Why don’t you speak Korean?!!!

Last Saturday, on my way to the cigar shop, I made the mistake of not following one of my goat paths and took an alternate route.  (It always LOOKS simple on the subway map!)  Stupid me – how could an extending arm (picture an upside down capitol letter ‘Q’) of the green line (the one line that is a loop around the center of Seoul) possibly be simpler?

At the terminus/beginning (what have-you) of the line, both sides of the subway tracks had the same signage so I didn’t know which side to wait at.   I figured that since it wasn’t a loop and there was no way for a train to turn around, that maybe both sides just went back and forth like the mono-rail did in Seattle.  So by just missing one train on one side, I elected to move to the other side and wait for another train.   (I turned out to be wrong, btw)

While there, another foreigner chatted me up/hit me up.  I’ll try and replicate the conversation, using A and B:

A:  [insert Korean here]

B.  I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean.

A.  Where are you from?

B.   America.

A.  But you look Korean.

B.  [here it comes]  I am Korean.


B. I’m adopted.

A.  Oh, so you were adopted to the United States and your parents are white?

B.  Yes.

A.  So are your parents here?

B.  No.

A.  Where are your parents?  In the States?

B.  No.  They’re dead.

A.  So what are you doing here?

B.  Teaching English, what else…

A.  Why don’t you speak Korean!!!

B.  Because I was raised in the United States.  [I can’t believe I’m getting admonished by this foreign (Indian? Arab?) man for not learning Korean.  It’s bad enough when Koreans do this to me.]

A.  So you should learn!!!

B.  It’s not easy.

A.  Sure it is!  I”m Pakistani and I speak Korean better than English!

B.  [here it comes]

A.  Why, all you have to do is talk to some people at the market!

B.  People don’t talk to me in Korean.  I’m an English teacher.  They only speak to me in English.  As soon as they hear me speaking English, there is only English or no conversation.

A.  People talk to me all the time!

B.  That’s because you don’t look like you can speak English.  That’s because you don’t look Korean but fail being Korean.  They expect to have to train you.  They expect me to know it.

A.  If you just tried harder, you’d pick it up like I have.

B.  And how long have you lived here?

A.  Five years.

B.  And how long before you could speak?

A.  A few years.

B.  I’ve been here a year and a half.  Gimmie a break.

A.  So where is your husband?

B.  I’m divorced.

A.  So you are single?

B.  Yes.

A.  So you are here by yourself?!

B.  Yes.

A.  Where do you live?

B.  You sure ask a lot of questions.  [I have never understood why ANYONE would ask a girl where she lives, but all wanna be players seem to do this]

A.  Does it make you angry?

B.  [Yeah, asshole, it makes me angry]  It’s too familiar for my taste.

A.  Would you like to go on a date?

B.  I’m very busy right now.  [like I’d date an insensitive jerk like you]

A.  You’re very beautiful.

B.  Thanks.

A.  Do you have kids?

B.  They are in college.

A.  Would you mind meeting me some time?  Where are you going?

B.  As I said, I’m very busy.

A.  I’d like to practice my English with someone.

B.  [now that I’m obviously too old to date, at least he can try and get free English lessons]  I’m not interested in helping you with your English.  That’s my job all day.  Have a nice day.

Now, except for the him being Pakistani part and being asked for a date, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation before.  Slap me on the face about my Korean and then try and exploit me for English.  Seriously.  Not an isolated event.

I can’t tell you how irritating it is to get admonished for not speaking Korean all the time!  And it’s usually people who have had the luxury of classes who were enrolled in one program or another.  Or, it is a Korean who can barely speak English who has been studying for about 8 years. Or, in this case someone brown who comes without expectations of English or Korean…

I am here and forced to self study.  With NO ONE willing to speak to me in Korean or give me two minutes.  I can’t even reach classes in time if I wanted to because they aren’t offered and the commute to Seoul is too long.  I have given up for the time being, because IT’S POINTLESS.  The vacuum is so huge there’s only time wasted and nothing gained.

And if it weren’t such a horrible scenario to be in, I still wouldn’t be learning this language on the outside chance my mom, one of 48.6 million,  (yeah, I just googled the population stats) saw two minutes of something on t.v. out of about 100 t.v. channels and then decides to step forward.  Because this adoptee has learned well to manage her expectations and not hope for something with such bad odds.    Besides which, I only want to meet the woman.  I don’t know how much of a relationship would be possible or desirable.  Only after meeting would taking this language seriously be something I’d entertain.

