In about 10 days, I’ll be entering my 5th month in Korea. At this point, I am getting really greedy to learn the Korean language. I regret that I haven’t studied enough—I could have known so much more Korean by now. This weekend, I had conversations about learning language with a couple different people. Tonight’s conversation was about being a foreigner who enters a country without any previous knowledge of the language. I had this conversation with a bilingual Korean. She told me she couldn’t imaging what it would be like living in a country when you can’t even understand any of the letter characters around you. I realized then that I couldn’t give a fair opinion/answer to her ponderings, because I speak English. Almost anywhere I go, there will be someone who knows a little bit of English. For example, I got lost in an underground mall yesterday looking for a bookstore. One of the young mall employees saw my confusion, offered to help, and we had a pleasant conversation in English on the five-minute walk to the store. All the subway and street signs are romanticized or in English. I believe all business owners have to pass an English proficiency test. This makes it so easy—too easy—for an English speaker to go anywhere. If you sense guilt in me, you are correct.
While I realize it is such a blessing to be a native English speaker in our global age, I cannot help but feel guilt for the ease with which I thrive in this world, while others struggle. I teach English to four and five year olds. Do I fully agree with the idea of subjecting children to English as a second language at such an early age? No. I received free public school education (including free Spanish for a year) from age 5-12 until my mother homeschooled me. I am floored when I try to calculate how much parents pay for their childrens’ English education here in Korea. My best guess, at over $500 per month, would end up being over $80,000 from age 4-18 just for one kid. And that’s only counting English lessons at a private school. Korean kids also have a mixture of extraneous activities and private lessons that take up their days from sometimes 7am to 10pm Monday to Saturday. Oh Asians. I think Asians “get” the drift, though. To know English is to thrive and prosper. To the best of my ability, I am trying to avoid any ethnocentric or Eurocentric ideologies…these are just the musings of me as a native-English-speaking foreigner in South Korea in the year 2009.
So you know what I bought at the bookstore? I bought a beginning Korean language book set and a $5 copy of Anna Karenina. (I just couldn’t resist the $5 part of the book that I started reading right before I got here.) Every Sunday afternoon, I have a 1.5 hour Korean class provided free-of-charge as a ministry of my church for any English-speaking foreigners (including Uzbek and Vietnamese university students). For three months, I’ve had one class per week. I don’t have much to show for it, because I’m not driven enough to learn this language. It’s too easy to expect and rely on other people knowing English. That’s so Eurocentric, so I am from now on reforming my ways. This is Katy’s Reformation. I’m like…eh, I’m out of college…I don’t HAVE to study anything. I’m not being graded. It doesn’t matter for a test. NO. It matters for survival. NO. It matters for respect and courtesy for the culture in which I live. I can survive here—thrive here—without learning a lick of Korean…but it would be wrong.
Wherever you are, be all there.