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Monday, September 5, 2011

Korean People Don't Say Bless You

Before I got here, a lot of people warned me that Korean people are very unfriendly. Since being here, I can't exactly dispel this stereotype, but I can't exactly confirm it either. I will say that it's not so much that they are unfriendly people, but that they aren't overtly friendly. If you look lost on the street, it's very unlikely they will offer you directions, but if you ask politely, they will do their best to assist you... unless of course they don't speak English, in which case they will wave you off, or attempt to ignore you. Oh! and don't be surprised if when walking down the street, and you see a group of people taking up the entire sidewalk, without moving over or attempting to make room for you to pass; they will nonchalantly bump shoulders with you, with no mention of "excuse me!" or "oh, I'm sorry, did I bump you?"
Korean people stare... a lot!  I have to say that this country has a severe case of xenophobia, they neither welcome nor appreciate foreigners coming to their country- especially those who don't bother to learn their culture, or speak their language. I have become the racial anomaly in almost all my classes... professors constantly point out that I am an American, and in regards to the English language..."oh! perhaps Morgan can shed some light on this issue, since she is a native English speaker!" (as if I have the right to speak for the entire English language, because I am but one native English speaker) Being an outsider has become a way of life, and I'll be's very uncomfortable, and very disconcerting.
Now, before I get labeled into the ethnocentric American role who feels the need to stereotype everyone ("all Asian people are so rude!") I took the time to discuss this matter with a native Korean. This girl has spent two years in the U.S. as an exchange student, and upon her return to Korea, she herself is having trouble adjusting to her very own cultural norms. She explained to me, that life here in Korea is a matter of vying for space- in the same way that New Yorkers vie for real estate. This whole city is crowded with thousands of people all trying to get somewhere and be somebody. Competition becomes a way of life. So, when someone bumps you in the street without apologizing, it probably isn't that he did it on purpose to peeve you- he is simply asserting his space, or, on the other hand, he is so used to bumping shoulders with people, he hardly notices it anymore. He must be crowded with other Koreans in the elevator, on the bus, in his cubicle at work- even his house is most likely awkwardly jammed up against another, for the lack of space in Seoul is growing every day. In regards to race, it is true that Korean people are prejudiced, but part of this attributes to the space thing as well. For one thing, foreigners are few and far between here, since Korea is a largely homogeneous society. Another opinion might be that they view foreigners as invaders of their space- in the same way that indigenous people saw incoming settlers as invaders of their land. Korea is a rapidly changing society, much like the rest of Asia, so all of these cultural norms are slowly changing. You will notice the younger generation is slightly more apt to befriend an non-Korean than a person of the older generation...and this is how society changes, however slowly it may seem.
So...allow me to put my own, slightly positive spin on this. Back at home, I deal with people known as "foreigners" all the time. Some have only been in the U.S. a few weeks, some a few years, and some all their lives...and they constantly try to express to me their frustrations, their longings for home, their difficulty learning the language, their inability to just "fit in"- even simple everyday tasks become a burden; tasks such as, getting a job, finding a way to get to that job without the ability to obtain a driver's license, buying groceries...everything becomes foreign, unfamiliar.
And so we learn humility. We learn to ask for help when we need it, and we learn compassion. How can I, after living in a foreign country for a mere 1 week, presume to understand how others, who may have lived in the U.S. their entire lives, are treated as outsiders, because perhaps, their accent, their color, or habits that, to them, are simply a part of everyday culture. I cannot presume to know this. I am given, however, a glimpse into their lives. The obstacles I am forced to overcome here, everyday, may later serve as my motivation as a teacher for those eager to learn, and eager to be accepted.
So... next time you are at the grocery store, or at the bank, and sense yourself feeling boiling frustration- "How can you live in our country, and not speak our language?" ask yourself- how many times have you visited a foreign country and expressed this same annoyance that "ugh, no one here speaks any English!" yet... you are in their country? Remember to have compassion. Chances are, these people are trying to learn, and overcome great difficulty every day doing simple tasks. It's not easy to be different, an outsider, but if we were all the same, how boring it would be!


  1. and the same for 'visitors' in our country! how many do we blow off, and try to ignore b/c we know they don't speak our language. it's always a sense of 'our country, our turf' or 'we were here first.' it was the same when i was in france, they take one look, know you're american, and shoo you away...birth rights, eh?

  2. There are stages to going to a new country for a long period of time.
    1: Excitement when you first arrive
    2: Frustration as the realization sets in that you won't be getting any special priveleges (Not being mean, from what you wrote that seems to be what is happening... And I can definitely sympathize)
    3: You kind of get the hang of things, making occasional blunders but it doesn't bother you as much as it used to.

    It seems that you are now in Phase 2. Hang in there! Try to make the best of things. Korea is such a vastly different culture than that of the United States, and things are going to be hard until you can maintain some proficiency in the language and make some friends. I have a lot of experience with Koreans and it is true that sometimes they might seem like they are being rude, but it's just part of the culture. The whole "bless you" tradition came from the Roman Catholic Church in Europe because they believed that wehen you sneezed, you were expelling a demon from your body. Now we say it without realizing it--It's just part of Anglo-European culture, which included the United States. By the time the Church had reached Korea, this anomaly had been proven false, so they just never learned to say it.

    The bumping thing is another example of this. It's just not part of their culture.

    In general, Koreans are very polite when you actually speak to them and are usually very impressed when you make some kind of attempt to speak their language. They realize that English is very different from Korean (Most of them know this from learning some English in high school), and that it's even harder for you since there aren't as many English->Korean classes as there are vice versa. When you are earnest and try not to get frustrated, they will usually help you.

    However, a lot of Koreans don't speak much English after high school so they forget most of it. It is a part of Korean culture to be a bit shameful when they are not knowledgable on a particular subject, since Korean schools are known to be the best in the world. My Korean friend said a lot of people wave off English-speaking strangers simply because they are embarassed that they won't be able to help them due to their poor English skills.

    My advice is go to, its a very helpful website with podcasts that you can listen to to improve your Korean skills. I have learned a LOT just by listening to a lesson or two a week, it's great.

    Also, try to learn Hangul as quickly as possible for the sake of reading signs and directions phonetically. I promise it is not hard once you get the hang of it--In a lot of ways, it makes a lot more sense than the Roman alphabet. You can learn it on the website above, or any other web site. It took me about two days to learn the whole alphabet, and it's not like I'm some kind of genius.

    In short, hang in there, everything will be just fine. Try to get out and use your Korean as much as possible--Immersion is the fastest way to learn a language, as I'm sure you area aware of at this point.

    Annyeonghi kyeseyo!

  3. I love your article, As a Venezuelan who lived in South Korea for almost 4 years, I have been as well a victim of their xenophobia but I enjoyed the perk of traveling to Korea and land into a church, I lived in Gimcheon and Daegu and everyone around was very nice to me. Later on when I went to the language school most Korean were receptive and embracing young ones.

    But when I started living in Seoul I noticed they try to do as little eye contact with anyone. If you used your garbled Korean with them they frown or shrug and simply keep walking.

    But if you have the luck of being accepted into a group of peers you'll be treated as an equal and anyone will agree that Korean are actually very cheerful and cooperative, on the other hand when you're all alone on your own and you ask a passerby to help you they won't really stop to give you a hand.

    I hope that in this long 6 years this perspective has changed already.