Wednesday, September 18, 2013

hostility toward Korean-speaking foreigners?

For background, you'll need to give fellow Hoya Robert Koehler's post a read. Come back when you're done.

Here's the comment I wrote on that post (and God knows I only rarely ever comment at the Marmot's Hole, given the general quality of the comments and ensuing discussion):

Sometimes the "refusal to speak" is the result of a snap judgment by the Korean interlocutor that conversation with the foreigner will simply be impossible, even though the foreigner just managed to grunt a few syllables of perfectly understandable Korean. I've had that experience before in Seoul: I once went to a box-office ticket window to purchase a ticket; the girl took one look at me and, as I began speaking to her in clear Korean, she waved her hand in that "eraser" or "table-wiping" gesture so common on the peninsula, and said, "I don't know!" in English—i.e., the conversation was already over. Bitch. She just didn't want to make the effort to get through a new and possibly interesting linguistic situation.

Granted, such occurrences are rare. More likely, if I enter a new conversational situation and start speaking understandable Korean (which happens more often than not these days), my interlocutor will simply take my Korean ability for granted and will talk to me as if I were a normal human being—no exaggerated pantomimes to help me out, no speaking too slowly or loudly as if I were retarded, nothing. I've even had older Koreans come up to me and start speaking rapidfire Korean as if they took for granted that I should be speaking their language. Very often, this would happen in a Seoul subway station as the oldsters were trying to figure their way through the maze of rails and tunnels; to me, it [i.e., their addressing me in Korean] was always a relief. I'm an assimilationist: to me, Koreans should assume that foreigners can speak Korean; we make the same assumption in the US, and get very grumpy when a foreigner can't speak English well. Rightly so.

So yes, it's true that an expat's mileage will vary. I've heard from many independent sources that Koreans can be leery of the foreigner who understands too much, too easily. They prefer to keep their petty secrets, and prefer to be able to make their snide, sotto voce comments about the round-eyes. That power is taken away from them when they meet a Korean-speaking waeguk-nom. But that's just some Koreans—not all, by any means. Most Korean folks are civil and civilized, and will treat you with dignity, no matter your level of Korean competence.



John said...

Interesting. Even my inept and inarticulate attempts at speaking Korean always seem appreciated, even if I'm rarely understood.

Fluency in the native tongue is a two-edged sword though. My waeguk friends that speak the language have told me lots of stories of things Koreans say around them, not expecting comprehension. Some are pretty bad--ajeossis calling Korean girlfriends/wives "whores" and the like. Perhaps ignorance truly can be bliss in that situation.

Kevin Kim said...

I completely agree that fluency is both a blessing and a curse. Plus, there's the fact that the Korean attitude of danil-minjok (basically, "we are one [pure] race") pretty much ensures that, no matter how well you speak Korean, you can never get full club privileges.

Of course, an expat has to ask himself whether that's the goal of living in Korea, i.e., going native. Personally, I'm fine being an outsider. That's my natural introversion talking.

John said...

Yes, I learned that early on. A Korean friend was explaining to me the hierarchical structure of Korean society. I asked where foreigners fit in and she just laughed and said "at the very bottom."