Peripheral Korean: What it’s like living in a country that doesn’t speak my language

Living in Korea is not something I thought I’d ever get used to. Well, I think I have. *GASP* REALLY?? I’ve hit that magical moment of “This is my life now” and I am living in it. Hard.  Granted, most days bring something unexpected, but that comes with teaching different classes each day of the week. By this point, I have fallen into a definite routine. I wake up at 7am, go to school and teach, come home, cook dinner for myself, watch movies or TV on my laptop, then fall asleep by the all-too reasonable hour of 10:30pm.

There are some things that were shocking and jarring the first few months that I lived here, but that have recently made me reflect.

One thing that I deal with on a daily, hourly, minute by minute basis is the language barrier at both of my schools. Even learning how to read Hangul before coming here didn’t prepare me for the utter strangeness of being in a workplace where only a handful of people speak my language. A simple “hello” goes a long way here! I have developed the “foreigner complex” of mumbling “annyeonghaseyo” (Hello in Korean) as I see my colleagues in the hallways or in the morning. The language barrier has never proven to be an outright problem, luckily. I have been able to go about my day pretty normally and uninterrupted, however, I find myself wanting to partake in the workplace, what I imagine to be, “water cooler” chatter that goes on around me more than I’d like to admit.

When I worked at Half Price Books, I was constantly chatting with coworkers and sometimes, it hindered my work. This is one huge plus of not being able to talk to many of my coworkers. I get a lot done! Every single one of my eight co-teachers is welcoming and kind. And I am extremely lucky in that more than half of my co-teachers actually care to talk to me outside of the classroom. But, the amount of actual conversation I’ve had is quantifiable to about half a day’s worth and most of it is with my two main co-teachers at each school. I’m not complaining. Like I said, I’m very lucky that every single one of my co-teachers have been kind and welcoming (not the same for some EPIK teachers), but I miss the camaraderie of workplace relationships. It’s downright bizarre not being friends with any of my coworkers. I’m surrounded by people and have no idea what their names are or what subjects they teach.

The same is true with my students – I only know maybe 25 of my 550 students’ names. In the classroom, my Korean students are forced to listen to me talk at them in a foreign language for 45 minutes. Lately, I have been racking my brain trying to remember what it was like to be in a Spanish classroom where the teacher only spoke Spanish. My memory is unhelpfully hazy, but there is a brief clarity when I remember first feeling put out by it. How can the teacher expect me to understand what she’s saying if she doesn’t explain in English as well?? Over time, I got used to it and my fluency in Spanish grew. I try to remember this as we are nearing the end of the year and I slowly lose what control I had of my students as their minds slowly give way to thoughts of Winter vacation. (My thoughts are on vacation, as well, let’s be real.) I have told myself over and over again that their inattentiveness to my lesson is a result of the language barrier. I don’t understand, so why pay attention? This realization came after weeks of feeling horrible that my students were rowdy and talkative – it’s not me, it’s the language. This is something I want to be sure to state for any incoming teachers reading this: Truly do not take it personally if students are hellions in class. Chances are, they just don’t feel motivated to learn English and therefore, don’t try to listen to you. My advice would be to teach the hell out of your lesson for those students who are paying attention. And change their seats if their inattention is disruptive.

Time number 1 when students pay attention: When watching sports.
Time number 2 when students pay attention: When watching a movie.

Not only is the language barrier apparent at work, but also out and about. Again, super obvious, right? Even though I feel great about the fact that I can read menus and successfully ask for more water (mool-juseyo!) at a restaurant, running errands still feels like a burden sometimes. For example, sending packages. When I sent in my absentee ballot to vote ( 😦 ), I went to my local post office which is only two blocks away. The young lady wore a look of surprise and then resolution as I made my way to her. I awkwardly mimed what I needed to do while showing her the address of the package. We ran into some trouble when she needed to tell me that since I was sending my express package to a P.O. box, I wouldn’t be notified of the delivery. I got out my phone and booted up Google Translate to finally understand what she needed to tell me. But it took about five minutes. Five awkward, frustrating minutes as we both tried to make sense of what the other was trying to say because lets’s face it, those apps aren’t perfect. Just this week, I went back to the post office to send a Christmas package. The same girl was working. I’m sure she remembered me, but this time, the process went much faster and smoother. We were both relieved to have a successful interaction without the use of Google Translate, but through the use of a series of pointing and gesturing.

