Ryan and the Technicolor Wardrobe
Short Stories and Essays

I’ve never had a particularly good grasp on speaking any languages outside of English, which is a surprise since English isn’t technically my first language.  It didn’t take long for English to overtake Korean, but nonetheless, English is my second language.  It’s taken a hold of me and it won’t let go.  3 years of Spanish in high school, and 2 years of Korean in college, plus various Korean schools and lessons at home from my parents, couldn’t loosen the grip that the English language has on me.  I used to get criticized for my terrible Korean speaking skills, sometimes by children, and they would mistake my lack of knowledge for a lack of trying.  That’s not the case.  I’m just a Korean boy who grew up in Minnesota with very few Korean kids to speak to on a regular basis, and then when I gave Korean the old college try (literally), it just didn’t take.

My friend Barrett has a similar tale.  He’s a 3rd generation Chinese-American from Fresno.  His Chinese speaking skills are pretty much non-existent.  His parents speak fluent English, and while my parents don’t, my older sisters were all speaking plenty of English in our house.  Fresno doesn’t exactly have the biggest Chinese community in the world, let alone California, so even if Chinese was spoken in Barrett’s household, he wouldn’t have many friends to practice speaking with outside the home.

Of course, while my Korean speaking skills are completely derivative, I’ve soaked up a lot of Korean culture just by being around my first generation parents and going to a Korean-not very American, church for my entire childhood.    Barrett hasn’t been afforded that luxury so something simple as learning how to use chopsticks has passed him by – or at least this is what Barrett perceives with this specific situation.  I’m not so inclined to agree.

A few years ago, on Barrett’s birthday, we headed to Warner Brothers studios to catch a taping of Conan.  It was on Barrett’s college bucket list, and since I worked at a school that had Spring Break coincidentally on the same week as Barrett’s, I decided to go with him.  Barrett was especially excited that we were going on this particular day because he and Conan share a birthday.  We headed up at the crack of dawn and waited in the Warner Brothers parking structure hoping to get on the standby list.  We were the first people there so there was very little anxiety about whether we would get in later in the day.  It was pretty chilly so we decided to get a nice warm meal – a bowl of ramen at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo because it fit the 2 criteria on Barrett’s list: 1) delicious, 2) cheap.

We ordered a pitcher of beer and a bowl of ramen each.  Even though we were understandably excited that we were going to see one of our comedy heroes later in the day, we needed sustenance if were to continue our high level of enthusiasm. The piping hot bowls of ramen were delivered to our table, and I was ready to dive in.  I sensed some hesitation from Barrett, but I wasn’t sure of the reason.  He looked frustrated, so I asked “what’s the problem?”  Barrett’s problem was the utensils.

“I can’t use chopsticks.” he muttered.

“But we’re eating noodles…” I tried to explain.

“I need a fork.” he said defiantly.

Seeing that Barrett wasn’t in the mood to learn a new skill on his birthday, I flagged down our waiter.  When the waiter approached our table, I told him that my friend wanted a fork.  The waiter looked confused, then he looked to the bus boy, threw his hands up in disbelief and said “for-ku?”  The bus boy then ran to the kitchen and brought the waiter a fork, which he handed to Barrett.  It was quite the scene, and at the time, I believe it left Barrett a little embarrassed.  It probably didn’t help that I couldn’t contain my laughter throughout the whole ordeal.

It didn’t ruin Barrett’s birthday. He was able to see Conan O’Brien and that was all that mattered.  The “for-ku” incident was just a footnote to the main event, but it’s something that we both talk about to this day.  Barrett still attributes his non-existent chopstick stills to his 3rd generation Chinese-American heritage even though my infinite-generation white roommate can use chopsticks with ease.  While it’s pretty clear that upbringing or lack there of has nothing to do with using two sticks to pick up food, I’ll let Barrett have this one, because we’re friends, and because it’s funnier this way.  Friends should let their friends get away with certain delusions as long as it’s not hurting anyone, and frankly, Barrett’s chopstick deficiency is about as harmless as it gets.  Besides, if Barrett chalked this up to his own laziness, it hurts the story, and I can’t let that happen.  If Barrett wants to think he can’t use chopsticks like I can’t use the Korean language, then so be it.  I’ll look the other way for him so the “for-ku” story can live forever.