Sunday, April 23, 2006

A long post

Not too sound like I'm totally weak-minded and impressionable, but I get the feeling that every bit of negative culture shock I felt during my first year in Korea stemmed from taking the Korean message board at Dave's ESL Cafe waaaaaaay too seriously. There are some well-adjusted expats there (and a very small number of actual Korean people), but there are also too many people speaking negatively about Korea and their lives in Korea. Actually, let me rephrase that, as there's probably not an expat in the world who doesn't see any faults with their country of residence. There are too many people on Dave's who can only look at Korean culture and behaviour through a Westerner's mindset, and pounce on any foreigner who tries to bring up the Korean point of view.

Besides, Dave's can be such an unpleasant place sometimes. Someone tries to start a happy discussion about good things about Korea, and less than 20 replies later people are hurling insults at each other. It would be entertaining if it weren't so tragic. I have to set a strict prohibition against reading Dave's (I never, ever post), just so my mind doesn't get sucked into the negative energy vortex.

Once again, there is nothing wrong with discussing faults you see in the country where you live. Galbijim's message board has some far more civilized and intelligent discussions of Korea than most of what you will find on Dave's.

I often feel like people I see on Dave's inhabit a different country than I do. (I don't know many foreigners in person who have terribly negative opinions about the country, which bolsters this feeling. Maybe Dave's posters are highly advanced AIs?) But it's probably 90% mental. Foreigners say Korea is dirty and the streets are full of garbage; I see that as exaggeration, and from what I've heard Korean cities, even the messier sections of Korean cities, are a fair bit tidier than cities in many other countries that I plan to visit. Foreigners say that Koreans are nationalistic, and very uninformed about the rest of the world outside Korea; I honestly don't see how they're much worse than people in other countries in those areas. Korean nationalism especially strikes me as the product of a smaller country that needs to constantly prove itself to get much international recognition.

But there's one area where my experience differs markedly from anyone on Dave's, and there is no way it could be attributed to a different mental outlook. Dave's is full of threads where people try to talk foreigners out of learning to speak Korean because (a) Koreans are so nationalistic/arrogant/close-minded/ignorant/stupid that they don't understand a foreigner could ever speak Korean, and so they willfully don't understand any foreigner who tries to speak in Korean, or because (b) Korean is such a horribly difficult language that you could study it full-time for years and not get to a level of speaking proficiency where Koreans would understand you, and besides where are you going to speak it besides one small country?

Well, my Korean still stinks, and I am very unhappy with my accent/pronounciation, but to be honest, even if I am talking to a totally new person and I say something unexpected, they usually understand me. (This does not count Itaewon, the foreigner-heavy neighborhood close to the American military base in Yongsan, where the two official languages are English and Japanese and any attempt to communicate in Korean will be met with disdain or incomprehension. You have about the same chance of success practicing your Korean with a shopkeeper in Ohio as with a shopkeeper in Itaewon.)

I would say that, when dealing with counter clerks in various Starbucks in Seoul, 80% of the time I have a hassle-free transaction that is entirely in Korean, and 20% of the time I have a hassle-free transaction where the employee understands my Korean perfectly well but insists on practicing English on the blue-eyed foreigner. (Bear in mind that I consider sentences such as 탈 사이즈요 and 머그 주세요 to be Korean sentences, though.) And I never have much trouble communicating with the women who run small Korean 분식 restaurants with no English menu. Granted I'm not discussing philosophy with them, but they understand me, and I have a hard time believing my Korean is all that much better than the people who post on Dave's saying stuff like "I've been studying Korean diligently for 2 years and Koreans just laugh at me or pretend they don't understand so I quit!" I guess I do inhabit a different universe.

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