Not knowing a host country’s language can really start to wear a person down and it’s one way people experience culture shock. I, however, feel more energized to really try to learn the language and become confident enough in my speaking that I can actually utilize the language day to day. Several of my Korean friends have commented that they wish they could speak to me in Korean as well as English; dropping hints left and right. Every Monday, there is a language exchange that takes place in downtown Ulsan. I try to go as often as I can, but since Monday is my hardest day (tired from the weekend, I have the most difficult and unruly classes, it’s the first day of new lesson plans, etc., etc.), I am generally wiped out by the end of the day. This is where I have met some really great Koreans. The two hour-long gatherings are very informal with people showing up half way through or leaving early. We drink coffee and chat about our lives. The first hour is supposed to be spent practicing Korean and the second hour is meant to be spent speaking English. Who I’m with just ends up speaking English the whole time even though it is always overwhelmingly a Korean majority. Since I have gone quite a few times, I usually know about half the people, but I’ve met new people each time I’ve gone.

One of the best things about living here is the sheer amount of new people I’ve met and even though most of them are Korean, it hasn’t deterred me from becoming friends with them. The best advice I could give to any new English teacher either EPIK or not is to try and make Korean friends. Which is much, much, much easier in a city than in a province because there are usually a lot of Koreans in a concentrated area who are interested in learning English and making English-speaking friends. My life feels enriched in a way that isn’t as readily possible in America. I spend a lot of time asking my Korean friends how to say certain things in Korean and what is proper Korean etiquette in certain situations. Since I’m living in an entirely new country, I want to be as immersive as possible and asking my Korean friends to explain things to me has really made my experience that much better and easier.

Something to keep in mind about language while living in Korea is that you WILL start to lose some of your “academic” English. What does this mean? Well, I spend all day at my job speaking in very basic English. Then, I hang out with Korean friends who are fluent (or very close to fluent) in conversational English, yet might not know what “brusque” means. I find myself slowing my speech down and speaking more clearly when I’m with my twenty-something friends just as if I were with my middle schoolers (obviously not as slow!).  Honestly, this has nothing to do with my friends’ abilities, it’s just become habit! My EPIK friends and I joke when we see each other on weekends that we have lost our English because for the first few minutes of hanging out, we find ourselves speaking slower and clearer.

Things my Korean friends have helped me out with:

  • Figuring out how the trash works – it’s needlessly complicated
  • Transferring money into a hostel owner’s bank account before I had my own bank account
  • Ordering food at countless restaurants
  • What to say to a worker at stores – Annyeonghi kyeseyo! (Good bye!) or Kamsahamnida! (Thank you!)
  • Showing me the nearest home goods store
  • Buying train tickets
  • Giving excellent recommendations on eateries
  • Planning a trip to Gyeongju
  • Getting me a taxi
  • Teaching me some Korean slang that goes over SUPER well with my middle schoolers
  • Showing me the art of grilling and cutting samgyeopsal (pork belly)
  • Answering any questions I have that come up along the way

Although some days I feel frustrated that I know the vast majority of the people surrounding me in my day to day life don’t speak my language, I remember the reason I’m here – to immerse myself in Korean culture and become better at understanding how a different location in the world works. Growing up in America was amazing, but it’s such a big country and I didn’t take the risks necessary to grow culturally. Korea has opened my eyes to what it’s like to be the “other” and “different”and I have grown as a person because of it. First, I am humbled. Not everyone in the world speaks English?! Second, the world has never felt larger. How are so many things different here?! I take care to not offend my host country’s people. Third, I am brimming with excitement to see even more places in this world. And fourth, I’m proud of myself. This is the scariest, hardest, riskiest, best thing I’ve ever done and I can’t wait to see what the rest of this year holds for me.

So for now, annyeonghi kyeseyo!


4 thoughts on “Peripheral Korean: What it’s like living in a country that doesn’t speak my language

  1. Bridgette

    Hello from California again!

    I loved reading this post (and honestly all of your blog!) because I feel like it is so real. You don’t sugarcoat how hard it can be, but you are also including so many good and wonderful things about your new life! I feel like I am a fan of yours (haha that feels funny to say, but it is so true!) and I really enjoy reading all of your posts!

    I hope you have a wonderful winter vacation! 🙂


      1. Bridgette

        I think it is going okay! I am a little nervous about getting all of my documents in on time and I have a had a little hiccup because I am currently getting my master’s in TESOL, but I won’t have my degree in hand to get it apostilled in time so I may end up having to take an online TESOL class anyways *sigh* haha! But I am still excited and pushing forward! Are you still doing well?? 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s