Valid and Invalid Complaints

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.

5 thoughts on “Valid and Invalid Complaints

  1. You know, I think that it’s a learned skill to be able to “dumb down” what you are trying to say so it is more easily understood by non-native speakers. I remember when some Korean friends, my Mom and I sat down to lunch. Her solution to their not understanding was to spead louder and in a more convoluted way that only served to exacerbate the problem. Certainly Koreans don’t have much experience speaking to foreign visotors in their own language, so I would not find it to be beyond the realm of reasonable for the general Korean public to lack this ability. Certainly the situation would have been different if you had been speaking with the registration clerk at Yonsei’s language program, or someone at the immigration office who had experience speaking with foreign visitors who can speak differing levels of Korean.

  2. I imagine you’re correct about this; Korea’s long-term relative isolation in the past probably means that it’s not a common skill for people to have.

    It’s still a shock for me, though, after being here almost 3 whole years (not counting time away during holidays); I think just about everywhere I’ve been besides Korea, people have had at least enough history of speaking to foreigners in their language, or in a pidgin of their language plus English (or something else) that when I can’t understand them, they simplify and slow down. But in Korea, it’s usually either a repetition of the same, or added complexification and speed.

    Another factor may be the culturally bred anxiety regarding dealings with foreigners. Plenty of people still have had limited interaction with one, or none at all, and they seem to get quite nervous about doing it in any capacity. This leads to faster speech, more complicated sentences that include complicated honorifics to show they’re trying to be polite despite the fact I can’t understand, and so on.

    As I said, it’s frudstrating. It’s worth thinking about the roots of this kind of frustration, and your example sheds some light on it, I think… wait, your mom was speaking English to Korean friends? Or the Koreans were kyopo and didn’t understand her speaking in Korean? I’m a little confused, perhaps because I don’t know you. By your name I am guessing you and your mom are Koreans, but I could be wrong…

    But I will say one thing, Tae Min. Some of the officers at the Immigration Office speak English well, and the ones I’ve met who can’t are almost always passive-aggresively nasty to foreigners. One in particular seemed to have a lot of experience dealing with white foreigners who spoke little or no Korean. Despite the fact he spoke very little English, he insisted on “serving” them whenever he could. He was so busy berating me on changing my job when I first moved to Jeonju that he messed up my paperwork and later was humiliated in front of everyone when, a week later, I returned because some of it had not been processed and he had to look through stacks of paperwork that had not yet been filed by his lazy ass. But that guy had a bad, bad reputation and I haven’t seen him lately.

    What was my point? Oh yeah… that sometimes people in certain positions you’d expect would make them competent at speaking with foreigners, still absolutely suck at it. I find, actually, the best people for this kind of conversation are:

    (1) Certain shikdang ajummas, who seem happy to chat with customers, and
    (2) Taxi drivers, who seem to know how to communicate simply when necessary.

    I would imagine that the skill of speaking to one’s audience also has a lot to do with dealing with a lot of people from different strata of society, like cabbies and diner cooks would, I think, tend to do more than SK Telecom or jewelry shop clerks (to name a few examples).

    All of that said, I can think of a few more examples now from real life where Anglophones have been stunningly bad at speaking to people who are not proficient in English, both in Canada and in Korea. Anyway…

  3. My friend 인선 told me yesterday that it was a shock for her when she finally realized that I spoke more slowly to her than to others. She thought that I naturally spoke slowly and clearly. I do speak more slowly with her, because it ups the chances that we’ll have a more communicative conversation. (Her English is good, but she’s not all the way there yet.)

    There are certain English speech patterns that I use when talking to Koreans that I don’t use with native speakers of English. They reflect patterns that Koreans will use in speaking English, but aren’t necessarily standard English (whatever that is).

    I purposely don’t use those patterns with 인선. She’s here in graduate school, and I don’t mind explaining further to make myself understood.

    Taxi drivers were my favorite people with whom to practice Korean. They almost always asked questions I could answer, and I often learned new vocabulary from them. They were patient with me.

  4. My Mom doesn’t speak a word of Korean. She was speaking in English with my two college student Korean friends.

    I think you are right about many Koreans having a feeling of anxiousness at having to deal with a foreign visitor in any capacity. And this anxiety frequently does seem to translate into more rapid and complex speech. I especially like your point about the way they throw on honorrifics in this situation. I have seen this in many situations. Once I went to see one of my professors with a classmate. After we finished our business and stepped out of his office, my friend quizzed me down: “does he always speak to you like that? It sounds like he is speaking to his boss, not one of his students. How funny…” Since then I’ve paid more attention and discovered that it’s quite prevalent. For some reason speaking “up” to white foreigners seems like the thing that a cultured Korean ought to do. Beats me why this would be the case.

    The other interesting thing is the generic skill of speaking to one’s audience. God knows that, in spite of it being common sense, there is a lack of people who can do it well on both sides of the Pacific. But at least at my university in the US we were taught that English should be written to communicate, which requires the author putting herself in the audience’s shoes. I’ve seen many writers here (academics, mostly) who have never given a thought to their audience. The attitude seems to be “my style is the way Korean SHOULD be written, and if you can’t follow it, f*** you.” There is no other explanation for some of the convoluted run-on garbage passes for writing here.

  5. Taemin,

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s not just a combination of old Korean writing style and a sometimes H.P. Lovecraft-like tendency to wax purple in the prose. Korean speech is sometimes a little flowery, which makes me wonder just how flowery—or even purple—the prose can get. But there’s also history to remember. Just as I sometimes use archaic structures in my writing (not so much in essays, though sometimes even there), I imagine some Koreans do the same. In the comments to the post I’m linking to, oranckay displays a very daunting example of the kind of run-on sentence that was plain normal in premodern Korean—and he says some people even talk that way, or try to. I wouldn’t know, my level’s not good enough yet, but it sounds like an interesting possibility.

    I do know that the students I teach here, when I teach them English writing, have NO idea about paragraph structure, thesis or topic sentences, how to logically explain an argument, and so on. When I ask them if they have these skills when they write in Korean, they tell me no. Which makes me wonder what their essays look like in the courses they take for their academic major…

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