Posts filed under 'Language'

Three Milestones Reached

The steps to Enlightenment (Haeinsa)In the past two weeks, I reached two major milestones in my Korean life.  The vast gap between them tells you a lot about my life abroad.

Milestone #1:  For the first time in 9 months, I ordered food over the phone and had it delivered to my apartment.  I danced for joy when I hung up the phone.  Ordering food by phone is actually pretty complicated.  You have to know the words for (and pronunciations of) the food, ordering, delivery, and your address.  You have no chance to read body language or hand gestures.  You also have to field the unexpected questions:  Is a 10 minute delay ok?  We are really busy.  Do you want our special side order?  Such small things are really hard when you only have basic language skills!

Milestone #2:  For the first time in Korea, I gave a paper at an international conference without translation.  Ancient Kaya Clothing and meThe audience had people from a half dozen countries, but the majority were Korean.  All understood English, but about half could not speak comfortably in English.  Therefore after taking questions in English, I encouraged the audience to ask questions in Korean.  Only then did I have the horrible realization- the bilingual conference organizers had left the room to arrange the next panel and no one was available to translate the questions!

Professor Hwang and I imitate Korean royaltySo, for three questions in a row, I drew on my minimal knowledge of Korean, bi-cultural knowledge of gender issues, body language, and wonderfully helpful Korean terms in English (like “golden miss” - the Korean term for single women in their 30s with good jobs and no desire to marry).  I could not answer the questions in Korean, but I did my best with slow, clear English.  Afterward one Korean graduate student shook my hand and said in utter awe (and rather good English), “No foreigner has ever LET me ask a question in Korean before.  And you even UNDERSTOOD me!”

Her comment says volumes about the complicated relationship Koreans have with English.  She probably COULD have asked a question in English, but she WOULD NOT have.  She was not comfortable enough.  Just as I probably could have ordered food delivery a few months ago, but I did not want to get half way through my order and realize I had no idea how to say the word “delivery”!   Her distinction between my allowing her to ask a question and my understanding her Korean also shows she recognized that allowing the question was about respect, but understanding and answering it was about skill.  Leaving HaeinsaOut of sheer stubborn pride, I did not tell her I only understood 6 words in her 8 sentence question and I only knew that much because one of my Pyeongtaek University students had asked a similar question during my Race and Gender class.  I take my victories however I can get them!

As I expected, now that I have a clue what I am doing, I am headed home.  My third milestone was today - I taught my final class in Korea.  I will give final exams next week and I leave the country a little earlier than planned on June 22.   With luck I will come back to Korea at some point and get to use all this experience.  But if not, the learning process was a reward in itself - now I know I was up to the challenge.  Besides, ordering food by phone will never feel this good again.

1 comment June 5, 2008

English in Korea

English sign at SungyemunMonths ago, when Tod was here,  we talked a lot about English in Korea.  At first Tod was shocked by how common English is here.  Doors say “Push” or “Pull”.  Menus often have English translations for the entrees.  Subway stations are all labeled in English as well as Korean and most buses, subways and trains announce stops in English as well as Korean. 

Koreans have also adopted many English words particularly in areas of technology.  Computer, printer and adaptor are simply pronounced a little differently but are recognizably English.  This is similar to America’s adoption of foreign words like lieutenant (from the French) and karaoke (from the Japanese).  This intermixing of languages led to a fun discussion one night when a Korean asked me for the American word for norebang (the practice of singing lyrics along with a soundtrack).  I said, “Karaoke”.  My colleague said, “No, the American word.”  I said “Karaoke”.  My colleague then turned to a friend and said in Korean, “Would you please ask her the American word for karaoke?  I don’t think she understands me.”  I explained in more detail and we all had a good laugh.

Scaffolding protecting SungyemunAfter a while though what struck both of us was the regular use of Korean English.  By this I mean words that are clearly English but which are used in a completely Korean context.  For instance, the two bottles of hair product you find in any hotel in America would be shampoo and conditioner.  Here they are shampoo and rinse.  Even written in Korean, if you sound them out, you get “shampu” and “rinsa”.  The words are English, but the idiom or context is Korean.  In America, food which is considered to have fewer calories or sugar or salt is called “health food”.  Here it is “well-being” food.   In America, copying the answers from another person in class is called cheating.  Here it is called “cunning” (the word is used to mean cheating). 

