There’s a reason why expats need to learn some basic language skills in their host country. Here’s why you should never trust a cell phone.
It is a cool but beautiful afternoon in Seoul. It’s 4pm and I’m zipping out of the parking garage of the school on my way home to enjoy the remainder of the day. I love my scooter. It’s not the sexiest machine on the road, but there’s no better way to travel in the city than on a scooter, weaving in and out of traffic while cars crawl along at 20km/h.
After riding for a while, even before the gas light fires up, I’ve learned to sense when the gas is low based on the weight of my bike. I feel that it is getting a bit light, so I decide to fill it up before heading the rest of the way home. The closest service station near my school is a new self-service station. Why not? I think to myself. Normally I roll up to a full service station (most are in Korea) and the attendant asks me how much, and I give my standard reply: palchonun (8,000 won). But why not do it myself?
The funny thing is, I am able to use the machine’s touch screen menu fine enough. I know enough Korean to use an ATM, and this was no different. No problem at all. But as I go to lift the handle of the pump I am presented with a problem: two pumps, presumably one for gasoline and one for diesel. There is no English. I have to choose between 경유 (kyeongyu) and 휘발유 (huibalyu). I think you can now see where this is going.
I’m not one to back down to language challenges. No problem, I think to myself, I’ll check my cell phone dictionary. All phones here, even the shittiest of models, have a built in English/Korean dictionary. First I translate 경유 (kyongyu). The translation is gasoline.
One of my university professors once described disjunctive syllogism as a philosophical concept so simple that even a dog understands it. Picture a dog chasing a cat’s scent. He comes to a fork in the road where there are two directions. He sniffs the first direction but doesn’t pick up the scent. Knowing that the cat did not go in the first direction, he doesn’t need to sniff the second. He can logically infer that the only remaining direction must be the one that cat took. According to my cell phone, 경유 (kyongyu) is gasoline. Therefore I have no need to translate 휘발유 (huibalyu). Had I done that at the time, I would have been interested to know that it also translates as gasoline. But I did not.
I peeled away from the gas station proud of myself of overcoming another language challenge. I did not get far when suddenly the engine cuts out and I start to coast. Almost immediately I am suspicious. Finally, I roll to a stop, rather conveniently, in front of a gas station. As it happens, they have bilingual labels on the pumps. 휘발유 (huibalyu) GASOLINE. 경유 (kyongyu) DIESEL.
A fortunate reality of Seoul is that with the population density you’re usually less than a few hundred meters from whatever you’re looking for. In this case, I needed a bike repair shop, and I was not far from one. The mechanic doesn’t speak much English so I explain with my limited Korean. In English my explanation would have translated as such:
I am an idiot. I went to a service station. Self. This bike is gasoline. I do diesel.
It’s the best I can do. He laughs and points to another bike parked down the street, and explains that the owner did the same thing. From what I gather, a small explosion is involved, though I doubt the science of this claim. Or my translation. But the bottom line of the message is that the guy with the black scooter has a permanently destroyed engine.
But in less than a minute he has my scooter half disassembled, and he’s pumping the fuel out of the engine with what appears to be plastic tubing and a turkey baster. With all the skill of MacGyver he rigs up a system where he is essentially running the engine not out of the gas tank but a homemade “tank” made from half a plastic bottle and some tubing. Five minutes, and the equivalent of $9 USD later and I’m back on the road and swearing to myself that I will never trust a cell phone dictionary again.