Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Run away! Run away!"

From my Twitter feed (hat tip to James Turnbull): this video clip showing how Koreans react when a foreigner starts asking them for directions.

While funny to watch, the video doesn't exactly ring true with my own experience after eight years in Seoul. The clips we see are, in fact, contradicted by another unflattering video that shows Koreans' preference for helping a white guy asking for directions versus helping a Southeast Asian guy asking for the same thing (see Mike's blog post for embedded video here). Suffice it to say that I find the "Run away!" video clips to be more than a little cherry-picked.

True: it's possible to encounter Koreans who will do whatever they can to let you know they have no intention of speaking with you. That happened to me once when I tried to buy movie tickets: the girl inside the booth took one look at me, waved her hands in a dismissive gesture and boomed, "I don't know!" in English-- her way of saying, "I'm not liable to understand anything you say, so you may as well leave now!" But that experience was unique, as far as I can remember. (Your expat mileage may vary.)

In fact, I've been through the opposite situation much more often: older Koreans in a subway station have sidled up to me to ask directions, and when they spoke to me, they spoke in Korean. No fear on their part, and no expectations that I would speak English to them.

That's how it should be.

I'm actually a big fan of assimilationist, integrationist cultural attitudes. I make no apologies for Americans who grouse, "Why the hell can't you speak much English after living here ten years?" Koreans have every right to feel the same way toward their expat population. If you're living long-term in another country, at least make a concerted effort to learn the language. Learning Korean won't guarantee entrée into the deepest, darkest corners of the country, but it does open doors to richer perceptions of the culture: the jokes, the political insights, and some of the other quirks. Learning the language also helps one move about more independently: imagine being able to ask for directions in Korean, and being able to understand the answer! Imagine not having to move about with a guide or companion constantly at your side. Imagine being able to read the multi-step instructions for cooking some sort of packaged food, or being able to use an ATM without having to hit that "press for English" option, or being able to sit down in front of the Korean version of Microsoft Word without getting lost in a sea of hangeul.

I've helped long-term expats figure out bus and subway routes, order at restaurants, and even negotiate apartment rental contracts. I've also been able to travel alone to places like Gyeongju and Daegu, relying on my own Korean to get me where I needed to go instead of having to gamble on whether any given passerby might know English. My Korean is far from fluent, but it's also far from pidgin. I don't think it's too much to ask, from the Korean perspective, for the expat to learn enough Korean to acquire some independence. I can't imagine living a crippled existence while overseas, dependent on people around me each time I find myself faced with something new, unable to perceive more than a dim echo of the present moment.

None of which is to defend the behavior of the runners in the video I linked to at the beginning of this post, of course. Shame on them for acting like the startled natives in a science fiction movie, fleeing in terror as an alien ship lands in their jungle. People in a cosmopolitan city should act-- you know-- cosmopolitan.



John said...

I don't wonder how different Korea really is in this regard? I can tell you that there are people in the US that I'd run from if they approached.

Your points on learning the language are fair enough I suppose, but they sting the lazy like me. I made some effort, including tutoring, but my brain just can't seem to grasp the complexity of a new language. Still, my vocabulary does grow incrementally and I can fend for myself at the most basic level. Conversation, no. But the KAL flight attendants smiled when I ordered my beer, and refused the Budweiser, preferring Korean brew all in Korean.

I truly do admire my expat friends who have have attained fluency (and for folks here more than a year or two, the majority have). But in fairness, in Seoul it's pretty easy to get by in English, especially with the duo-language signage and transport announcements. I used to oppose such nonsense in the USA but have come to be much more tolerant in that regard for some reason...

One thing I've noticed when I do speak Korean at first I'm almost never understood. I think this is because there's an expectation I'll be talking English. Also, my pronunciation is probably really bad.

Kevin Kim said...


I seriously doubt you'd run from anyone.

For what it's worth: if you've got the free time and money, I'd recommend two ten-week intensive sessions at one of the better universities. You'll be amazed at how much you can learn when you're inundated with the language. My own Korean, which was shabby, improved by leaps and bounds from my time in the Korea University course. In 2002, Mom was shocked at how much my speaking ability had matured.

You're right: it's easy to "get by" in Seoul, but what does "getting by" entail, if not a sort of glorified tourism?

Maybe I'm just wired the wrong way, but when I'm in places like Switzerland or Korea, I'm not all that keen to hang around my own kind (with the exception of only two long-time expat friends), which is why I hit a place like Itaewon only when I'm feeling the Western food jones. Even then, I can get by without such trips.

There are, of course, Koreans who do the same thing in reverse: they treat America as an extension of Korea, hanging close to their Koreatowns, doing Korean things, eating Korean food, listening to Korean music, etc. To them I ask: what's the point of going overseas, if that's all you want to do?

I remember first cluing into this cultural phenomenon back in high school, when I went to France for the first time (1986): I saw US classmates bringing along their American music and Sony Walkmans; the music acted as a sort of shield or buffer to hold back the foreign reality. Never understood that, not even back then.

To be clear, I'm not saying that an expat should go totally native-- I certainly didn't while I was in Korea-- but I do think that all long-term expats should feel some obligation to repay the country that's feeding, clothing, and paying them, and the most meaningful way to do this is through the medium of language.

There's been an on-and-off debate in various parts of the Koreablogosphere about this constellation of issues: language learning, assimilation, etc. Many schools of thought are in contention. I'm not as extreme as some, but I do feel that, when I'm living in a foreign country, I shouldn't treat it as an extension of my own. Korea's not there to cater to me; I'm there to learn from it.

Some expats get this: they learn the language, they travel around, they read up on Korean history and generally do a much better job than I did of appreciating the culture-- all without losing their Americanness, Canadianness, Britishness, Kiwiness, Aussieness, etc. And they don't do this as tourists, like those folks who rack up temple visits-- instead, they involve themselves deeply in some aspect of the culture (e.g., by being regular meditators at one temple as opposed to being serial temple-hoppers) and anchor themselves in the society that way.