Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Language barriers

1. Volume

You know how people make fun of tourists who go to a foreign country and don't speak the language, so they think that by speaking English loudly that will make everybody understand them?

I think they're onto something.

Or rather, the only way you can have somebody understand you in the first place is if they can hear you.

I've realized that part of my problem here is that when I'm unsure of what I'm saying, or feel like I'll make a mistake and sound funny, I'll speak more quietly. This, of course, makes matters worse, because whoever is listening to me can't really hear me well in the first place, won't understand what I'm saying, and then I'll sit there feeling stupid because I think I'm speaking so terribly that nobody can understand me.

2. Irregular verbs and respect for elders*

So these may not seem related, but I think they are the reason I sound like a 2-year-old when I speak Korean.

I was raised (as were, I imagine, most people of Korean descent) to be respectful towards your elders. Now, this doesn't mean I didn't do that whole rebelling-against-the-parents thing, but if my grandma tells me to do something, I'll do it. Even if it is something ridiculous like schlepping my laundry across the city on two different subway lines even though there is a washing machine in my boarding house about five feet from my room.

Part of this whole respect thing comes with an entirely different way of speaking. If there isn't a completely different verb involved ("eat" has a regular verb and an honorific verb), then there is a way of adding a whole bunch of "shee" sounds to what you are saying that makes it suitable for saying out loud in front of somebody older than you. This makes my brain hurt. I'm already having trouble with the gazillion different verb endings for different situations (polite formal, polite informal, plain, polite informal question, plain question, polite informal command, etc etc etc). If the verb stem happens to have that "shee" sound in it already then I'm really screwed. If the verb is irregular, I just want to pull my hair out. Yes, I can look up somewhere what it's supposed to be, but in the interest of conversing in a timely manner (and not carrying around my grammar book) I'll just guess. But then you most likely end up saying an entirely different verb, then your grandma, I mean, whoever you are talking to, misinterprets what you are saying and hilarity** ensues.

3. Cultural bluntness***
Since I have been here, I've been told various things that acquaintances back home would NEVER think of saying, unless they happened to be rude or wanted to hurt my feelings on purpose. I'm trying to get used to it, but I kinda prefer not being told negative things about my appearance or age. I mean, there's nothing I can do about my age, and if I have a pimple I'm not going to slather tons of makeup on my face (thereby making the situation worse) just to make it easier for somebody else to look at me. I don't really consider pointing out what I already know helpful in that sense.

So my delicate American ego has definitely taken a few hits here, but since this bluntness falls under the "cultural differences" category it's not like I'm picking any fights with anybody or trying to change the way everybody observes things here. But if I happen to be having a bad day, there's only so much patience I can have without shutting down a little.

It's interesting trying to communicate like somebody with who you will always have cultural differences, and therefore, opportunities for miscommunication. Yes, there is something to be said for being in a new place and trying to adapt to its customs and culture. But I don't think this means you have to do or say things that you'd rather not do/say. Here are a few things that I don't think I'll be doing anytime soon just for the sake of that whole "when in rome..." thing:

1. Eating dog soup
2. Smoking
3. Telling people I don't know or have barely met that they've gained weight/should get married/are old/should get something or other on their face fixed.
4. Acquiring a boyfriend, calling him 오빠, then making him carry my purse
5. Watch TV on the subway (I got motion sickness the last time I tried that.)
6. Text-messaging while your teacher is talking during class

I don't mind if other people do these things (well, except for #6), I'm just probably not gonna get to these things while I'm here. And I'm pretty sure Koreans don't care if I do or don't do these things either.

I think the following things I'd like to keep doing but I'm not sure how well they'll fit in back home:

1. Crossing my arms to indicate No/FAIL/Can't
2. Making the peace sign in pictures
3. Spending hours (record so far: 3.5 hrs over dinner) just talking to a friend in a restaurant or cafe
4. Giving up your seat for an older person on the bus/subway without having to be guilted into it by a dirty look
5. Talking to older strangers who ask you questions because they need to know something, as opposed to ignoring those crazy guys on the MUNI trying to score a crack rock.

So these are just a few of the (very small) things that I am struggling with here. As you can see, it's not a big deal, and I'm managing to have a pretty awesome time.

*Respect for elders could also be categorized under opportunities rife with miscommunication.

**And by hilarity, I mean a HUGE kerfuffle.

***I'm not trying to make sweeping observations about Korean people here, it's just based on what I have personally experienced. In other words, n=7. The population of Seoul alone is over 10 million.

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