Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yeong-oh juseyo? English, please? (Oh dear God, please, PLEASE let them speak English!)

Learning a new language? Pfffft! It's a walk in the park! I grasped the basics of Spanish so quickly in University, I amazed myself at my awesomeness. Korean will be even easier, since I'll be immersed in the language every single day. All I really need to know is 'Hello' and 'Thank You', and the rest will come quickly, since I'm such a natural. Right?

Well, not quite.

Jason previously blogged about our pension experience out at Nami Island. But there are plenty of examples of such disastrous encounters with non-English speakers in our own neighborhood. Now don't get me wrong, we love meeting Koreans and they are truly fabulous people. (Seriously - Canadians have a friendly reputation, but you don't know friendly until you visit Korea). But the language barrier often has us walking away from a situation thinking 'they must think we are absolute idiots'.

For instance, a few weeks ago I ordered a mattress pad. (A mattress pad? What for, do you ask? Because I decided I simply cannot sleep on a slab of concrete for the next 11 months of my life. Clearly, Koreans and North Americans have different ideas of what it means to sleep comfortably, and although I'm adjusting quite smoothly to most cultural gaps so far, let's just say some differences are HARDER to adjust to than others.) Anyway, I found a practical little website for new expats in Korea called The Arrival Store. I ordered a queen size mattress pad that would hopefully fit our double bed, paid with my Canadian credit card in Canadian funds, entered my shipping address and my back saver would arrive in two days. I couldn't wait. Two days later, however, the delivery driver called Jason's phone (I don't have a phone at this point) to let him know, in broken English, that in our absence, he had left the mattress cover with the owner of the restaurant below our officetel apartment (at least that's what he heard).

So before I went downstairs, I proceeded to enter the words 'mail' and 'package' in Google Translate in an attempt to better prepare myself for the absolute fail of a conversation that would soon follow. Confident in my ability to pronounce the two new words but rehearsing them nonetheless as I climbed down the staircase so I wouldn't forget, I proceeded to remove my shoes at the restaurant entrance, which is customary, and address my request to the perceived restaurant owner.

'Do you speak English?' The response to this first question was a blank stare. So I proceeded to present myself, using lots of gestures, explaining that I live upstairs. I think he understood this part thanks to my exaggerated pointing and tone. He was smiling so that was good. Then I asked if there was a package for me. I said both 'mail' and 'package' in both English and Korean. Well I may as well have been speaking French because he made a large 'X' signal with his arms (as Koreans often do, I learned, when they don't understand foreigners). Then he pointed me to his son, requesting his translating services. So I tried again, this time asking the son if there was a 'box' (making a box shape with my hands). He said 'deih, deih' which means 'yes, yes', and left for a moment. Success! He understands me!

Only he returned with an empty box. So I said 'no', repeated 'package', 'mail', 'delivery' and 'post office' several times until the owner pointed me to the menu of his restaurant. Finally I gave up, apologized profusely for the misunderstanding by bowing to the old man, and returned upstairs feeling like a moron because they were trying so hard to understand me; I felt helpless and useless!

We did end up getting our mattress; we changed the shipping address to Jason's school and he brought it home. Sleeps like a dream by the way!

Rice cooker, slow cooker, deep fryer all-in-one!
Other related time-consuming experiences have been trying to decipher Korean symbols on forms, menus, or simpler things like signs, subway maps or our very own appliances. Take our rice cooker for example. Jason tried his luck at this one night, and it turned out not too bad thanks to this video! Thank you Eat Your Kimchi for saving our meal.


 It was a similar story trying to figure out the functions to our washing machine and microwave.

Babe, where's the 'delicate' setting?
Just press '30' and the big round button!
Thankfully we can often rely on a few universally understood symbols. For instance, the biggest button is usually the 'Start' button. Red means 'stop' and green means 'go'. Numbers and arrows are obviously awesome. When telling this story to my co-teacher, her response was a giant laugh accompanied by 'What? You can't read Korean yet?'. Humph. So much for being proud of my accomplishment.

Conversation mishaps such as the one described above would prove to be much more frequent than previously anticipated. Why did I expect that at least one person in each establishment would be somewhat familiar with the basics of English? In Yongin, at least, it's not always the case. At school, at the restaurant, at the grocery store, at the clothing store, at the government offices, at the bank. Living these experiences is forcing us to reflect on how difficult it must be for new Immigrants to Canada to get settled if they don't speak English or French. To put it simply, it's embarrassing to not be understood, and although we try to avoid those types of challenges, sometimes we just don't have a choice. Sometimes we manage, other times we struggle. The latter are the times when, as much as we want to fit in with the majority, we stick out like sore thumbs.

Sign here please! Um, ok, I guess!
Goal in life: to understand and speak Korean! It would make our experience here that much more enjoyable. We would feel a little more like residents, and a little less like tourists.

