I sighed. “It’s terrible. I mean—I can get around and make small talk, but I still can’t have a good conversation.”
My friend Shannon and I were at a Korean bathhouse, sprawled on straw floor mats when she asked me about my Korean.
“I’m so frustrated lately—and I feel guilty, but I stopped taking classes after my vacation to Japan. I haven’t met up with my language partner for awhile either.”
“Why did you stop taking classes?” she asked.
“Well, the next level starts at 4 PM on Wednesday—and, I don’t know, I guess I don’t really feel connected to Korean society. I’m always the ‘foreigner’ or ‘foreign friend’ no matter where I go.”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“I still want to learn Korean though. I feel guilty living here and not taking advantage of the opportunity to learn a new language. When I was in Peru, I only spoke Spanish with my Peruvian friends. They expected me to speak Spanish. I just thought my Korean would be better by now.”
“Some languages aren’t for everyone,” she suggested. “Maybe Korean’s just not for you. I hated studying Spanish.”
I’ve lived in Korea for over a year now. When I meet up with my other expat friends, I feel like I’ve mastered the Korean language. “Sarah, your Korean is so good,” they’ll gush, “Can you translate this for me?” I begin to believe (or merely want to believe) all the Koreans who tell me, “Wow, you speak Korean so well,” when in fact, they say this to every foreigner who can say simple phrases like “Hello” or “How much is this?” However, Shannon brings me back to reality. Shannon has lived in Korea for seven years, and she even studied and graduated from the Sogang University Korean language program. Shannon reminds me that my Korean sucks.
Shannon is an exception though. She fell in love with the Korean language and became attached to Korean culture in a way that I haven’t, and most expats haven’t. She watches Korean dramas. I don’t. She listens to Korean ballads and attends K-pop concerts. I don’t. She dated a Korean guy. I haven’t.
Most of the expats I’ve met in Korea can speak very basic Korean, if that. Some are here for the easy lifestyle and money that comes along with it, paying off their debts and embracing Korea’s notorious drinking culture. Some can’t be bothered to learn the language when they live in an expat bubble, mime their way around town and only expect to stay a year or two. Some begin to learn Korean, but give up due to laziness, apathy, or the ironic realization that they don’t necessarily need to use Korean to get by in daily life. Some may have a fear of becoming too involved in Korean culture. Or, after hours of reflecting, some have probably faced the same dilemma that I have. They’ve realized that they don’t feel a strong connection to the language they’re learning.
I didn’t always feel this way. Prior to teaching in Seoul, I was a university exchange student at the Korea National University of Arts. When I decided to return to Korea to teach, I was determined to learn Korean and speak it well. I listened to talktomeinkorean.com podcasts, and I utilized the free online resources, completing the video homework and uploading it onto my Youtube account for the teachers to comment on my pronunciation and fluency. I even used Rosetta Stone almost every day, furiously scrawling new vocabulary words on scrap pieces of paper and moving through the lessons and units at a rapid pace.
When I eventually arrived in Korea, I continued studying by taking free classes once a week at the Korea Foundation, located in downtown Seoul. At work, I would learn from my students, listening as they chatted in Korean throughout class. I even met a language exchange partner, who patiently helped me study.
I have also developed a few relationships that have broadened my perspective about Korean life and culture. Besides my Korean friends from art school, I befriended an ajumma after-school teacher at the public school where I work. In our office, her desk was across the room from mine, but she never acknowledged me until a couple months after I began working, when I took a weekend trip to Gyeongju and brought back barley bread, a local specialty. The next morning, the after-school teacher returned the favor by giving me bread from Paris Baguette.
From that point on, we began conversing in Korean at work. She would ask me about my weekend, or I would ask her how her classes were going. Eventually, she invited me to an art exhibition where one of the teachers was showing her work, and afterwards we all drank makkoli, Korean rice wine, together. She has invited me to her house twice for dinner, we’ve gone hiking together, she met my family when they visited, and I’ve met her children and husband. When we walk together, she’ll hold my hand, treating me like she would her daughter or a Korean friend. Sometimes I visit her office and we drink tea together. I don’t feel embarrassed when I can’t think of a word right away; I’m able to practice my Korean without feeling uncomfortable. However, many other teachers are afraid to speak to me; they feel like they need to speak English, and they’re embarrassed of their skills.
Although I formed a few good relationships, I’m not speaking Korean on a regular basis. Solely taking classes once a week, listening to students speak Korean, and occasionally speaking Korean with friends, colleagues and cashiers at convenience stores is not an ideal situation for reaching language fluency. Sure, I can explain that my eyes are red and itchy to the eye doctor and understand when he tells me to use eye drops four times a day, but I still can’t have a good conversation. I can answer what I did last weekend and listen when the after-school teacher names places in Korea that I should visit, but I can’t express my feelings.
As the months passed, I became more disheartened with my slowly progressing skills. I wasn’t completely immersed in Korean society, and I wasn’t expected to be. I was recruited to work in Korea as a foreigner and discouraged from trying to speak Korean at work.
I also began experiencing the dark sides of Korean culture, mainly rampant sexism and xenophobia, which, at one point, pushed me even further away from wanting to study Korean. I was mistaken as a prostitute on a street right next to my school. At work, my 40 year-old, male co-teacher would make comments like, “You’re going to China alone? But you’re a woman.” The summer camp advisor tried to separate the girls and boys during sports day, claiming that the boys are too competitive for the girls. There is even a Male Teachers’ Association at my school. As a feminist, western female, this is discouraging, but at the same time easy to ignore, because I’m not Korean, I never will be, and I will never be treated as a Korean. However, I’m still surrounded by these attitudes on a daily basis.
As a foreigner in Korea, a barrier exists that seemingly can never be broken. I’ve had a good Korean friend for three years, but only recently, I visited her home and met her family for the first time. Even though I’ve lived in the same apartment for more than a year, I am continually stared at every time I step outside. I hear people whispering, or not whispering, “foreigner” as I walk near my school. I’m pointed at. I’m leered at. I’ve become accustomed to this, but I still feel like the freak animal at the zoo. For the last few months, I strengthened the barrier between myself and Korea, convincing myself that I didn’t want to be part of this exclusive society.
For a few months, I started attending more expat events and going on trips outside of Seoul. I had lots of fun, but I felt strongly detached from Korean society, eating chili dogs and drinking imported beer with a group of foreigners, enclosed in a bubble. I realized that language and culture are interchangeable. Living in Korea without learning Korean is merely skimming the surface of the complexities within this fascinating half-peninsula.
Maybe Korean culture doesn’t inspire me as much as I believed it would. Maybe I should try to be more open to Korean pop culture, or make more of an effort to form relationships, like bringing the bread into work. Maybe I’m merely impatient, frustrated with my slow progression. Despite the rampant xenophobia, the sexism at work, and challenges of forming good relationships with Koreans in Korean, it’s vital to keep learning Korean to make the most of my experience here. Although I don’t plan on staying in Korea for a lengthy period of time like Shannon, she does prove that it’s possible to proceed beyond the plateaus that are inevitably met with language learning.
Meanwhile, back in the bathhouse, I sat on the straw floor mat, listening to ajumma chatter in Korean and continuing my own conversation in English, about Korean.
Editor’s Note: Sarah Shaw regularly blogs about her life in Korea and travel adventures @ Mapping Words. If you enjoyed this post, please be sure to support her writing efforts by stopping by her blog and checking out some of the other work she’s done.