“Divorce, divorce, divorce,” the old cabbie said in a thick Korean accent, waving his hand in the air as if to wipe the word away. “This crazy country. Maybe if you had to-”
Here he struggled for a word.
“Work hard for the warm bed and-”
He struggled again.
“Full belly, you not have time to monkey around, eh?”
He laughed hard, trying to catch my eye in the rearview mirror so he was more than long gray scraggles sticking from the back of a flat cap.
I include his broken English not to make fun of or stereotype the man, but to praise him. It was a slow, plodding, heroic English and I admired it a great deal.
It was the English of a man who learned as an adult, picking up words as people used them in his presence. Had he learned in a school, teachers and classmates would have convinced him “hunger” was an easier tool than “malnutrition,” or that “take up” would be a more appropriate thing to do with hobbies than “cultivate.”
It was the English of a man who taught himself an alien tongue, juggling AP vocab words with ease and struggling for terms like “work” and “full.”
He was a C student, he repeated several times. But he worked. He was tenacious under trying circumstances.
“In Korean War, I was 11, 12 years old. You see the people with the,” he waved his hand in front of his face as if pulling a beard.
“Malnutrition face,” he finally said. “I understand now why my father drink and get angry, eh? I understand now.”
He came to the U.S. in 1967. He was 29 and was lousy at ping pong.
“I come here, 29, and in a church basement they play ping pong, table tennis. And everybody beats me. Everybody. So I get angry and decide to cultivate the hobby.”
He practiced. He worked, first at table tennis, then at regular tennis. He was soon winning games at the church.
“Jump up, whack the ball. Jump up, whack the ball. It relieves my stress, eh?”
He was working at more than ping pong and English. He got married and started a family. He worked several jobs, landing as a cabbie when he was almost 50.
“When I start, I hated it. But after 30 years, it is second nature to me, eh?”
He doesn’t understand divorcees or people who don’t work. He thinks teachers are important. He was proud when a friend called his English “pretty good.” And he still plays tennis, both table and otherwise.
“In September, I am 78. I have a job. I feel good, healthy,” he said, before adding something I didn’t catch.
“Thankful heart,” he repeated. “I have gratitude. A thankful heart.”
And he worked for every inch of it. Day after day, he taught himself to speak a language, to play two sports, to love his job, to stay with his wife, to forgive his father, to fill his heart with thanks and gratitude.
He did it with practice and grit. He did it by work.
Jump up. Whack the ball. Repeat.