Koreans also have a fascinating habit with English movie titles.  If you sound out the Korean on movie posters, you get “Becoming Jane” “Sweeney Todd” and “American Gangster”.  Oddly, the Korean language has a word for an American - miguk - but they transliterate (sound out) rather than translating the title for American Gangster.  Some movies however get translated.  This makes it fascinating to sound out Korean words - once you get the sound, you have to decide, is that Korean or English?  I get a lot of practice watching movie trailers on the bus.

Memorial for SungyemunThe most interesting aspect of English in Korea however is its potential impact on the culture.  Language gives us a way to express what we think, but also shapes how we think or what we think about.  In Korean, there are words for almost every relationship, including my husband’s younger sister, my husband’s younger sister’s husband, my father’s elder brother, and so on.   This is crucial in a culture that places every individual in a hierarchy, usually by age.  Korean also has at least three types of verb endings to indicate various levels of respect.  Some actions, like to eat, have two separate verbs, one for lower status people and the other for higher status people. 

English has few of these distinctions.  We cannot easily distinguish my brother-in-law (my sister’s husband) from my brother-in-law (my husband’s sister’s husband).  We rarely focus on who is elder or younger, beyond our siblings.   For formality or respect, we might add “sir” or “ma’am” to a sentence or say “You are cordially invited to join us for dinner at 6 pm” rather than “Come on over at 6 for dinner”.   This means that as more Koreans learn and use English, there may be cultural changes created by linguistic habits. I am not suggesting that simply speaking English moves a culture from a focus on hierarchy and relationship to democracy and individuality, but it would be a fascinating topic of study. 

All Koreans now learn at least four years of English and more and more Koreans are learning 6, 8 and 10 years of English.  Almost 20% study overseas.   English is everywhere, and although often it looks “incorrect” to an American eye, many usages such as “rinsa” or “well-being” are standardized, common, and proper in Korea.  Koreans are adapting English to their own purposes, creating a Korean-English idiom (sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as Konglish).  I am deeply curious English may morph from a foreign or “second” language into an agent of change in Korean society.

[I didn’t have time to take pictures of signs for this blog.  Instead I’ve posted an image of one English language sign at Sungyemun or Namdemun gate, plus pictures of the gate and memorial.  This is the 600 year old landmark that was burned down earlier this year.  See related blog at  ).

1 comment May 3, 2008

Lost and Found

In a few days I will post a blog about the amazing trip I took this weekend.  I intended to stay one night, which turned into two.  Benedictine monks are very hospitable.  But after two days in the same clothes, a three hour train trip, and a smoky taxi, I really just wanted to be at home.  So when I reached my door and could not find my keys, I had to take a deep, deep breath to keep from losing it.

Living in a foreign country gives you few chances to just lose it (but many chances to lose things).  So when a thorough search of everything I had with me turned up no keys, I had to figure out what to do next.  Go to the apartment office?  Closed on Sunday.  Call the University?  Closed on Sunday.  OK….now what?  Figuring I had nothing to lose (and nothing else to try), I entered the little room near the apartment office that was full of pople.  How does one explain this situation without the words for “key” “lost” or “locked-out”?  I used a little Korean, a lot of English, some full-body acting and a pleading look - which would have been much harder if I had reached anyone by phone.

By sheer luck I had run into a group of apartment building staff cooking for a large picnic on Monday.  They had no access to keys, but they knew all the right people to call.  Within 15 minutes, they had tried the owner of my apartment (not home), the University (nobody there), and a locksmith; the last arrived within the hour.  Thank goodness I had not locked the security lock, which would have been a $150 charge.  For $10, the locksmith basically picked my lock (which was depressingly easy - guess I’ll be locking that security lock in the future!).  I paid him, entered the apartment, and in the safety of anonymity, sat down and cried.

But I knew I was not done yet.  I pulled myself together, went to the nearby market and bought three kinds of fruit (cherry tomatoes count as fruit here).  I walked back to that gathering with my thank you gifts and was warmly welcomed.  “You are home, now?” they asked in Korean.  They cleared me a spot on the floor, made me tea, and offered me food.  Then I began to understand what they had been telling me earlier, but I could not hear through my worry and frustration.  Almost all of them had seen me before, and all knew me.  I am one of the only white foreigners in my building - I’m hard to miss.  But according to them I am the only foreigner who smiles, who tries to speak Korean, who bows when meeting elderly men - I am the “good American”.  While they probably would have helped any one who looked as bedraggled and frustrated as I did, they were particularly glad to help me.  When I finished my tea, I thanked them again and headed back to my apartment.  Then I cried some more, but for a different reason.

