Sometimes foreigners complain about life in Korea. Sometimes their complaints are valid, and sometimes their complaints are ridiculous.
Let me give you an example.
I just had a ridiculous conversation on the phone with a woman who told me, “No there’s no problem! No problem!” when I know from recent phone calls that there is indeed a problem. I had gotten a month behind on my internet/landline bill, and die to misunderstandings with the text-messages that the telecom company sent (and my own carelessness reading the bills) I had been perpetually one month behind for a long time. Finally, I paid that bill off on Christmas eve, and expected no problem after that.
But this morning, my neighbour (whose Korean wife had set up the account for me) came to tell me that the company had called him this morning, to go bla-bla-bla-bla-bla and then hang up. He had no idea what they’d been talking about, and told me to check it out. Of course, I did my best to do so, calling immediately. Now, the Seoul office, which is probably the place to call, has such a complicated voice messaging system that I gave up after a couple of tries, and called the local office.
The girl at the local office insisted that she couldn’t see a problem. “No problem, no problem!” was what she insisted. It turned out that in fact, she couldn’t check in the computer, but she decided not to tell me, or at least not in Korean spoken slowly or simply enough for me to understand. This was all conducted in Korean, and I was trying really hard, and what frustrated me to no end was what it seemed to me as if she was erecting as much of a language barrier as she could, instead of trying to speak in a way I could, with my limited ability in her language, understand. She spoke quickly, as quickly as possible, and she used really complicated words instead of simple words, like I use when speaking English to someone who only knows a little.
Now, it’s one thing to complain in a lame-assed way that Koreans don’t speak enough English. I’ve heard some foreigner mock Korea in general for the way that, despite the English-craze and the push of English in high school has been going for so long, many people can’t string together more than a couple of stock sentences. But hell, I look at a lot of anglophone Canadians who can’t even understand written French, can’t pick up more than a word or two in an hours’ discourse, and I think it’s not all that unusual how so many Koreans are monolingual. Certainly it’s not unusual compared to your average North American.
But it’s rather different, and I think rather more valid, to observe that Koreans seem sometimes to be quite anxious about foreigners speaking their language, and seem unwilling to simplify their speech to make the situation easier. Maybe they’re not used to the kind of tactics we of Anglophone culture have long had in our toolkit for speaking to non-anglophones: speaking slowly, loudly, clearly, with simple words. I could be exaggerating here, too, of course: I know anglos in Korea who talk to students with such elevated diction I sometimes wonder if they’re aware there’s an easier, simpler way to express the same idea: “I imagine that knocked the wind out of his sails,” they say, and I have to translate, “So that frustrated him, maybe? Or discouraged him?”
Well, I found, online, a special phone number at that company for foreigners to call. The girl who answered couldn’t speak much English, mind you, but took my number and said someone who can speak English will call me back. I’m still waiting, twenty minutes later, and thinking about it. If that approach fails I’ll have to break down and ask a Korean to call for me. It rankles, since the likeliest candidate is busy studying and doesn’t need to be distracted like that, but also for another reason: I like to be independent. I like to try sort out my problems on my own, especially here where it’s so interesting to do so across a major language barrier.