Thursday, November 26, 2009

Lost in Translation...Still

You always hear these stories about people going abroad, and learning the language over time. They don't seem to study, they just kind of pick it up via osmosis or something. Or maybe they just really focus on trying to learn new words and sentences each day, practice in conversation, and then over time it all just kind of ... happens.

That has not been my experience here.

Firstly, Koreans speak English pretty well, and if they don't their skills at charades are impeccable. Secondly, 90% of foreigners are here to teach English. The Koreans have such a lust for learning English that it's almost impossible to try out Korean on them without them responding in English and turning the conversation around. You're a one trick pony, and if that pony starts improvising they lose all interest.

That being said, one should take it upon themselves to learn some things on their own. I can read the language (luckily it's phonetic, and this can be done in a matter of days), write it if necessary, and I can say basic phrases and directions. One of my biggest regrets is not making a better attempt at learning the language though. Time just... got away from me. The first 6 months here are spent getting the lay of the land, and then the last 6 months you're preparing to go home. For me, I stayed 3 months longer. Then 4 months longer, then 5 months, and finally 3 months and didn't take one Korean class and money was an issue. This hasn't entirely bothered me until today. A regret for sure, but bothered? Not so much, until now.

I go to this little shop 3-5 times a week, easily, to get Galbi Mandu (meat dumplings) and tteokboki (spicy thick rice noodles). The staff changes there fairly often, every couple of months. And lately, there are these two people - a man and a woman, who don't speak a lick of English. They get a kick out of the fact that I come there so often, order the EXACT same thing, and go off on my way. It's also on my way to and from home a lot, so they're really friendly, wave, and say anyong every time I walk by. But tonight, they were just rapid fire Korean speaking at me, and I didn't pick up one word. Usually I can figure out the subject of a conversation, but this was tough. I finally heard the words "hagwon" and "Eolmayo" - "Academy" and "How much?" and then they started rattling offer numbers like 30, 40, 50. I assume they were asking how much money I was making working for a hagwon. I tried saying I don't work for a hagwon, and we all laughed at how hard it was to communicate. Then some random customer decided to offer his translation services, and turns out, they just wanted to know my age, but I didn't realize this, and kept telling them that I was 50. Slightly embarrassing that I never bothered to learn the phrase, "How old are you?" in a country where age is of the utmost importance.

This obviously, isn't an isolated instance. A few weeks ago, a man stopped me on the street and asked me for directions, and it took me about 10 minutes to figure out what he wanted and how to tell him. He was so excited that I did it that he gave me a fist bump and yelled "MIGUK!!" (America!!). I believe he was just testing me, since there were dozens of other Koreans around.

So while I'm not the only one who didn't learn, and in some cases I'm better than most, I still should have made a better effort. If anyone reads this who is coming to Korea, its VERY easy to get by without knowing the language. A word of advice though, it's much more fun to learn to read it, and it would have been really helpful to have attempted to learn to speak it.

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