Found in Translation

I just wanted to get to the Valley.

I was coming off a late-night gig in Los Angeles. Well, late night for me. At 12:18 A.M., I was peeling off clothes that weren’t mine and locating my phone, anxious to see how the social world had fared without me for the past few hours. Having slept for shit since arriving in LA, I was most excited about one thing: sleeping in. I didn’t have to be back at this gig until 6 P.M. the following evening, which meant — praise all that is covered in chocolate and dipped in cheese — I didn’t have to set an alarm.

Until I saw the email. “Your 11 A.M. is confirmed! Here’s the address.”

You know the moment when you get something you want but it’s at exactly the wrong time and the first thing you think is FUCK and the second thing you think is YAY when YAY should be first?

This was one of those moments.

Which meant an 8 A.M. alarm, a shower, and budgeting an hour to make it from my Koreatown hotel to Studio City because LA traffic is a lot like my (first) ex-husband: volatile and unforgiving.

Which is how I ended up in a Lyft heading to the Valley the next morning with Sang at the wheel.

Sang lived close by, right there in Koreatown. Moved to LA from Korea 22 years ago and found his niche, his home. He’s one of those guys where the happy just radiates off him. For whom the American Dream isn’t dead or a myth. A guy who, frankly, just seemed happy that I was happy to talk to him.

Sang’s conversational English wasn’t great. My Korean is nonexistent. But together, we found the words to connect life’s dots as we inched our way toward the Valley.

I’m always curious how people land in America. What they think of this country, especially from those who have lived what’s likely half their lives outside America. Sang explained to me how he’d found a career in tax preparation and built a good life for himself and his family.

So what was this guy doing driving for Lyft?

Extra cash is always a popular answer. Sang’s was a bit different. The money was good and the schedule, flexible. But Sang had hit a ceiling in his tax prep path. He’d been passed over for a promotion because his English wasn’t strong enough to work with English-speaking clients.

So, here’s the part where I interject my awe of an immigrant coming to America and diving into a 10-plus year career where he’s learned the ins, outs, and various fuckery of the U.S. tax code and used that code to earn a living.

Sang started driving for Lyft to learn how to speak better English.

And like various other Lyfts I’ve climbed into and out of for the past four years since moving to Chicago, I was reminded that I only tick one block on the “languages spoken” roll call while invariably, most of the drivers I met spoke at least two. The young man who’d driven me to my gig the evening before spoke five. I silently promised to pay attention to my Duo Lingo account more often.

Yet I digress.

Sang told me how Korean only has three verb tenses (past/present/future) and how English has twelve. I sure as hell couldn’t have listed them all, but Sang can. And did.

And while we sped along the 101, he asked me how to say certain things. He’d point to an action. I’d say it. Lane-hopping. Swerving. Fairly sure I said the word “veer.” How the car in the lane next to us was a “piece of junk.” I over-enunciated, he repeated. I taught him how to use “gonna” instead of “going to.” After each discovery, he laughed and nodded, using his newfound linguistic treasure in a sentence, or as much sentence as he could muster. Then I laughed. Nodded. We hacked our way through a conversation filled with a jumble of words, most of which weren’t arranged in complete sentences yet still got the job done.

Sang pointed his car down the off-ramp and as we rolled to a stop at the light at the bottom, he said a word I didn’t understand. I asked him to repeat it. And that’s the bitch of languages because each one has its unique combination of sounds and some sounds just aren’t found in other languages. Which meant it took a few tries, but I got it.

Hemingway.

The writer?

Yes, yes. 

Ernest Hemingway?

He just smiled this huge smile, nodded with the greatest enthusiasm yet, and pieced together a sentence that broke my heart in the best possible way.

Sang looked forward to reading Ernest Hemingway in English. Sure, he could read Hemingway in Korean. But Sang said it wasn’t the same.

Not same.

I couldn’t say anything because at that point I was sleep-deprived and opening my mouth would have made me cry. Because I climbed into a car with a man who just wanted to learn to speak English better, was willing to invite strangers into his car to accomplish that goal, and one day dreamt of reading — and understanding the many layers of — Hemingway.

Then Sang said Shakespeare.

I just nodded. My inner monologue was closer to, “Man, there are native English speakers who don’t get Shakespeare but you keep on keepin’ on.”

Hemingway. Shakespeare. Sang repeated these two names like they were the notes of his favorite song.

I just wanted to get to the Valley and Sang just wanted to learn better English.

One of us had a higher purpose last Friday and it sure as hell wasn’t me. It only took me one car ride to get where I wanted to go. Sang’s plan was to drive Lyft for two or three years, amounting to hundreds — maybe even thousands — of rides in order to learn conversational American English so he could advance in his career doing something he loved.

And as Sang dropped me off at a curb in Studio City, I thought about how I was going to a meeting I was glad to get in a city that was 40 degrees warmer than my Chicago home…

And how many rides I was willing to take to get where I want to go in this life.

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