Surprise conversations.

Tango – Yankee – Sierra – Madre (supposedly Mike) – Alpha – November – Sierra

My mom taught me this when I was very young. It’s our last name according to the NATO phonetic alphabet. She said it would come in handy when talking to people on the phone. It did, in fact. She received lots of calls in the age when email was still a daydreamers affair and spell checks were not necessary. I learned by listening and intuitively understood that it was only to be used when persons needed our names. Back then, everyone seemed to need it said or at least heard via telephone. How quickly we learned to use it and how odd when, in hindsight, most of the codes seem hardly pronounceable to non-native English speakers. Yet it continues to be taught religiously to IT personnel.

It’s a polarizing tool, really. On the one hand it is really useful in transmitting information because of the way the words sound. Radio monitoring servers and phone operators look kindly upon it for the ease by which it allows messages to be sent. It’s all good really…until you get a non-English speaking person to use it.

On the phone this afternoon, I met one such man. I had to make changes to my aunt’s return trip to the States and since the airlines’ website was of no use, I took the time to call the “Manila” office instead. This was not new to me so I expected everything to turn out awful. The wait is obvious so I took a book to sit with as the call was made. Memories of poor service and rude attendants steadily formed in my mind as I listened to the recording tell me that there was no one available to help me yet. After fifteen minutes of that and four rounds of the recording, an operator finally came through.

He had a thick Korean accent which made me wonder why our Filipinos were made to sound Korean. I always assume that I’m speaking to someone who works here. There’s a whole lot of customer service personnel working in call centers and while I knew that taking on an American accent was a plus, it seemed ridiculous for this guy to need a Korean one. Then after some initial remarks it became clear (because he said so) that my call had been re-routed to an office in Korea. It was not a fake accent or phony operator that had received my call but rather a sincere one with a real accent and no difficulty understanding me at all. that’s surprise number one.

The next thirty minutes were the most insightful and wonderful glimpses I’ve ever had into the ways of another culture. I’m always warned about what Koreans are like and since there are so many of them who have fled their country to occupy ours (minus the meaning the word ‘occupy’ normally takes on in textbooks), it becomes very difficult to hear dissenting voices. Those that have been classmates are no exception either. They tend to group themselves together and opt out of conversations with others who don’t share their language. While not being fond of their dramas, the only thing that seemed interesting was their food and the occasional poetry picked up here and there.  I took this all with me in that conversation and by the end of it, I’d forgotten it all.

Mr. Shim was so patient and so kind. He knew I was acting as a representative of his customer and yet he worked as if I had bought the ticket myself. He anticipated problems even before I could ask him and for some reason, I appreciate that I could hear him chuckle when I made small mistakes causing me to unleash the Filipino ‘Ay!s’ and ‘Nye!s.’

When we finally got to the part when I had to confirm the booking and have the ticket mailed to me, I spelled my name ever so slowly being mindful of his keen ear and thick accent. Afterwards, he spelled it back using the same phonetic alphabet I used as a child.

Tango – Yankee – Smile… I don’t know what came over me and of course he sensed the pause after he had said ‘Smile.’ On the other end of the line I couldn’t help but do it. I smiled and as if by instinct, he heard the gesture from miles away and asked about the pause. I couldn’t lie so I told him the truth. It pleased me to have someone take all this time just to make my aunt’s flight home possible and it pleased me more to have someone spell my name with ‘smile’ instead of ‘sierra.’

At this, he chuckled again–it was a warm sound straight from the gut. I bade him farewell gratefully with a deep smile and an otherwise happy set of feelings. It’s rare to hear kind gestures on the phone these days and even rarer to find people who radiate kindness through them.

So I guess today’s thought has to do with preconceived notions–these fictions we learn from day one to facilitate our dealings with people, places and things–and how they aren’t set in stone. Mr. Shim is only one of the many Koreans I’ve met and yet he seems to represent all that I love about those who have become my friends.

Here’s to sincerely hoping that people find their own Mr. Shims.


2 thoughts on “Surprise conversations.

  1. It’s very true, we Koreans mob up together and make such strong circles that it makes it hard for people to get ‘in’. Loved this post and he seems like a great guy.

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