I’m an ESL teacher in Korea and have been for 7+ years. I also taught in Singapore for two years. I tried out Thailand for six months before The Incident put a medical stop to that. I lived/studied in Germany for ~8 months. I’m an explorer. I’ve been to six continents and around 36 countries. It’s an odd path, one that my father instilled in me. I love my life, though it has many fun challenges to adapt to. The hardest to navigate is language.
My Korean is minuscule. I can read and pronounce Hangul, which is thankfully alphabetic. I have some problems with their vowels, but it’s pretty easy. They are happy you try. I can read and pronounce anything in Korean and won’t know what 99% of it says. It’s a fun bit of being an ex-pat. You live in a new place and are surrounded by things that you fundamentally don’t understand. Constantly reading signs to practice. Trying to get your vocabulary up. Anything is something.
When I am done teaching, I just want to be Me again. Ex-pats find each other and create a community where we can just be ourselves. Normal speech, diction, syntax. Slang. “Bad” words. I’m always desirous to share with folk. This is true throughout the world. Little Italy, Chinatown, and other cultural enclaves are always created from this central need for outsiders to create their own place. We have ours here as well.
While I can’t express myself in Korean, I’m not totally adrift. I am perfectly able to get around on my own using rudimentary language. Food, directions, no problem. Teacher vocabulary? Check. I’m best with numbers. You have to be, mostly because of money. I can do numbers up to 999,999 with no problem. I know the word for ‘million’ but it just doesn’t come up. But Korean is strange. They have two different number systems. They use the one I understand for minutes when telling time, but the one I don’t for hours, ordering, and various other things. (It’s complicated.) I know how to say 1-4 o’clock, or how to order 1, 2, 3 or 4 of something. I was taught early by my best friend. Curious, I asked: “What about five?”
“I’ve never had to order more than four of anything.”
It doesn’t come up, so you don’t learn it. I focus upon what I need, not fluency. I’ve gotten better with things that come up and are important enough to express. With other things, my phone can translate or I can Charlie Chaplin my way through something if I need to. That strategy doesn’t come up much in Adult Life in Korea, but it’s hella useful when explaining things to kids. I have used it for adults here and elsewhere, however. You can visually demonstrate that you’re hungry, sleepy, that you don’t feel well, or any number of things, incredibly easily. Humans innately understand all of this. Forget your pride and don’t feel bad. You’re trying to convey an idea and accomplish something. Everyone, everywhere, does it all the time. When in a foreign land, it becomes more of a necessity. Lean on it when you need to.
I focus upon everyday needs. The rest? I honestly don’t give it too much thought. After getting through life and the day, I just want to be Me. The rest doesn’t bother me. This leads me to a fantastic upshot of being a foreigner in a strange, strange land: anonymity.
I obviously stick out as a white guy in a country that is 99% Korean. Koreans have no knowledge of me unless they directly know me. I’m just One of the Other. White people look alike to Koreans, and this is a known phenomenon across the world. People of one race have a much harder time telling people of other races apart. I stand out, but just as an obviously anonymous Other. Paradoxically, I blend in to the crowd, just a nameless, faceless example of the outlying 1%.
Other than niceties, I never have to interact with anyone outside of work or friendship. I happily remain in my thoughts, floating through the world as a blissfully-ignored individual. I am a professional performer. In my spare time, my true, introverted self has the space and freedom I need. However, my sociability pours out in our enclave.
When someone speaks to you in your native language, when it isn’t theirs, I have a few tips. Don’t switch to their language. This constantly happened in Germany. They’d hear my accent and speak in perfect English to make things quicker and more understandable. If someone is making an effort to practice and learn, reward them for it. Listen carefully, be patient, and try to make the English conversation go as well as possible. Only resort to their language or translations if you’re at a linguistic standstill. Here, just saying a single word of Korean will ingratiate you to whomever you’re talking to. They frequently giggle just at the oddity of a foreigner being able to say something, anything, in Korean. They aren’t laughing AT you, as many ex-pats think. They are just happily surprised, like it’s a magic trick. It has also led to better treatment for doing my best to understand their language and culture. It makes their day. Makes it special. They remember. Trust me on that one.
Being an outsider is hard, but enjoyable and fulfilling. I’ve made it my entire adult life. When I travel, I am always sure to learn the basic niceties. Certainly learn yes, no, please and thank you. Try to get a couple of simple food/direction/place-names down. When you travel, make sure you write down everything of importance, especially landmarks like your hotel or airport, etc. You will need them. Have that safety net.
It’s so lovely how many loan words there are. In Korean, computer, battery, printer, camera, banana, photo, and thousands of other words are straight-up English, just sounded out in Korean. You’ll be shocked at how much vocabulary you already have and share with the foreign culture you’re in. You fall in love with those words.
These realities resound throughout the world. I’ve been to Russia, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Morocco, and more, where I didn’t have the luxury of sharing the Latin alphabet with the locals. Learn the basics and you’ll be fine. Don’t let the linguistic barrier scare you from exploring these places.
Everywhere, people have a *rough* idea of English and are happy to help, especially if money is involved. I, and you, have my profession to thank for this. English is so universally important that people spend time and money to learn and teach their children to use our (everyone’s?) lingua franca. Foreign teachers are paid quite well to impart this knowledge upon others, who need to learn it for business and international abilities. I have made this my profession, and I’m rewarded with my salary and the ability to further my international exploration.
There is still more of this world to see and I intend on exploring as much of it as possible. If you’re willing and wanting, go out and see as much as you can. I do recommend having a sense of humor, because I guarantee that at times you’ll make mistakes. We all do. The Korean word for eighteen (십팔), ‘shib-pal,’ sounds remarkably similar for the Korean equivalent of “fuck” (씨발) (shee-bal). (I’m careful when I say that number.) Laughter and the willingness to go along with it is a part of the fun and adventure. Look forward to it and embrace it.
Go out! Explore! See and learn as much as you can, just make sure you have that basic safety net. New discoveries are out there for you. Only you can reap the rewards of your journeys into the (previously) unknown. Onward, upwards, always.