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Day One: Nobody in this Country Speaks English

This morning, HCB and I woke up in Korea for the first time. I bounded out of bed at what turned out to be 3:30AM, but it wasn’t until the lazy hour of 6AM that the two of us really got rolling. We explored the facilities and found them to be as swanky as we had expected. Kids, we have squash courts. Now, I’ve never actually held a squash racket (it’s a racket and not a paddle, right?), but it’s nice to have the option. Add to that the sauna and the jacuzzi’s and the GIGANTIC pool and you have a pretty well appointed gym. After mapping the basement levels, we ate a free continental breakfast (served every weekday) and climbed onto the free shuttle to HCB’s school.

Getting to the shuttle was shocking. You guys, it’s cold here. As a Californian, I am not equipped physically, psychologically or sartorially for this kind of cold. It’s hibernation inducing, this cold. But neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall stay the professor from attending his department orientation, so we successfully braved the elements. We only just barely survived thanks to the amazing insulating properties of incessant whimpering.

Once we made it to his department office, HCB was introduced to his assistant. Although neither of us caught this kid’s name, we love him. He’s the first person we’ve met in Korea with a conversational grasp of English. Everyone else we’ve encountered has seemed really unhappy to be talking to us. Take the women behind the desk at our apartment  for example. Before I explain further, bear in mind that we live in an apartment complex set up and owned by the Korean government for the expressed purpose of housing Westerners. Knowing that, one would expect the staff of DMC to be, if not fluent in English, at least competent. Nope. This morning we approached what amounts to the concierge desk and asked for some help figuring out the best bus route to campus. They consulted each other in Korean, wide-eyed with panic. Have you ever been daydreaming when you really should have been listening intently to something being said? And then the person turns to you and asks a question that would have been easy to answer if you’d been listening, but you weren’t and now you don’t even understand the question and oh my God, what do I say? Well, the look on your face when you felt that feeling was the look on their faces. Oh my God, won’t they just go away? their eyes said. We have seen that same look on many unexpected faces:  the stewardesses on the airplane; the guy who picked us up from the airport; the staff of HCB’s department; every cabdriver ever; and the woman serving food in the cafeteria at his English speaking college. We have been spoiled by European travel. In France or Germany or—God bless it—the Netherlands, everyone has a degree of English competency that ranges from fair to doctoral-thesis caliber. Not so in Korea. The country is so new to globalization and the density of English-speakers so low that, although I think almost everyone has taken some English, very little of it is usable. Imagine staffing an entire country with students from Señora Morales’s Spanish 2 class. The coverage would be less than complete.

But then there is his assistant: a gift from God sent in the form of an 18-year-old Korean undergrad. He walked our confused asses all around Seoul, setting up bank accounts and buying cellphones as he went. We were made giddy by the first two hours with him and then totally exhausted by the second two. There is so much to do and it all takes so much time, but at least we have help. For the time being our mantra will have to be: this will become more manageable.

Much love to everyone back home.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Remember that old episode of “Absolutely Fabulous” when Patsy and Edina go to France? But they know no French? So whenever anyone speaks French to Patsy, she panics and hands them money? It’s like that, but in reverse: we speak English, everyone panics, and hands us memos, written in Engrish.

    February 17, 2012
  2. Lisa Millimet #

    Dearest darling MIK (Men In Korea)
    We felt the vacuum contract even further when you left. But we’re glad you’re having fun. No wait: we’re glad you’re busy. Fun IS coming.
    And then there’s Wheats for consolation when needed, I also have a good friend here in Maine whose ab fab 28 year old daughter is teaching English in Korea, in the town of Gyeongju., wherever that is. Let me know if you’ll be needing an emergency visit from a veteran: she’s been there for 8 months and is about to serve another six. It’s always so damn disorienting to be in a totally new life in a totally new place. But you two, well, I have NO doubt will soon take over. We’re all thinking about you and sending huge love.

    February 17, 2012
    • Sorry for the long time to reply, Lisa. Wheatie was going to be here this week, but his trip was postponed, much to my dismay. But he’ll be here soon enough. When will you be visiting? We have an extra bedroom, and would love to have you. It’s so disorienting, no one knows English, I never have the correct forms, it’s cold, but we’re starting having a little bit of fun and I found the Popeyes Chicken today (three blocks!). xoxo.

      February 21, 2012
  3. Eve #

    I think I had Senora Morales, did she call everyone pulgas when they displeased her in class?
    Love the updates, hanging on every word and miss you guys already. xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

    February 17, 2012
    • This Senora Morales was actually fictional, but now she’ll be your Senora Morales. As the author, I decree it and thus it is so.

      I’m missing you, too! It is crazy to be so far away, but adventures abound. Soon you’ll see a post about our first trip to the grocery store. Preview: it was a revelation. Stay tuned!

      February 17, 2012
  4. One time I had a translator friend write a note for me to show the waiter : “I am vegetarian, I don’t eat meat or fish or chicken” etc. I walked into the restaurant and proudly handed the worker my note. He read it, then ran and got a pen and wrote 你想要什么吃什么?He thought that I couldn’t speak Chinese, but could read it perfectly. Needless to say, I left hungry.
    Good luck, guys.

    February 17, 2012
    • That is amazing, and while no one’s understood my written address card to imply that I have superior writing ability in Korean, I’m sure I’ll enter that taxi soon enough.

      February 21, 2012
  5. Katie #

    I remember that when I flew into Osaka I was slightly worried but talked myself down with the thought that everyone in Japan would speak English. The panicked mutual consulting = exactly what I saw in everyone I tried to babble increasingly panicked rapidfire English at. Yeesh.

    I forgot to ask the last time I saw HCB: will his assistant be grading papers for him? Oh, how I hope. That is truly living the academic rock and roll dream.

    February 18, 2012
    • Sadly, as a freshman and friend to some of HCB’s students, our savior (we really wish we had caught his name…) will fill a strictly administrative role. How he will manage it, I don’t know.

      February 18, 2012
  6. ph0t0ch1ck #

    Hey! Welcome to Korea! I am somewhat amazed that so few people in Mapo-gu will speak any English to you. It’s not too surprising though as Koreans are usually very tentative about speaking it (they get embarrassed easily when they can’t do things perfectly) even when they know more than how to babble. But usually the only non-English speaking horror stories I hear about happen in the rural areas and not the city. My boyfriend has been here for 3.5 years with only enough Korean to impress his 6 year old students and has managed to survive. . . tee hee hee

    Oh, and, the scared dear in headlights look? That doesn’t go away even when they DO speak English.

    If it helps, here’s a great way to find busses:
    Stupidly, you must use internet explorer (stupid Asia and your love for this outdated browser) but it’s a nice way to figure out how to get places if you can’t do so by subway.

    February 19, 2012
    • Thanks for the link! I’m happy to hear that one can get by with less than full Korean. I think things will improve immensely once at least one of us starts to pick up the language. I can tell that there is English around us, but it seems inaccessible right now. But what else can we expect? We’ve been here for 48 hours! That’s nothing. Again, thanks for the link!

      February 19, 2012
      • ph0t0ch1ck #

        For sure! It’s pretty intense when you are FOB (Fresh off the Boat). You’ll also start to notice that there is a LOT of Konglish. Like a hot chocolate from a coffee shop is hot choco. Anywhoo, you’ll figure it out. Perhaps in less time than you think. :D

        February 19, 2012

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