One could probably learn many lessons from the day’s events (other than the most obvious:  get some spare keys made and put one in my wallet!).  I was reminded how hard, how frustrating and how confusing it is to live far from home, where I do not know who to call or even the words I need, and where I only understand half of what I am told.  Yet, I am also struck by how easy it is sometimes, how good people are, and how little they want from a “good American”.  This whole day will be pretty darn funny in retrospect - it began at 4 am with an overflowing toilet, which should have warned me right there.  But at the moment I am simply grateful for a big problem made small by good people, smiles, and bows. 

1 comment April 13, 2008

Lessons Learned in Bukhansan National Park

Bukhansan viewThis past weekend I took the bus to Seoul, the subway across Seoul, and a second bus into Bukhansan National Park.  I thought I would share a few crucial Korean hiking lessons and a few photographs.  For more photographs, you can click on the photo to the left and see the Bhukansan set on flickr.  For more lessons, you have to hike yourself.

1) When almost every person you see has hiking boots, a full pack, and a hiking stick, it is fine to think “Wow, Koreans take their hiking so much more seriously than most Americans.  These are my kind of people, prepared for the worst on the mountain.” It is good however to have the follow up thought - I wonder how serious a mountain this is?

2) When maps do not have contour lines, it is helpful to ask “how high” as well as “how far” when asking directions. It also helps to have studied HOW to ask these questions prior to arriving at the mountain.headed up

3) Do not accept hiking suggestions from rock climbers - their concepts of “flat” and “downhill” are seriously problematic.

4) Counting steps is a serious mistake, even if you are trying to practice your Korean numbers. The hike goes much better if you don’t realize you just passed your 2000th step and it has only been 20 minutes.

5) When you start seeing steel cables lining the path to keep people from falling off the mountain or sliding down it, it is time to think about turning around - even if the grandmother and three year old who just passed you are doing fine.

6) Being seriously tired is no excuse for not remembering how to translate a typical Korean accent. When a Buddhist monk has kindly answered your questions in English and asks “Do you like play?” do not answer “Yes I do like plays - are you putting on a play?” Instead translate the accent into American English: “Would you like to pray?” Otherwise you find yourself in the middle of a Buddhist Temple prayer service trying to keep up.

Seoul7) Although it is good to have brought food, it is ok not to eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This mountain had two noodle houses just on my one trail. I did not envy the poor guys who were hauling boxes of food up the mountain - they reminded me of AMC hut workers in the NH White Mountains. But I did envy the people downing noodle soup, spiced tofu and iced lemon tea.

8) Despite giving up on the peak itself (it involved holding onto steel cables and climbing straight up!), the views were amazing. As you enjoy them, send up a prayer for my hamstrings. My next hiking trip is in less than two weeks - and the mountain is higher.

Add comment October 8, 2007

The real meaning of culture shock

Me at Jonggak BellSomewhere in my preparations for Korea I read the odd statement that culture shock is not what happens when you arrive in a country, it is what happens six weeks later when you have not yet left.  Now I understand.  When I arrived, all the differences from home were part of the adventure.  There were difficulties, but I could deal with them because that was part of the excitement of living abroad.  I missed home, but there was so much to do that I did not have time or need for the familiar.

Now that I have been here longer, the pull of the familiar grows stronger.  I have seen and done an amazing number of things, so everything is not new and fascinating.  

SignpostIt is not that I am unhappy - I am still glad to be here and I will not be on a plane tomorrow.  It is just that the desire to hop on a plane has finally hit me.  The truth is I am not going home any time soon.  There simply is no way to make lasagna without mozzarella and an oven.  My language skills are not going to improve magically.  And despite my efforts to see the best in everything, there are a few pieces of Korean life I am having trouble accepting.

