Saturday, July 2, 2011

"실례지만...저...영어 못해요..." the self-introduction of our male Korean staff went as we went for a handshake on the first day of my arrival in Chuncheon...fortunately or unfortunately, that phrase (meaning, "Sorry, but I don't speak English") has been the defining "tone" of our now 3-day-old SAT camp here in Chuncheon. Somehow feeling confident in my Korean ability more than in their own English abilities, the Korean staff has somehow now became completely alright with speaking in Korean to me 24-7, going so far as to admitting that they wish to learn to speak Korean.

Ambiguous comprehensions and struggling in even the simplest conversations, as much as seemingly endless preparations for classes, has become the norm. Sandwiched by a Korean-Canadian colleague with fluent Korean and an African-American colleague who no one will expect to know any Korean, I am bearing the blunt of this inherent "only Korean spoken outside of class" policy. Perhaps I was wrong to tell anyone in the first place that I do not "some" (or even "a little") Korean so that they are somehow given a certain leverage to test out exactly how complicated of entirely Korean conversations they can carry with me and still somewhat and somehow getting the gist of the meaning across.

Do not get me wrong, I am not at all angry about the situation. In the relatively isolated university campus, and in our even more socially isolated camp within the campus, having such a "Korean only" policy may just be the thing I need to revive the Korean phrases I learned back when I was in Seoul for summer 2008 and when I took a year of introductory Korean for fun back when I was a senior at Yale. Forced to listen to Korean directly only at me and then respond correctly, I am feeling that what I am listening to has become more and more natural to the ears everyday.

But after all, being natural does not mean I do understand all of what I hear. As soon as the doors open and students come out of their classes, stern English lectures quickly turn to rowdy Korean chats among the students and the staff. Perfectly normal and natural in any hagwon here in Korea (including ours over in Seoul), this ordinary phenomenon has become quite bothersome and disturbing for me after a single weekend of having to see the kids all the time, walking around the same floors and eating in the same cafeteria.

And, at the end of it all, this is an English program, and I am an English teacher (whose job description does not require even the basic understanding of Korean language). For the staff (and the occasional students) to speak to us the foreign English teachers in Korean (in a highly matter-of-fact fashion) should at least raise a few eyebrows, if not direct criticism. Shouldn't the job description of the Korean staff, whose job is to assist the teachers, require some sort of ability to direct orally communicate with the English teachers?

For someone who recently has lived in only countries where I do speak the local language, I suppose I am finally feeling what it really means to be foreign. Even if there are efforts to mentally assimilate into the local culture, if the linguistic ability is not there for interaction, deep knowledge and adherence to the local culture means absolutely nothing. If anything, the desire for understanding only increases the expectation by the locals for you to put in the effort for understanding the language as well.

It only increases my respect for those foreigners going to strange corners of the world armed only with passion for understanding the locality through simple immersion. They are often received locally by organizations and people who openly and excitedly profess their passion for cultural diversification and mutual understanding. Yet, if they put in even 1% of the effort put in by the foreigners residing their localities, maybe the foreigners would not face so many bumps, misunderstandings, and social isolation that they almost always face.

Language barriers can be overcome if the effort is present (and I will certainly stand by these words myself). But if the effort is not there, all the talk of "overcoming" are just empty words and lip service. In a situation in which coercion to change is not only counterproductive but also completely unenforceable, I have grown to appreciate my own willingness to do some trail-and-error in a linguistic light of others' efforts to force me to do so...


  1. 힘내라 Xiaochen ^_^

  2. Indeed indeed...not much to say beyond that, heh