Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Language Barrier

I have been asked by several people if I plan on staying for in Korea for another year.  I met a foreign teacher who teaches across town, Steve, who has been teaching in Korea for three years (I could be wrong on the length of time).  He said to me, "I envy you.  You are at that stage where everything is new and exciting."  That comment resonated with me, because I take that into account every time I am asked the question of whether or not I will stay.  I usually tell them, "I don't know."  If I had to make a decision today, I would say yes.  At the moment, I am thoroughly enjoying my experience here, and the transition has been relatively easy for me.  The most difficult thing, so far, has been the language barrier.

You have seen all of the foods that I have tried.  Looking at a menu in a foreign language and pointing to an item, and ordering the item based only on the price, then looking confidently at the waitress, who doesn't speak your language, as if you know exactly what it is that you are ordering, can be stressful and exciting the same time.  It is exciting because I have thoroughly enjoyed Korean cuisine, and when ordering, I have that hope that it could something that I have never tried before, that would be among the best things that I have eaten.  Each table has a pager, and after serving the entree, waitresses only come to your table when you ring them.  The kinder ones will come back to check up on me even when I don't page them, and some even sit next to me and attempt to converse in Korean, even though I only know a few basic words.

Attempting to converse with somebody in another language involves a lot of miming, and usually they do not understand what you are attempting to convey.  And many times, they just may understand, but they are unable to convey it to you.  The stress involved with communicating with someone who speaks an unfamiliar language is indescribable, and unmistakeable, even when they are friendly.  But I have yet to meet a Korean who is unfriendly and inhospitable, so that sort of minimizes it to some degree.

Flirting doesn't seem to be as stressful.  Flirting with somebody who speaks an unfamiliar language usually involves, again, a lot of miming, but I try to reduce it as much as possible in an attempt to appear more suave.  So I replace the miming with more touching, and find it to be relatively effective.  But it still doesn't replace the effectiveness of comfortable fluent conversation.  On one occasion, the lady made fun of my gestures and my mannerisms, and I did likewise to her.  It eased the tensions, and made it fun, because we were able to laugh at each other.  I find that it is not as stressful as other things, because when somebody is attracted to you, they seem to be a lot more forgiving of obvious shortcomings, and in this case that would be the language barrier.  There is no mistaking attraction, and there is no mistaking letting somebody know that you are attracted to them also, even if it is nonverbal.

I am not as interested in television because of the language barrier.  Usually I find myself watching baseball, and K-dramas.  Baseball is baseball, even when the announcers speak a different language.  With K-dramas, all the actresses who play the main characters range from very attractive to extremely attractive.  Although I don't understand the dialogue, the basic story always seems to be the same.  Man and woman are initially attracted to each other, then along way they argue, and the woman cries...  a lot.  In the process, the lady will argue with her mother, her father, and her boss.  Both parties usually find comfort in their friends, but even then, sometimes they argue as well.  And sometimes, the man will heroically save the woman in some form or fashion.  The children in K-dramas are always well behaved, calm, and mature.  They seem to be the most calm and mature of all of the characters.

Again, for me, the most difficult thing associated with living in Korea has been the language barrier, but it hasn't taken away from the enjoyment of my stay so far.  As my mother explained, people are a lot more welcoming when the visitor smiles.  I have smiled a lot more than usual, and find it to be extremely effective.  When accepting change, or receiving something, I use two hands, and bow.  Koreans find that to be polite, and I always make it a point to say, "comsomnida," which means thank you in Korean.  When dining, I will call the waitress, "Emo," which means Aunt.  Apparently, the older ladies love that.  I always make it a point to say, "mashiseoyo," which is a respectful way of saying the food was delicious.  The last thing that I want to be is somebody who perpetuates the stereotype of Americans being loud, self-centered, arrogant, and obnoxious.  So wherever I go within Korea, I always attempt to maintain the mindset of a guest, and be as respectful as possible.  Thus far, to my knowledge, it has worked.

1 comment:

  1. Boy, Chris, I truly understand. There are so many sounds in Korean that we just don't have. But, I'm trying, too. Man, find yourself a tutor. Min tries, but he's so busy and really thinks I need to learn starting from scratch like a first grader. He just passed 10th grade with all A+'s. And that was with College Level Calculus. I'm so proud of him.

    If you want to watch K-dramas with sub-titles go to It helps me a lot. You have got to watch "All In". It's my favorite and Song Hye Kyo is breathtaking in it. She's my favorite Korean actress. I think she is the prettiest woman in Korea. Lee Byung Hun and Ji Sung are both gorgeous, too. Great movie. I loved Iris, but wanted to shoot the director for the ending. I actually was furious! "Personal Taste" was very modern and the funniest to me. I also loved "The World We Live In" with Hyun Bin and Song Hye Kyo. It's a shame that they broke up. Beautiful couple. I have watched so many.

    Just think, if you stay long enough in South Korea, your Mom would be so proud when you can speak to her in her own language. I know she's proud now. Hang tough, buddy. Sending hugs,

    Ms. Pam