First the smells.  Korea smells different than anywhere I have lived before.  Maybe this is the famous fermenting kimchee smell that many American writers complain about.  I doubt it - I actually like the smell of most kimchee.  To me the odor is the smell of wet clay full of anaerobic bacteria and centuries of human waste used as fertilizer.  It is too many people in too little space with insufficient trash pickup and a huge amount of food waste sitting in open trash bins.  It is the smell of a culture that cares deeply and sensitively about its personal environment, but much less for public, common areas. 

Second, the poverty.  Koreans have achieved first world status in terms of average wealth, (and the wealth of luxury goods here shames Rodeo Drive) but the people living in the rice fields around me share more with rural Arkansas than urban Seoul - at least as far as I can tell from the outside of their houses. 

Third is the disregard of others.  People answer their cell phones in concert halls and have loud conversations; parents allow their small children to do just about anything; bus drivers regularly run red lights and drive up the wrong side of the road to make a schedule.

Seeing a little piece of KoreaLet me stress - none of these issues is unique to Korea.  I recognize America has exactly the same problems in one place or another.  And many Koreans are concerned about the same problems - this is the only place I have ever been where some people cover their mouths when they talk on cell phones in public places.  But it is not the specific issues that cause the culture shock.  It is that they come on top of the uncertainties and insecurities of living in another culture, not understanding the language, and never being quite sure I am acting appropriately.  When one is off balance or lonely, everything rankles more.  Importantly, unlike in America, I cannot really complain to the people involved.  I am a guest, and I am determined to be a good guest.  Even a polite comment to a mother about manners would be a major insult from a visiting American - as writing this blog entry may be.

But in the end this blog entry is about me, not Korea.  There are only two cures for this kind of culture shock:  going home or going on.  Since I’m not going home, I’m working on bringing home to me - Tod has plane tickets, I have more calling cards, and I’m headed to the USO canteen for lasagna.   I’m also working hard on making my own place in Korea.  I try to walk every day, past the sections that smell, past the poor houses, and out into the rice paddies.  I smile at my neighbors, I stop to inspect the gardens, I wander paths to see where they go.  I try hard not to isolate myself in my moments of frustration or become the kind of complaining, bitter American foreigners rightly dislike.  Koreans have reciprocated with warmth and enthusiasm, taking me places and showing me things I would never find on my own. 

Silworks are bottom centerThis week it was acorn “jelly” which is really more like acorn jello, but without the sugar.  And yes, it is brown and wiggly and made from acorns.  It tastes like….jello without sugar, mostly.   Also boiled silkworms, which despite the moisture of the broth taste positively dusty (bottom center in this picture of Chinese medicine ingredients).  And paper cups full of black and white spiral shells, out of which one sucks tasty little morsels of salty marine life.  One student called them Korean popcorn.  So the adventure continues.

2 comments October 3, 2007

Daily Life

At Suwon FortressWhen I was 21 I traveled to Europe on a six week backpacking tour. I fainted in the Sistine Chapel and spent four days in an Italian hospital. I got rehydrated on an I.V. drip, ate better food than anywhere else in Italy, and entertained the seventeen elderly women in my “semi-private” room. I never got a bill. Calling my Mom from the hospital was hard. But I never felt as far from home as the day I tried to call home from Paris.

At least back then, to call America from Paris with a calling card you had to go through the operator. And the operator only spoke French. Only French. She would not even listen if you broke into English. At that moment, I felt so far away from home, so incompetent, so alone, so utterly lost. I could not do something as simple as make a phone call. I wrote in my journal that night “The ‘foreign’ in foreign country is when the operator does not speak English.”

Living in a foreign country means that at least once or twice a week I have to do something amazingly ordinary that I simply have no idea how to do. The daily chores of living take on new significance when you realize that you cannot do them the American way, and you hadn’t realized there was a Korean way. Having now spent a full month here in Korea, I thought I’d list some of the challenges that put the “foreign” in foreign country.

Traditional ToiletPublic Toilets: Toilet paper, if provided, is on the outside of the stall. Thus you have to decide in advance whether to be environmentally sensitive and conserve paper or always take enough for the worst case scenario. Signs on the door saying “Foreigners” or with a picture of a toilet mean you will find a western toilet. Otherwise toilets are Korean style (see photo).

Doing laundry: Since I do not have a dryer, I have to plan laundry around the weather. Doing wash on a rainy or humid day means clothes can mold before they dry. Since it has been actively raining or over 75% humidity almost every day, some days get organized wholly around laundry. When I do get to wash, I have to be careful how I hang things. Otherwise unexpected visitors at the front door get a beeline view of all my underwear and bras.

