This is the first post in my Living in Korean Culture series. Other topics like food and religion will also be covered.
During one of my classes, the kids were doing some independent work. I circled around, and then sat down and opened my Korean notebook. I begin to write the two Korean numbering systems (yes, you read that right, Korea has TWO systems for numbers) to try to grind them into my mind. One of my high-level third graders finished early and brought her workbook up to me. She looked down curiously at my notebook and then up at my face. And then down at the notebook and then up at my face. “It’s Korean, teacher. Hangul,” she said, pointing. I smiled and said, “You learn English. I learn Korean.” Such a sweet, innocent child.
Then she smiled and laughed, saying, “I learned English in kindergarten.” She continued to laugh and then went back to her seat.
That’s right. A third grader thought it was funny I was trying to learn Korean this late in the game. Siiiiigh. I thought about telling her that I started learning English as soon as I was born so what took her so long, but figured that wouldn’t be very mature of me.
Korean is unique as it has no genetic connection to another language. Though there are some similarities to Chinese (Chinese was spoken here until 15th century), Korean is a completely different language. Hangul (the Korean alphabet) was created in the 15th century by Sejong the Great, a king from the Joseon Dynasty. He felt that Korea should have its own language, and so he (along with the scholars he hired) created one. Koreans are fiercely proud of this fact – of their completely isolated, separate, special language. And I think I would be, too, if I were a Korean. However, there are two major monkey wrenches for English speakers that want to learn Korean: it follows the subject – object – verb syntax and it is an honorific language (which basically means that depending on who you are talking to, there are different ways to say things like “Thank You” or “Happy Birthday” or “please”).
Friends…language has been the most difficult part of our move to Korea. Not speaking the native language affects our entire life here. And it’s not the same as traveling, as I’ve traveled to non-English speaking countries before. When you are traveling, you are typically with a group, have a set agenda, and – most of all – it’s incredibly temporary. But moving encompasses your whole life – job, banking, health care, FOOD, social life, FOOD, commuting, household management, religion/spiritual/community activities, and also FOOD. All of these things are affected by the ability to speak the native language and they are affected in the long term – day in and day out.
When we first arrived, nearly all of our time was spent trying to figure out where things were, what they were, and how they were. This is hard to do without speaking Korean. For instance – where is the grocery store? I had no idea. Once you find the grocery store and you want to buy, say, plain yogurt, how do you know which one is plain? Ahhh, yes. One looks like plain but ALAS! No, it is VANILLA.
Our trash bags.
Or how about something as simple as trash. You move into a new apartment, you need trash bags. So you go look for them at the store. THEY ARE NO WHERE TO BE FOUND. Well, not in the familiar places anyway. Then, through your co-worker, you now understand that in Korea they have specific trash bags, like ones regulated by the government that you must use. You can’t throw your trash away in anything else. Oh – and you can only use trash bags that have your district printed on them. What’s your district? WHO FRICKIN’ KNOWS. (Well, we know now. But we didn’t know when we first moved in.)
And don’t even get me started on banking. Or trying to find cough syrup.
Anyway, these are just some examples from mundane life to show how the smallest, easiest things are affected.
James and I are still undecided on how much time to dedicate to learning the language since we are pretty sure we won’t be here permanently. For me, dedicating the majority of my time to my writing projects is a higher priority. However, we have learned some helpful phrases, and learned a great many words for different foods. (Yes, our priorities are quite clear.)
Some English on snack packaging - "I'm fresh! FRESH BERRY"
Strangely, English is everywhere: on shirts and lunch boxes, on advertisements and signs, on water bottles and vehicles. One of my Korean friends said that Koreans just like the way English looks, so it’s used a lot in design. For instance, I have only ever seen ONE shirt with Korean on it: it was a taekwondo shirt my student wore advertising a specific taekwondo school.
Some English on my student's shirts: "Vintage The Origin" and "Revolution Star 06"
But this isn’t to say that the English is correct, helpful, or makes sense. Sometimes it’s totally and utterly wrong. Sometimes it's grammatically correct, but just...weird.
This individual coffee packet has a "sense cut." On the side of this same package, it also says, "Quick Time French."
In a way, English is revered here. It is considered an important key to success. Like in America and almost everywhere in the world, the job market is competitive. In Korea, I would call fierce. Parents want to give every edge they can to their kids. Learning English is mandatory starting in 3rd grade, but most of my students attend a language school for further instruction. Many of them have been learning English privately since...yes...kindergarten or even before starting in nursery school. At elementary school, most of the students don't understand the need for English. They might be interested, but the idea of a career hasn't quite hit them yet. My sixth graders, though, are beginning to understand. Many of them are very interested in western (especially American/British) culture - and by culture I mean music, movies, and celebrities. And Harry Potter. And Disneyland. You know, all the important things in life.
Lastly, not knowing the native language can isolate you. It is difficult to learn names if you’ve only been introduced once (this is a big problem for me at my school – I only know a handful of my co-workers names, though I interact with many more on a daily basis). I am actually very surprised the effect this has had on my writing. Initially, I felt very alone. I had grown used to attending my monthly SCBWI meetings, discussing business and creative tips, making the solitary journey of writing not so solitary. But out here, I don’t have this. SCBWI Korea is defunct and I have yet to find anyone in Busan who is a part of the ENGLISH children’s lit scene.
However, all of these experiences – some incredibly frustrating – have challenged and strengthened us. You learn to be creative, and stop worrying about making a fool of yourself (ie, not take yourself so seriously). And the good thing is that not all communication is lost when language is gone. There are smiles, there are gestures. In Korea, you also have the slight bow, which is a sign of respect.
So though it has been frustrating at times, it’s also been fascinating to experience different ways to connect with other human beings. Ultimately, it has made me feel more compassion toward those in America who don’t know English, and more respect for those earnestly trying to learn. It seems like every experience here has humbled us, always reminding us that world is inhabited by many kinds of humans, but humans just the same.