Living Abroad And Stuff

Over at Green Boogers Laura writes about the linguistic challenges of living in a foreign country. I have to admit I was a little jealous. Look:

– Hi, can I have a donut, please.
Med sukker eller med chokolat?
– Er, with sugar, please. Can you put it for a hundred kr?a?
Blah blah blah blah blah.
– I’m sorry?
Blah blah blah blah blah.
– I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.
[sighs, speaks perfect English] I can only put it for hundred over.
– OK, that’s fine, thanks.
[hands over the money without a word]

No giggling as if a shaven monkey is standing before the counter? No embarrassed summoning of a co-worker who also cannot speak English, but feels less nervous confronted with a foreigner? Words so recognizable that they obviously have the same etymological roots as English? And people who can switch to perfect English when necessary? Sounds totally enviable to me.

But it’s recognizable enough, this experiece, and funny. Me, I like the challenge. What bugs me is when people are shocked I can speak a little Korean. Or that I can eat Korean food. I’m thinking of buying iron-on transparencies and printing a few curt slogans in Korean on them, such as, “No, your food is NOT too spicy for me,” or, “Foreign =/= American,” or “Please speak slowly, I’m still learning Korean”. I thought of a few funnier ones, like, “Please donate kimchi! (My Mom doesn’t make me any.),” or “My girlfriend’s name is ‘So Ju Jan’.” (So Ju Jan means whiskey glass, and it’s an old joke from my hakwon days).

I thought about something a little more stern, like, “You think foreigners keep the sex trade here alive? 10,000 foreigners in Korea. 300,000 prostitutes. You do the math.” But maybe something more like “Don’t be naive,” would be more to the point and less offensive… and less likely to get me beaten up. Anyway, seeing all the messed up English on T-shirts all the time here makes me want to do the same in Korean. In fact, I think this country’s ripe for a “funny/snide” T-shirt industry start-up, with slogans and comments in Korean, but I’ll just start with making a few myself and see how it goes.

11 thoughts on “Living Abroad And Stuff

  1. Make lots of t-shirts. I’ll buy one!

    My biggest problem with learning Korean in Korea is that people, once they realize I speak a little Korean, don’t (or won’t) take into account the fact that I’m a learner, and they need to speak slooooowly and not use crazy vocabulary and convulted grammar. *sigh*

  2. Yeah, that happens to me a lot too. Last night the first cabbie I had, on the way to JeonbukDae, spoke like a machine gun though I repeatedly asked him to speak slowly. He’d slow down for about two words and then speed up again. But the mentally handicapped cabbie who drove me home, his speech was clear as glass to me.

    The more I think of it, working with the mentally disabled is probably the best way to become functional in a foreign language. They never use the Chinese fancy-talk, they never speak too quickly, and they repeat themselves a lot. Hmmm.

  3. Actually, that number was a quick guess: in November 2001, the number of foreigners was around 546,000. Article here.

    Don’t know about how many sex slaves there are, but wager it’s WAY more than the foreign population could support.

    Oops, found another link. Apparently about 358,000 men in Korea pay for sex every day. Here’s an article on that. Hell, I think I’ll make a whole post on it.

  4. I’d just like to point out I don’t mind people who can’t speak English, just the ones who point blank refuse to, even though they can. There’s a philosophy here that echoes the statement my colleague WB made (which made me want to NOT learn Danish, out of sheer spite) – “If you want to live in Denmark, you MUST speak Danish!”

    In short, it’s the racism, ethnocentrism and the general rudeness of the Danes that annoys me more than the inability to speak English.

    Of course, I’m planning to take on the challenge – in Asia. If things go according to the Plan. (Difference being I’m definitely interested in learning the local language this time!)

  5. Laura!

    I didn’t mean to imply that the gripes were unreasonable of you. When people can speak in a common language and refuse to, it is annoying; sometimes I understand anti-English, but it’s not like I walk around Korea demanding people speak FRENCH to me, if I find someone who can speak English. The demand of speaking Korean is rarely made to white foreigners, though foreign-born Koreans are often exhorted to speak Korean no matter how well or badly their abilities allow it.

    Where in Asia do you plan to go, Laura? Racism, ethnocentrism, and sometimes rudeness abound everywhere, though in sometimes bizarre forms here in Asia. But everything’s so alien you can find distractions at every turn and there are lots of wonderful people free of that crap whom you can find with a little effort and some luck.

  6. No worries, Gord, I didn’t take it in a bad way :-)

    I don’t have an exact destination in mind, but (as I blogged today) my plan/idea/dream is to head to China and teach English. I’ll want to get some qualifications first and tackle the reality issues of the plan, but it feels like a really good idea to me. Everything’s still pending further study, of course.

    I like your T-shirt ideas as well, by the way, and if you’ll have anything in black, I’ll probably make an order too…

  7. China? Qualifications? You’re white, right? I think that’s about all you need in a lot of China. Not sure, but I think. Lemme know when you’re looking, I’ll point you to some places.

    You’d order a shirt in black? Even if it’s in Korean? Or are you thinking they’d be in English? (I’d not thought of that.)

  8. Well, the qualifications are for my own benefit, really (or for the benefit of my self-confidence) – I want to be sure I know what the hell i’m doing once (if) i’m in front of a class. I’m probably doing it with ITC (; at the moment I’m hoping to have my course in September. If that happens and I actually pass, I’ll probably be looking in October – November, depending on things.

    As for the T-shirt, I knew you meant in Korean, but I wasn’t actually thinking as far as other people actually understanding the message (supposing I’m in China), which kind of is the whole point. Um. Mild migraine affecting my cognitive abilities today. I still like the idea though.

  9. Well, perhaps we can meet up in China sometime… it’s only a stone’s throw from where I am, and depending on where you are, it might be easy to work into my planned trip. I am definitely going sometime in the next year or two, just for a short jaunt… likely Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai. Nanjing is for research—for my Taiping poems; Shanghai is to meet an internet friend and to see Shanghai; Beijing is just to see Beijing. It may take two trips for me to get to Beijing and the wall, though, in which case I may hit Canton instead on the more southern trip… we’ll have to see.

    As for knowing what the hell you’re doing in front of a class… good idea. I had to learn a lot the hard way, but it’s not like I recommend that as a rite of passage every prospective teacher should go through. :)

    One last thing. If you’re in it mainly to learn an Asian language, Chinese grammar is a lot more like English, but reading Chinese is freaking hard. I think Korean’s the easiest East Asian language to read, and there are no tones. Chinese has tones, making it harder to pronounce, but the grammar is more familiar. And Japanese is easy to pronounce but a pain in the ass to read. That’s my little breakdown. For my money, being able to read helps being able to study, so I prefer learning Korean. Also, the pay is better in Korea than in China, and the expenses are lower than in Japan. *shrug*

  10. I made myself a t-shirt for the World Cup. It was a red t-shirt with ‘mi-uk saram an im ni da’
    (‘I am not American’, for Gord’s outside Korea readers)
    And Koreans loved it! And laughed with real laughter, not that mocking or shy smirk, but a shared laughter. (except for a couple of people who innocently asked “Well you’re not Korean, so…”)

  11. That’s useful information – I quite like the challenge of the language/s, though I may yet come to regret that I said that! I’d love to learn Chinese (and Japanese) specifically, but more than that I’m in it for the experience… Cultural and otherwise.

    Meeting up in China sounds like a great idea, especially as it’s unlikely I will get any visitors otherwise – but i AM getting ahead myself. I want to solve the “reality issues” and make sure i CAN do this before I let myself get carried away with the planning.

    But I’m so excited!!

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