People in Korea are afraid of English. Deathly terrified.
There are exceptions, yes: there always are. But my experience these past six months can be characterized by this general fear. The look I get from the coffee shop worker when I come up to order is one of sheer panic. When the woman at the bank counter saw Joey and I coming, I swear she checked behind her shoulder for a place to run and disappear to. When I ask one of the Korean teachers at school a question (example: How are you?), they utter a startled, “Yes,” and walk (read: run) away.
And let me make one thing clear: it is not that people in Korea don’t speak English. Sure, not everyone is fluent, and fewer people out in the rural area I live in encounter many English speakers on a daily basis than, say, those living in Seoul, but learning English is an integral part of a Korean education. Korean public schools (like those I am teaching at) place an importance on teaching English, and have since at least 1995. So while I might not expect the old people—and there are many, many old people—to speak much English, I know the younger generation has at least learned the basics. Plus, in the case of my teachers, I have seen them after a few beers: loosened up, they are a lot more willing to try and they know a lot more than their more subdued selves let on.
Despite their knowledge of the English language, the fear that paralyzes most of the population when it comes to actually having to speak it is undeniable. And my obvious foreignness is like a dark force descending, inciting that paralysis. People duck, avoid eye contact, pretend they did not hear me. Please, no. Don’t speak to me, I can almost hear their internal monologues screaming.
With all this in mind, when I was invited to participate in a project being put on by another native English teacher designed to help elementary students better understand what life for foreign teachers living in Korea is like, I accepted.
Spoiler alert: it is challenging and it is often lonely.
A Canadian teacher put it to her students like this: Think about something that you really enjoy doing, maybe a sport or a game you like to play. Is this activity more fun alone, or with your friends? Now imagine trying to do this activity, except everything is different, all of the rules have changed, and your friends are all gone. Still sound like fun?
But this is exactly it. Trying to do the things you enjoy can quickly lose their fun when everything is different and you are all alone.
My group also discussed the feelings of disrespect and undervalue that come when you do not speak the common language. As I alluded to in the opening of this post, the language barrier has been the most challenging part of Korea for me. I do not speak Korean, and therefore I am inferior; I am not smart, I am not valued. In fact, I am feared. I am a foreign nuisance to laugh at and stare at, but otherwise avoid at all costs.
I do not speak Korean, and while many people do speak English, most are too intimidated to try. It is isolating and lonely. Although I am here to teach English, it feels like the mindset is, “You’re in Korea, speak Korean.” Sound familiar?
This is not a crazy phenomenon in the United States; rather, for me, the tables have simply turned. When I worked at 10 Barrel, foreign tourists speaking very limited English would often come in. It was easy to get frustrated at their lack of understanding. It is natural, when in an uncomfortable situation, to want to retreat, to flee, to avoid the awkwardness. I understand where people here are coming from; I have been there. But now I am the foreigner just trying to get a beer and meal—and trust me, server, I am also wishing that it was not this complicated.
Don’t get me wrong. I am the foreigner, I know that. Was I under prepared coming to Korea not knowing the language? In retrospect, absolutely. However, was I led to believe that my lack of Korean-speaking ability wouldn’t hurt me, that it would, in fact, be an asset (full language immersion!)? Yes. And the final thing: I did not speak Thai when I lived in Thailand, but the people there embraced me, rather than holding me at arm’s length. It is immersed in this experience that you realize what a difference one kind person can make.
So, for those of you who have read this far, I am going to ask of you the same thing that I asked of my small group of students. In my honor, when you encounter a foreigner, empathize. Be inviting, be accommodating, be patient. Smile! Understand that they are struggling and frustrated and trying the best that they can: they are me. As uncomfortable as it might be for you to make that extra bit of effort in this world you are otherwise extremely confident and comfortable navigating, keep in mind how uneasy they are feeling. Invite them to play the game; teach them the rules; be their friend. Be the one kind person they encounter all day. It makes a difference.