I recently had a friend from back home in the US ask me to complete a survey about living abroad for a school project that he was doing. There were about 10-15 very broadly worded questions focusing on many of the aspects of my experience and my motivation for choosing to live abroad. After reading through the questions, I realized that to properly provide full answers to all of them, I would be sending my friend back a book-length response.
Living as an expat in a country like Korea, there are a few questions from people back home that one gets very used to hearing. “So, what’s Korea like?” When I hear this I wonder, how can I even being to answer this? I understand that usually this question happens as an opening when people just don’t know what to ask. Sure my friends and family read a blog post here and there and see some photos. But, for the majority of them who have barely traveled, let alone lived in a country as different as Korea, my day to day life is a complete mystery.
It’s understandable, and very quickly I got used to these broad unfocused starts to explaining what the experience of living abroad is like. For the sake of streamlining these conversations, early on I adopted a set of default responses that were broad and non-committal as the questions. It is only later on that I realize that my early developed default answers actually have actually helped me to pinpoint exactly what is most significant for me.
Another question I am often asked is, “What’s difficult about living in Korea?” My default response is, ‘The language barrier.’ I now realize that far from being just a vague answer to the question, it is really the best answer for me. I can speak and read more than enough Korean to get around a function, but no matter how comfortable I get with Korea, until I am fluent in the language, I lack the ability to freely communicate and understand what is going on around me.
Eight or ten months in, this was fine. I was learning new words still fairly frequently, although I was doing little or no formal studying. I knew enough Korean to impress people, including other Koreans. But small talk was very far beyond my ability. Still, I felt more or less comfortable and confident in my language ability and development.
Then, I hit a big plateau. Once I knew enough language to function, I stopped progressing. Getting the basics of Korean down wasn’t too bad, but advancing beyond that is exceptionally difficult without devoting a lot of time to studying and practice. Now, I have been about 14 months in Korea and my Korean is still more or less where it was 6 months ago, and now I’m felling embarrassed by my lack of ability with the language. Korean people have never said anything, nor do I think they ever would say anything to me about this, but I feel guilty about not knowing more. I also feel guilty that if someone wants to communicate with me, it must be them speaking English. I am uncomfortable admitting how long I have been here, when an introductory conversation that begins in Korean must quickly change to English because of me.
A theme for me in my reflections and blogs about being in Korea has been how I change a progress as I’m longer and longer in the country. This new development is kind of interesting. There are all sorts of rationales why I shouldn’t be worried about speaking Korean and having conversations with Korean in English. After I leave this country, really, am I ever going to need to be able to speak Korean again? Koreans have been studying English formally since 3rd grade. I’ve been studying lackadaisically for about a year. Still, I think that Korean people will think I have a lack of respect for the country or something, since I haven’t learned the language.
And the thing is I could learn it if I wanted to. I could sign up for classes, go to language exchanges, find a tutor, study daily. Yet, I choose not to do any of these things. I guess this goes to show me where my priorities are.
Teaching and living abroad obviously changes a person. I think I’ve now been here long enough to find out some of the deeper ways in which these changes occur. Not every change has to do with ‘broadening the mind’ and ‘cultural understanding.’ Some changes are just things you find within yourself from living in a very different and sometimes very difficult situation. I think now I am more cognizant of how perceptions and reality of ‘foreigners’ sometimes don’t line up. I think I have a better idea of how I want to be perceived by Korean people or any people in whose country I am essentially a ‘guest.’ And I also think I’, realizing just how much effort I am comfortable with putting into maintaining such a perception. All these are things that I would have never considered before Korea.
I guess that’s what it’s ‘like’ living in Korea. In a way, it’s far less about Korea than it is about me. This experience is not only helping me learn about another culture, but also helping me learn who I am in another culture.