If you only know one phrase in English…

“Eeeepuh,” says the taxi driver hesitantly, making eye contact with me in the rear view mirror. “Uhhh…. eeeepuh…”

I look uncertainly at him.

My conversations with taxi drivers here have been entertaining, confusing, embarrassing, and (mostly) very trying. The drivers usually fall into one of three categories:

1) Wary of foreigners, refuse to speak at all, even in response to “thank you” or “goodbye”. I used to hate these men on account of the sheer rudeness of not even bothering to acknowledge someone’s existence, but they may now be my favourites – purely because they require a lot less attention and effort than the other two (much friendlier) kinds.

2) Eager to show off English abilities, regardless of skill level. Entire journey will be spent in the role of an English teacher, despite your early morning tiredness / attempts to write an email on your phone / hangover.

3) Very excited to have a real, live foreigner in the car, seizes opportunity for thorough interrogation, entirely in Korean. It doesn’t matter if you attempt to answer as best you can in your clearly terrible, broken Korean, or if you flat out say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean” – this taxi driver will continue to talk rapidly at you, pausing for answers to questions you don’t understand after the standard first 5 (where are you from, is Ireland in England, what do you do in Korea, how old are you, are you married).

So, tonight’s taxi driver falls into category number 2. He apparently speaks no English, nor has he attempted to speak to me in Korean, but he keeps looking back at me and he has that nervous, self-conscious look about him. It’s the look they get when they’re trying to psych themselves up to say something in English but are scared of making a mistake. Finally, he clears his throat several times. Here we go! I think to myself. I prepare my best encouraging smile for the impending “where are you from?” or “do you like Korea?”.

“Eeeeepuh,” he says, somewhat unexpectedly. “Eeeepuh….”

This is a new one. I have no idea what he’s saying, nor do I have much remaining confidence in my belief that he is speaking English. Eeepuh, eeepuh… I search in the dark corners of my brain, but there is no eeepuh there.

“Eeepuh?” I ask gently, trying to sound encouraging.

“Eeeepuh,” he agrees. “Eeeepuh, eeeepuh!”

This is not going very well. He sees my blank expression and looks flustered. “Uhhh…. i… ehpuh… eeepuh!” he adds for clarification.

Oddly enough, this helps, and I suddenly understand. “Ahh – i… f…. if!” I say with some relief. “Got it. OK. If….”

“If!” he repeats with satisfaction. There is a pause, and he clears his throat again.

“If you do not think about the future… then you cannot have one.”

I am too confused and taken aback to come up with an appropriate response to this, so I end up saying a polite “thank you”.

He smiles shyly at me, clearly relieved to have said his piece. We do not speak again for the remainder of the journey. I am fairly certain that that is the only thing he knows how to say in English. Forget “hello, how are you”, forget “what’s your name?”. No, his one English sentence is: If you do not think about the future… then you cannot have one.

I am going to miss this place.

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