Brave New World

Despite the ominous title, this is far from a dystopian vision of the future. Rather it is a summary of all the many changes that life in a totally new country can bring, with the various obvious and more oblique revelations it entails.

I’ve mentioned before that it has been a long time since I’ve been totally linguistically isolated from the society around me. I’d guess this is a situation a lot of people may be familiar with from holidays in parts of the world where learning, “Hello” and “thank you” in order to show willing during a couple of weeks’ sojourn in foreign climes will see you through.

That’s how I felt for the first couple of weeks here, muddling through by bobbing up and down in mini-bows to be as polite as possible while only saying, “hello” and “thank you” in any given situation. It is astounding how much leeway two simple words will buy you. People frequently lit up with joy, asking numerous further questions to which I would have to stutteringly admit that I couldn’t actually speak Korean.

Moving into my third week here, and having now left the hotel for my own apartment in a less touristy zone of the city, language skills are becoming more pressing, and their absence more obvious. Fortunately the spread of at least a basic working knowledge of English is much greater in Seoul than I found in parts of Latin America, and for all other situations, a pen and paper and prolific waving of arms and pulling of faces seem to have filled in the blanks to achieve a degree of success.

I have started to compile a running list of things I would never have thought possible with no common language which I have nonetheless managed. On it so far are:

  • viewing flats I would want to live in, in an area I wanted to live,
  • working out the subway system (OK, thanks to Google for this one, too)
  • communicating with workmen coming to fix the various moving-in issues in said flats
  • getting a taxi to work (alright, this isn’t purely skills based either – our business cards are printed in English and Korean so I just waved one around)
  • checking out white goods in a used appliances store, and seeing if they would deliver to my area.

I am impressed by the proof of the ‘verbal communication is virtually peanuts in any given situation’ pudding, but having said all of this, a lot of you will know that I have been studying a beginners Korean CD course since I got this job in September. Although the drawback to the course is that it teaches a certain set of phrases for fairly specific purposes, none of which I have so far encountered, one of the big pluses is that it includes incidental lexical tidbits which prove very useful indeed. For instance, although I was unable to string together something as complex as: “I have to stop looking at flats with you at 2pm as I need to go to work, but I’d like to come back on Monday,” I did manage to say, “2pm” and indicate ‘stop’ and then follow up with an ambiguous, “more” followed by pointing at calendars to indicate Monday. I also managed to say that 10am or 5pm were preferred times for Monday. In addition, the phrase, “How much is it,” has been employed on a number of occasions. I haven’t yet managed to trot out my longest complete phrase, “OK, in that case I’ll see you tomorrow at …. o’clock,” but I’m just waiting to engineer the opportunity. My biggest victory so far has been asking how much a bike helmet cost, and understanding the response, all in Korean. From tiny acorns…

My beginners ‘survival Korean’ class at work began this week and we have got most of the way through the Korean alphabet, which has made figuring out bus routes much easier. It can only go onwards and up from here!


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Steph
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 20:42:51

    Congratulations on the success!! 😀 Gosh, you guys truly are brave!!! I have a hard time doing public transport in an english speaking country, I think I’d pee my pants if I tried it somewhere I don’t speak the language.

    Would it be too bold and demanding to (please) ask for more pictures?



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