In the meantime, my only interest in this language is the same as for any other language – and that is rather academic – that other languages are structurally interesting and culturally revealing.  All I want is survival Korean so I’m not so freaking uncomfortable here.   Compound all of the above with it being a difficult language and totally foreign, lacking any cognates or any root structure that is evident in all the other languages I’ve tried my hand at with moderate success and little effort.

Tonight there’s a lecture on the mental health of adoptees.  Whereas it’s a fascinating topic of study, I’m really not interested in it personally.  But I did hear before hand that language acquisition is included, and that adoptees actually do seem to have a steel plate in their heads when it comes to Korean.  I actually have too much work to do and shouldn’t go or be writing now, even, but it’s on my mind.

I know for me there is something akin to rage when I see other foreigners speaking Korean.  Because I spoke when I came to America.  So whatever it was that allowed thought and representation to be expressed in my native tongue was killed then.  Call this melodrama if you want, but emotionally it’s very real, and I believe it’s handicapping my ability to retain anything.  I see other adoptees picking up the language too, but again they have more privileges and better circumstances than I and they were also pre-verbal when they were adopted.  I also know that my adoptee friend who was NINE lost sooooo much more than I ever did, and she too has a steel plate in her head and she, too, must self-study in a vacuum, and each and every misunderstood word is like a dagger to her heart because she once owned it.

So, dear readers, and please don’t be offended, but  maybe could everyone please indulge me and not hit that button?  (also Mei Ling, I know you’re investigating or being supportive, but even your comments about language add to my language pressure)  Ask me about adoption.  Ask me about incest.  Ask me about abuse.  Ask me about just about anything you want, but this language thing makes me FEEL VIOLENT.

Thank you.

23 thoughts on “Why don’t you speak Korean?!!!

  1. Chosunking, this isn’t directed AT you – just to clarify for you how this affects me.

  2. Thanks…..
    I’ll try not to push the language button.
    Now that you have been in Korea for awhile do you have any observations about Korean culture?
    Personal note:
    I think i mentioned this but I do read some other kblogs but am tired of reading the perspectives of 20 something yahoos who come to Korea to teach at a Hagwon etc. I tried to find other points of view, women, African Americans etc..thats how I came by your blog.
    I apologize if my questions are intrusive. I do not mean to offend. I am just interested, I don’t know why..I guess I am trying to keep this OLD brain workin’.
    When I came back from Korea virtually NO ONE was interested in my experiences, family or friends, I never could understand why…
    I. on the other hand, when someone tells me they been to a foreign country I never let up on questions.
    I am a pain in the butt that way.
    mian hamnida.

  3. Hmm…I thought my posts were always peppered with observations about Korean culture…

  4. If you decide that Thailand maybe an option for you, I can put you in contact with my friend
    Hes been in Asia for 40 years and Thailand for 35, the rest in Korea,
    He speaks Thai fluently and I am sure if you had any questions he would be willing to answer them.
    He is a devout Buddhist, in fact was a monk for three years.

  5. “In the U.S., do you get complemented when you speak English well?”

    Nah, I moved to a multi-cultural area on purpose and don’t get that. But it HAS HAPPENED. Usually with old prejudiced people. Usually the kind with money who still think of all minorities as servants or new immigrants.

    I had assumed you were gyopo…

  6. Thailand was a sweet and somewhat naive place. They could use some help not being totally corrupted in the next decade. The language seemed difficult, but not as difficult as Korean. I’d go to teach English there in a heartbeat, but they don’t pay enough for me to cover my bills at home. I’d rather help girls avoid prostitution but again, until I get rid of my loans I can’t be of help to anybody anywhere and am forced to teach English in the highest paying country…

    I guess if I had to stay in Asia, Thailand would be top of the list.

    Africa would be my real first choice. I already am familiar with much of their culture and would instantly feel comfortable there. Hopefully a non-Moslem area because I don’t do ultra conservative too well. I think it wouldn’t take much for me to pick up passable French if needed.

    I also love Jamaica…

  7. Wow, you addressed me. :\
    Well, I actually wasn’t gonna say anything about language classes or exchanges or anything.

    I’m in Canada (obviously), so whenever someone asks me how the hell I didn’t learn to become fluent in Taiwan, I just tell them it’s not the same as growing up IN the country as a child and hearing the language every day.

    But in Taiwan, I didn’t have the luxury of being able to explain. I just explained I was from Canada, and that I was an “overseas” Chinese. That usually worked. However, judging from the above exchange, that obviously wouldn’t have worked for that jerk.