Trying to mail a package home: Post offices do not sell international mailing boxes here. You pick used boxes from the box pile provided at shopping centers, turn them inside out so they have no writing on them, and use them to mail packages.

Paying a bill: No one mails payments to companies in Korea. Instead you transfer money directly from your account to theirs at the bank or an ATM. Also no one gets bank statements in the mail - you put your passbook into the ATM and it automatically records every deposit, withdrawal and debit card use since last you updated your passbook.

recycling at my apartmentTaking out the trash: Koreans are amazing recyclers. Food goes in the orange and yellow bins (I’m hoping they aren’t meant for different kinds of food!). Paper, glass, metal, plastic, and Styrofoam have their own large sacks. You have to use your town’s garbage bags purchased at the local market.

Buying groceries: Koreans charge 5 cents a bag for every bag you use at the supermarket and appreciate your bringing your own. You do your own bagging and you have to move quickly - the people behind you are always in a hurry. Chickens at one market come cut up, but not at another - you have to ask (I avoid that section of that market, since heads on chickens goes past my comfort zone). Bananas can only be bought in complete bunches (20) but apples depend on the market - six at one, seven at the other, a dozen at a third. You bag your own produce and then walk it to an assistant, who weighs it and sticks a label on it (kind of like the bulk section of Hannaford - but with an assistant). It pays not to get the number of apples wrong.

Finding an address: Even Koreans agree that finding a street address is incredibly hard in Korea. Buildings are numbered based on when they were built, not their location on the street, and less than 20% of streets have actual street signs. All directions are relational (left at the temple, right a block after the supermarket, we’re the store behind the bank) which means having a good sense of everything ELSE in the neighborhood is useful for finding a particular location. If you are new to the country, you walk a lot - and you try to accept it is about the journey, since you may never find your destination.

Friends at the Duck RestaurantSo daily life has its challenges, but there are compensations. Telemarketers and survey people hang up on me as soon as I answer in English. Every supermarket trip or dinner out is a foray into new foods and new tastes. And I’ve never had such a sense of satisfaction from taking out the garbage, paying a bill, or buying apples.

1 comment September 23, 2007


I read a poem recently which began,

“When everything is hieroglyphic,
the back of a cereal box,
the long advertisement on the side of a blue bus,

and even the road sign with the red arrow pointing to something I cannot read,….” (Carmen Acevedo, “The American in October,” The Korea Fulbright Review, Summer 2006, p. 59).

This is how I feel. Hangul, the Korean alphabet developed in the 1500s, is still mostly Greek to me. Last week I spent an hour translating the buttons on the washing machine. (Those of you who know me well will recognize I did this after I turned it on to see what would happen.)

At the supermarket, I buy food using Holmesian deduction and the occasional words in English. One box of “plum tea” turned out to contain long green packets of white powder. Ground, sweetened, instant tea maybe? I’m getting that one translated before I try any!

STores on my blockThe eye is assaulted in Korea by signage. Every possible urban space has a sign. Think working class liquor store in the United States and then plaster a few more signs for the right effect.

And the worst of it? I cannot read them. I am surrounded by an entire country trying to draw me in, inform me, tempt me, enlighten me and I am like a solid, unyielding wall. Slowly, slowly I begin to recognize patterns, like a child first understanding that c and a and t form that warm, fuzzy, purring thing that sleeps on their bed.

My business cards have my name in hangul. It is only slowly looking familiar. Most of your computers probably won’t read the next line, but here is Beth Salerno in hangul: 베스살레르노

I do not want to be an ugly American so I try to use my pitiful Korean at the supermarket and in restaurants. Usually I get a barrage of Korean in return and since I only understand a word or two, I have to fall back on pantomime. It is very isolating - how does one shop or go out to eat when you cannot read, speak, or understand? So each night I try to learn a few more words and constructions and I try to psyche myself up to take risks. Mostly I smile and nod, silently, as I walk through a linguistically incomprehensible world, excited when I see or hear something I know. It isn’t so bad though - it forces you to pay attention to what is happening, rather than what you are hearing or reading. Maybe that is the gift of being “other” for a while.

Add comment August 29, 2007


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