Being a Foreigner in Korea

He said:

“Oh my God, he just said something in Korean; actually said something!? No way! My mind is so blown! What is this madness? Somebody pinch me, this can’t be real. Guys for real…for real tho guys, did you just hear that white guy say a Korean word. I mean what!?”

This is the way I would describe the look that appears on many a Korean’s face after they’ve heard a foreigner say something in Korean; anything in Korean really (I’m generalizing and overdoing it a little, but sometimes this isn’t far from the truth). They seem totally taken aback by the fact that I am able to make recognizable sounds, even when saying something as simple as “thank you”  (kam-sam-ni-da) or “nice to meet you” (man-a-so pan-gap-sym-ni-da). The look they give me if I say a complete sentence is absolutely priceless.  It’s as if in that moment I completely destroyed the concept of reality that they previously held in their minds. The look they wear is one of complete and utter shock. Their face is physically contorted – one side is saying “WTF?” and the other looks as if they just let go of a fart that they had been holding in all day. This look is coupled with a loud “oooooohhhhhh wooooaaahh!” It’s the kind of reaction I would expect one to give after seeing a three year old child cross-over Chris Paul and posterize Dwight Howard.

I don’t speak Korean well by any means. I am learning, and can actually say very little. So, I’ve really been trying to understand why it is that Koreans seem so incredibly surprised by any foreigner’s ability to say a few Korean words. To me, it is completely natural to learn at least a few survival phrases when visiting foreign countries. So, before arriving to Korea I learned the basics.

The first experience I had with a Korean’s reaction to my Korean was after being picked up at the airport by the supervisor of my school. My supervisor asked Sarah and I if we knew any Korean, and if we did, what did we know. We knew a few things – “thank you,” “hello,” “nice to meet you,” “my name is,” “what is your name?” and “where is the toilet?” for starters. She was shocked. Most of the conversation involved her simply responding with “ohhhhhh!”

Maybe it isn’t normal at all for foreigners to learn Korean, regardless of whether they will be living, or have been living in the country for years. Sarah and I have met a surprising amount of foreigners who have been here for years who still can’t say a single sentence in Korean. Many have never even attempted to learn Korean, or are only beginning to learn a year or several years after being in Korea. Many who do speak or understand Korean will often respond entirely in English. This was a huge surprise to Sarah and I. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for Koreans’ surprise.

Still, there are many foreigners who have made a solid effort to learn Korean. Sarah and I are making an effort. It will take some time getting used to blowing Korean’s minds with a few words. I feel as if many Koreans believe I am a child who is learning how to walk for the first time. Still, this may not be that far from the truth. For now, I can take joy in the interactions I have with the elderly here, who never seem to be surprised when a foreigner speaks a bit of Korean. Conversely, they seem disappointed that we speak very little, and often get frustrated at us as a result. This reaction feels more “organic” to me, and I actually appreciate it. Their expectations help me feel much more human, and give me a goal to strive for.

I will just end this blog post with an open suggestion to Koreans:

Dear Koreans,

Do not be surprised that we foreigners can speak a bit of your language! We do live here after all! We enjoy the encouragement you give us when we speak Korean, but reacting with complete and utter surprise can be condescending! You do not need to give us a standing ovation when we say “delicious,” or “bread.” Koreans, we need your help to learn your language, but you must assume that we can learn. Also, do not assume we speak only English. It’s OK to begin a conversation in Korean. You will find out very quickly whether we understand. You don’t have to try so hard to accommodate us! Koreans, I know we foreigners are different. We look different and act different, but it turns out that we are human just like you! And being foreigners, you must understand that we do not in fact know how things in Korea “work.” We need your help in understanding how one should act here – what is considered acceptable and unacceptable – and you must understand that many of us want to learn. No, we do not understand your media, or entertainment, or your politics. We don’t understand your hierarchy, or your honorifics. We come from a place where we ask many questions, we are encouraged to ask questions, and we will continue to ask you many questions. And yes, we expect answers and explanations. We apologize if this offends you at times. Koreans, you often spend time focusing on our differences, but I don’t believe you understand what these differences are. I suggest you try to understand the differences rather than say we are wrong. The fact is that we are different, and I know how much you enjoy pointing that out. Above all, we are students in your country and you must help us learn. We will defy your expectations.

That is all!

– Ryan

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