    I also wasn’t involved in a ton of adoption-related events and teaching my native tongue to kids. I had time for conversing… at the markets. Sort of. Well, the people there couldn’t really speak English, so I needed to have my dictionary with me at all times. Still, I probably got more chances at a real interaction based on what you’ve written here.

    (And as you yourself probably pointed out a long time ago, and other APs mentioned, I was semi-prepared with a set grammar/vocab before I got off the airplane…)

    Also, being able to meet my Mama and Baba was a huge motivator in learning the language once I got there.

    Of course, they spoke Hokkien a lot of the time, and I know my complaints about language learning are valid too, but still, the fact I can meet with them is something I recognize as a privilege a lot of adult adoptees never get to witness.

    Honestly, I don’t know if I would have lasted as long in Taiwan compared to your time so far in Korea. I wanted to stay… but like you, I got incredibly frustrated with the language barrier and sometimes just wanted to cry and make it go away.

    And I was there for only 3 months. :\

    (Interestingly enough, CBC Lika and I just had a very similar discussion through e-mail about the ethnic/language barrier)

  8. I’ve been reading from adoptees who have gone back to Korea and the abuse they endure from Koreans for not speaking Korean. I used to sit at my computer and think, “wow, that is rough, that is bizarre, oh, the rejection…how many times must we endure rejection. i’m so lucky to live in a multi-cultural state (CALIFORNIA) where i don’t encounter that too often…” then yesterday, bam!

    Korean woman: “you Korean?” you so dark. ah, you speak Korean?”
    Me: “no, i was adopted by caucasians, i don’t know Korean.”
    Korean woman: (waved me away. actually waved her hand in my face to go away!)
    Me: (stunned look on my face)
    Korean woman: (rolls her eyes) “not even a few words?” “just some words?” “a little bit?” “why you don’t remember?!”
    Me: “no, just the words I have learned as an adult.”
    Korean woman: “adopted.” (rolls eyes) then waved me away again.

    I can’t imagine what it would be like in KOREA.

  9. Thanks, Mei Ling, Thanks, Sona.

    I know I asked for no talk of language – but these two comments actually made me feel better…

    Sona – I had the same thing happen to me in Seattle one time, when some Korean woman was asking me for directions…I wasn’t “adopted” at the time, though…but she was clearly disgusted that I was Korean and couldn’t speak Korean.

    It’s often just as you portrayed. Only these Koreans don’t speak English. I wouldn’t call it abuse but instead callousness. Just the disgust on their face as they don’t know what to do with you. And the lack of compassion on their face as you struggle. Maybe it’s not as bad because most of the time we don’t get to the part about me being an adoptee. If we do get there, they are as obtuse as the Pakistani in the conversation. They think I should study 24/7 and/or can’t understand why I don’t just absorb it by osmosis. Part of it is worse, because you’re trying to survive out of your element, and you can’t even do some of the simplest things…

    I tell every Korean that CAN speak to me about how I’ll never learn Korean because Koreans don’t speak Korean to/with me or offer any assistance. And the result? No help at all. Even when I point it out repeatedly.

    Maybe about 20% choose to look at your communication problem as something you brought on yourself. And they blame you for being an inconvenience to them. Why are you here irritating me when you shouldn’t even be here if you can’t speak Korean? What kind of a Korean are you? So there might be an element of nationalism to it. My not speaking Korean shows them I turned my back on Korea. (isn’t that ironic?) There’s seriously a blaming the victim thing going on here. And there’s this finality to it – kind of a, “We’re not going to help you so just move your body on out of here” kind of thing. Gyopos also get this for their poor Korean, but having no functional speaking ability is unfathomable to these people. They seem to think that if you wanted to, which you should, it’s possible anywhere in the world, and that you not bothering – even if you’re adopted – just indicates what a rotten Korean you are.

    When I go to a new place, the odds of me having a language crisis are about 50%. Fortunately, I don’t go to a new place but maybe once every other week. The rest of the time I stick to places that are a little forgiving or accommodating or worldly. Therefore, my world is very very small – like three restaurants, one grocery store and one convenience store.

    A few can put themselves in your shoes about not being able to communicate and want to smother you in pity but they are unable to communicate with you. So that’s just awkward…

    Then there are those who fear any dialogue in English, so I don’t really take issue with them. Then there are the others who don’t really give a crap about you or your situation but see free English lesson written all over you. For this group, my experience is not as bad as the Caucasian foreign teachers.

    I think the unique thing about us adoptees, though, is we often get all of the above and it’s crazy-making.

    One Danish adoptee here who went to Incheon with me wore a t-shirt that said, “Please be patient, I’m an adopted person.” She made it herself.

