me off he asked me if I smoked, I could see he wanted to continue the conversation outside over a cigarette but I politely declined. I’ve never smoked before and I wasn’t going to try impress this old man.

Later, I found out that there is an actual word for sharing a cigarette, called “맞 담배” (Two people smoke face to face). From my understanding, according to Korean culture, younger men are not allowed to smoke with older men unless invited. Otherwise it would be disrespectful. After learning that, I could see his invitation meant a lot more than just killing time on the job, I had earned his respect.

“맞 담배” (Two people smoke face to face)

“맞 담배” (Two people smoke face to face)

My ride total had come out to about 6,000 won. I handed him a 10,000 won bill and told him to keep the change. In Korea, there is no such thing as giving tip, but I felt it was appropriate. He was in quite high spirits after that and ran around the backside of the car to meet me as I was preparing to walk away. As he gestured to shake my hand, I thought I’d go ahead and show him my aloha, and I gave him the full embrace. For those of you unfamiliar with “aloha” it's a Hawaiian word with many meanings that can be best translated here as “love.” But man, as soon as he shouted, “let’s get married!” I knew I had packed way too much aloha in that hug. He was joking of course, but I still forced my way out embarrassingly. While walking back to the driver seat, he waved goodbye.

“I love you!” he exclaimed for the last time, popping his head back into that slick orange taxi.

“Hurry up and leave” I said in my head, but instead I answered back, “나도 사랑해요 (I love you too).”

I turned around, and what looked like another student was standing by the bus stop behind me. I could only imagine what went through his mind in those few seconds. A 70-year-old Korean taxi driver having some type of relationship with a young 20-year-old American exchange student. Now, that’s not something you see every day.

Now, some of you skeptics might be thinking the driver was probably trying to earn a little extra moolah, since I’m a foreigner. And hey, maybe you’re right, but I like to look at the good in everyone, and to me, this guy gave me more than just a ride home. Some people may find speaking a foreign language with strangers to be easy. I am not one of those people. What he gave me was confidence, experience, and more desire to connect with others in their native tongue.

We all need moments like these, ones that inspire us to break free from our comfort zones, and studying abroad puts you in the perfect environment to be vulnerable to these moments.

What he gave me was confidence, experience, and more desire to connect with others in their native tongue.

Anyway, you have a place in my heart, old man.

Thanks for the ride.