We do have a few options. We can learn individually at our own pace with free online programs and websites, or with  language learning software such as Rosetta Stone. This is my preferred method of learning. I am highly motivated when faced with completing these types of individual tasks. I've already completed Lessons 1-2-3 of Rosetta Stone and can recognize about 40 words and short expressions already (hey, it's a start!). I try to do a little bit at school when I'm desk warming in the afternoons. Jason, on the other hand, would much rather take actual Korean lessons in a private classroom I think, practicing speech with other beginner students and meeting new friends in the process. Although probably more effective, this method is definitely more costly, and would set us back around $200 each for 6 lessons. We would also have to respect a set time/place. Personally, I'd rather sit in my jammies, hair undone, laptop on my pillow on a Sunday morning as I slowly move through the modules, than rushing to a two hour class after work when I'm dead tired and starving. At the same time, I appreciate how a set schedule or program with deadlines, goals, and fees can be more appealing for most people in the sense that it's highly motivational. The thing is though, I'm definitely lazy, somewhat antisocial (I prefer the term 'introverted') and I'd rather just do my own thing. Plus this way is free, so don't judge me.

Bottom line: we want to be nearing the proficiency level in Korean by the end of our stay, not just get by. We know some foreigners who have done it, so it is possible. How we get there doesn't really matter. I think we'll play it by ear. It's quite remarkable that we know how to read already.

Finding ways around these language related challenges has proven effective with the help of websites such as the aforementioned Arrival Store and Waygook (a site by foreigners in Korea for foreigners in Korea). So much so that I decided to order my cell phone through the Arrival Store as well, and am very satisfied with my 24,000W/month plan with unlimited incoming international calls. Service is entirely in English, plan details are in English, even the phone itself has been set up in English for me! It came with its own case, screen protector, and it's pink. Woo!

My pink phone :)
 I've been having way too much fun ordering stuff online. In fact I ordered our wedding Thank You cards online through the Kodak Store (mostly after not being able to figure out how to print photo cards at any of the stores here). It was the only website I could find that shipped internationally. The service was very quick and they shipped from the US to Korea in about 3 days. Now that they're ready to go, my next challenge will be to use the Post Office for the first time. I found the location, so there's half the battle. The rest should be a breeze, right?

I'll let you know how that one goes.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Kimber! We've been away for the last two weeks traveling to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand so we have plenty of catching up to do. Check in soon for our new posts!
      J & J

  2. Hi Jason and Jen,

    It's me again Sam. I loved this part of your blog!, having huge barrier with the language. I told you in my previous comment, I was in Seoul last June (2011) and for just 1 week visit, I have prepared myself 1 year before my departure date to learn Korean including the Hangul.
    It was not so bad, I was probably like a 2-Year old when trying to communicate, I always started with "Yong-O Haseo?", mostly I will get different 'No' gestures.
    Then I would try with my really limited vocabs., sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't. Definitely I could understand how you feel!!!

    How was the trip to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand?
    I am sure you had a great time! Definitely you did not have any problems in Singapore did you? I know english is pretty much they use there. I don't know about Malaysia or Thai, I guess it must have been much better than Korea.

    Love your blogs! Keep 'em comin'!


    1. Sam,

      We completely understand what you mean! Although we've started picking up more of the language, we are still beginners at best and it can sometimes be frustrating.

      As for our trip, it was simply amazing. Jen already blogged about her likes and dislikes ( and I am working on our chronology and should be able to post it in the next couple of weeks! So stay tuned for that shortly!

      J & J

  3. Hi! My name is Sheryll and my boyfriend and I will be moving to Yongin in April. I'd love to pick your brain as to what it's like there! Also, thanks for the details about the Arrival Store, I'm pretty sure I'll be getting a phone once I arrive.

    1. Hi Sherryl,
      Yongin covers an extremely large area in Gyeonggi-do. Take a look at this link: Just to give you an idea, we live near the A pin. Downtown Yongin is B and C is the Korean Folk Village, which are all part of Yongin. So depending on where you live, you'll have a much different experience. Where we are, we have access to the Bundang line (subway) which goes all the way to Seoul. We are also just 20 minutes from a pretty large expat community in Seohyeon. So while it's pretty quiet in our area, we have access to a lot of great places (restaurants, bars/pubs, nightclubs, etc.) Some people who live in the downtown area of Yongin (pin B on the map) have told me that it's much more quiet and there isn't much going on. Some live in even smaller areas of Yongin and are the only native English speaker in the area. However, it all depends on what you want and what you do with it. People who came here to party may be disappointed with Yongin. But my wife and I absolutely love it. We're both from small towns and we like to be away from all the hustle and bustle. As for a phone, I may suggest looking into a 1 yr contract. I believe they just made them available for foreigners and it would probably be cheaper. (But you should also look into that and not take my word for it... it's something I heard through the grape vine). Korea is a great place to live and it is what you make of it. If you come with a positive attitude, you will absolutely love it. When you and your boyfriend get here, pop us an email We would be glad to show you around and help you get acclimated. You can shoot me an email if you have any other questions as well and I'd be happy to help out!
      J & J

    2. Also, a couple of websites/Facebook groups that could be of interest for you: (awesome resources and topics on pretty much everything) (Bundang is just north of Yongin and has a pretty vibrant expat community)