    Only I think that doesn’t send the right message, as that might contribute to our own marginalization. Maybe, “I can’t speak Korean because adoption made me a foreigner.”

    A beer for anyone who can come up with something catchier. I think I need one of those for every day of the week…

    The t-shirt, that is…

  10. The most ridiculous shirt I’ve worn said “I have no idea what this shirt says” in Korean.

    I think I only managed to offend one Korean woman I saw at Costco. But it was enough to retire the shirt.

  11. I think there are several things you are talking about here.

    I believe that the issue of having difficulty in learning Korean is NOT realted to being adopted (speaking as an adopted expat American who has never been able to learn Arabic in Morocco in 20 years).

    I think the problem with learning Korean is that adult language learning comes MUCH more easily for SOME people than others. I’ve had similar converstations with with people who do pick up languages very quickly, who cannot understand those who don’t. This problem is also unrelated to being a language teacher (speaking as a teacher, also). Just because you know one language well and speak and even teach it well, does NOT make it necessarily easy for you to “pick up” another language. You need someone willing to work with you on very small things DAILY.

    The foreign women in Morocco who have learned Arabic were often stuck in the home with a Moroccan maid all day long, and often worked together in the kitchen, learning the language, piece-by-piece, subject-by-subject. This was also the approach I took with my foreign husband when he learned English, and when I learned French. You pick up little bits, subject-by-subject.

    Being an English teacher, and speaking English, for sure, everyone wants to speak English to you, not take time to help you with Korean. However, even in a realtionship or friendship, most people don’t want to take the time to help you. Even taking language classes is difficult because there are so few foreigners in the class that they are of all different levels, most of them too far advanced for you, so the class doesn’t ever really start at the BEGINNING level.

    My suggestion, if you plan on staying in Korea, do you have any students who might be able to trade a half hour of Korean practice (like twice a week) for the same amount of private tutoring in English?

    I understand everything you are going through! A lot of other people (me included) have felt just the same (except for the adoptee returning to Korea part).

    Best regards,
    Mary, of Expat Abroad

  12. Ed, I wonder what would happen if I wore that? Probably get a) asked if I am Japanese b) treated as if I was Japanese or c) get scoffed at or ignored due to being a Korean with bad taste…

    I can’t believe you wore that in Korea! Or was it in the U.s.? (There are Costco’s here too)

  13. Mary,

    Thanks for understanding. All the things you say are true. And it’s also true that actually learning is probably no different for adoptees or non-adoptees, and that learning styles play a huge factor and I am one of those that needs to be (OH HOW I NEED TO have someone willing to work with me, a little bit and daily) I need someone willing to be like a mom to me. And the frustrating thing is, I am ALWAYS like this with people, but nobody here is and nobody will give you the time.

    I don’t know how old you were when you were adopted, but I do believe there is an exponential factor relative to age on how painful it is to fail at learning your native tongue. So that factors in to easy discouragement and feelings of defeat.

    One student wanted to meet me during the school day but we couldn’t get the schedules to line up. Maybe this semester. Students here are in school until about 8 pm, so when they leave there they either are forced to go to hogwans, or their mom is making them study, or if they are like most of the kids here in the country, the last thing they want to do is meet the teacher for language exchange.

    It’s also a potential conflict of interest in the view of the school district, as you might be using the school to drum up private lessons, so they would frown on student/foreign teacher associations after classes.

    What would have been beneficial was to teach pre-school English here. But nobody wants to hire me because I’m not young enough or white.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I know I don’t want to spend 20 years here…I don’t even know if I can hack the 5 year plan I started out with…even just learning survival Korean seems insurmountable and I’ve essentially given up. I do know I need to find someone willing to be a mentor to me, but that’s the catch 22, because isolation comes with this job, and it’s the only job I can get.

  14. My parents died when I was four and I was adoped by my aunt and uncle, but we were all American and I never had to make any language shift; we just moved to a new state within the U.S. I was old enough to know and remember my first parents.

    I don’t think that this is the reason I find learning foreign languages difficult, though. I also don’t think it comes from learning another language at a young age. My daughter is tri-lingual, all three languages learned from the age of two.

