Before our words can enter the world, they have to pass the tongue. That organ is rightfully attributed manifold talents: it can protrude from the mouth derisively and provocatively, it can kiss, get burnt, and hurt with every movement. It can be knotted, and it may even carry the heart. But its seemingly independent character should not belie the fact that it also is instrumentalised for manipulative purposes. The tongue and its frenulum, which keeps the highly mobile organ well attached to the oral cavity, serve as points of departure for Jaha Koo’s performative narration: Koo takes us along into his remembrance of his friend and teacher Jack, whom he describes as a “young man in an old body”, and who taught him English in Korea. We are already welcomed with a show of commercial videos of that glittering convenience-pop culture for which the “Tiger State” is world-famous. The pleasant surface of these images does not disclose anything about the tension between cultural homogenization and heterogenization which were an integral part of the country’s economic ascent. On two screens, these virtual spaces accompany Koo’s narration, which connects the roots of a current phenomenon with imperialist, colonialist, and even liberalist claims to power.
Koo faces us at his DJ stand wholly in the style of a “cool kid”. To our surprise he then relates that he acquired the stand for learning English when he was a child. For within the Korean high-performance society, children with a perfect command of the English language are regarded as status symbols. Outwardly, the Koreans’ discipline and efficiency count among the main reasons for the success of the country’s economic development. At his stand, Koo winds this story back and forward for us: we hear excerpts from a cassette tape he used as a boy to learn English every afternoon.
His experiences with acquiring this “world language” then are narrated against the background of South Korea’s cultural Americanisation: after signing the Taft-Katsura treaty in 1905 and America’s compliance with Japan’s occupation of Korea as part of its “great East Asian prosperity sphere”, the Korean language was officially replaced by Japanese. This historical language loss eventually returned in a modified shape in the second half of the 20th century, when the USA also demanded a symbolic reward for its actions as military liberation power. In the words of America’s President of that time, Lyndon B. Johnson, the American support should help Korea to “rise from the ashes”. Thus, the optimistic outpour of the Pax Americana was again accompanied by aspirations of linguistic assimilation.
Here the performance provides valuable awareness training about a grotesque phenomenon that has accompanied those who learn English in South Korea ever since: if one wants to get people to talk, one tries, in a colloquial sense, to “loosen” their tongue. This figure of speech is connected with the custom of loosening the lingual frenulum, a string-like tissue connecting the tongue and the oral cavity, of new-born babies. According to popular belief this is beneficial to learning to talk. However, in Korea this surgical procedure is performed on people of all ages. It is supposed to serve to perfect pronunciation and be able to utter words containing the letter R “rolling” instead of “lolling”. In order to sound as “authentic” as possible in the English language, many Koreans accept this physical encroachment and have their frenulum cut apart in an operation.
By this example Koo emphasizes the fact that the mediation of historical reality is prerequisite for how we perceive each other culturally. His issue is the fragility of the globalism narrative, which in Korea is still associated with a cosmopolitan attitude and readiness for economic collaboration. Finally, he recites a poem in Korean which his meanwhile deceased teacher taught him. He speaks into the nearly dark room, so that we hear the beauty of the poetic diction even better. In this concentrated end he intimates to us that there are indeed forms of beauty in language which only our own mother tongue(s) can make available. Defying history, poetry remains a space of resistance.
Freda Fiala studied theatre, film and media as well as sinology in Vienna, Berlin, Hong Kong and Taipei. As a scholarship holder of ÖAW she now concentrates on writing and researching about theatre and performance cultures in East Asia, intercultural forms of staging, and the performing arts as means and method of international cultural relationships.