    I think there are different kinds of intelligence, and NOT ALL OF US ARE BORN WITH THE ABILITY TO PICK UP LANGUAGES (no matter how much we study). I have the same questions come up in Morocco. In 20 years neither my husband nor my daughter will help me learn Arabic (They say, “they don’t have time,” but really it’s a case of not wanting to be bothered to spend even a few minutes a day.) When my husband lived in America with me, in addition to going to a small school GEARED TO HIS ACTUAL ENGLISH LEVEL, I studied with him at least one hour each day at home, whether he wanted to or not. After 1 1/2 years he got BARELY to the level of being able to carry on a very basic simple conversation (when we moved back to Morocco). Over many years, he learned English with my daughter as she grew up, because he decided to speak English with her. He also won an award in his school for being the number one student for showing progress (but I know it was because of the daily practice we did, which a lot of other students didn’t get).

    Here in Morocco, people ask me, “Why don’t you speak Arabic?” When I tell them no one will speak Arabic with me, or help me to learn it, they say, “Why can’t you just pick it up from watching TV, or from the marketplace?” Sorry….just doesn’t work that way. Next they ask me, “How come I’ve heard other foreigners speaking very good Arabic?” Just because those people have that SORT of language intelligence and ability doesn’t mean that I do.

    Based on what you say in your previous reply to me, I think I would recommend you start making a plan to leave Korea in another year or so. I didn’t realize you were a school teacher. I assumed you were teaching ESL. If you are a school teacher with proper teaching credentials, there is quite a pool of American international schools around-the-world who would really appreciate you.

  15. Agree with all you’ve said, but I also don’t think you can relate to the once verbal (now foreign language) adoptee’s experience.

    To have been able to communicate, lose that ability, and then have such difficulty with learning and possibly re-learning even rudimentary communication elevates the pain and difficulty of studying it. I will stand by my assertion that it makes it emotionally much harder. I’m a strong woman, but this much pain on top of the difficulty is too much. Yes, it’s a hang-up. But I wouldn’t just write it off as an excuse either. It’s merely an additional hurdle.

    I do agree with everything else you’ve said, though. I can’t imagine having to be in your situation for 20 years, though. How utterly frustrating for you. But we do get along without somehow. And you have company at least.

    I definitely don’t intend to stay here. I am an ESL teacher and don’t have proper teaching credentials. I also am not a language teacher, as I am better at an interesting lecture than I am at engaging people in conversations. In fact, I suck at dialogues and especially at edutainment. I have creative classroom ideas that would be better implemented by someone more outgoing and dramatic. I’d be great in a college classroom, except I’ve no interest in being an expert in some esoteric subject. I am a generalist. I like being a generalist. The world doesn’t value or want to pay generalists, unfortunately!

    I’d probably get on the plane tomorrow if there was someone in the states looking for a generalist…

    Korea’s okay. It’s no more messed up than any other country, though they seem more messed up because their messes obviously hit close to home, me being a product of that mess. It’s positives are just not my thing though, so I’m not getting much from it. That and the isolation. Not being in any kind of relationship means I can’t even ask.

    But my insomniac rambling should end (sorry to get off topic) because I get up for work in 3 hours.

    Thanks for taking the time to point out/support/remind me to relax and take what I can and work with my learning style, (which I too identified last year as being exactly what you say – that hands-on baby steps kind of way) It’s kind of what I’m doing by taking a break. But I do need to scream in anguish every now and then, when other people slap me around…

  16. I enjoyed reading of your difficulties, reminds me of my own difficulties with learning Arabic, and reminds me of the fact that I’m not the ONLY person with these problems!

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  18. Girl4708, are you still in SK? I wish I’d seen your blog before, but I was probably hiding. We are simultaneously the same, and different: non-native Korean speakers, but I’m white while you’re East-Asian. As you alluded to above, non-East-Asians in SK face a related, yet distinct form of linguistic discrimination.here. Because most whites here don’t speak Korean, and because of the omnipresent ‘ racially/ ethnically homogeneous national’ ideology, To most native Korean speakers I only represent ‘foreignness’ as soon as they see me. And English is the language to speak to foreigners in. Meanwhile I have fought my way to learning Korean, mostly in the English classrooms. Nevertheless, we’ll both only ever be foreigners, here. In all frankness, reading you post and responses I was angered by your ‘pity party’; probably because I have my own. I feel like nobody can understand my situation. But I know there are lots of people out there like us. So, really, instead of complaining like we do SO much, the only real solution would seem to be making an organization that is anti-discrimination. Anybody can be in it, But, yeah, because we’re in SK, and the main language here is Korean, we should speak in Korean. In the past two years have you managed to pick up some Korean? Or gave up on the country? I’m about to give up. Good luck

  19. Study a 2,000 or 6000 wordlist book. Learn immediate grammar. Then hit the short novels. Just translate the unknown words and ride it through!

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