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Reactions to Learning Korean Culture

September 8, 2011


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This week’s question is, how do Korean people react to us in Korea: more specifically, how do they react to us trying to partake in Korean Culture and the Korean Language? Do they approve, or do they find it insulting?

We’ve been in Korea for over three years now. As many of you can tell, we really love living in Korea and we’re having a great time here. From our experiences, we’re finding different reactions to different kinds of engagement with Korea. The first one we talk about is our engaging in Korean culture, which – all across the board – has been positive. Whenever we show our interest in Korea, and try to engage in Korean activities, we’re met with really warm and happy responses. We mention in the video our World Cup Soccer experience, which is – really – one of our fondest memories of Korea.

We were at the fried chicken restaurant, in a swarm of people all surrounding the TV. We wore red shirts, had the red devil horns and pitchforks. We had the stickers under our eyes. We cheered our guts out for Korea. When Korea scored, we screamed with everyone, jumped around, hugged and high fixed random people. We were just happy watching the game and rooting for Korea. Some people, though, were really touched by our passion towards the game, and bought us a lot of chicken and beer. They thanked us for cheering for Korea, and – I swear – we felt so close to Korea at that moment. We felt like we were a part of Korea, for that moment, and didn’t feel like outsiders at all.

Really, one of the most difficult things for us in Korea is the constant reminder of being foreigners, of being outsiders. We are not Korean. We don’t look Korean, as people constantly remind us when they point at us in the streets and say “Oh! Foreigners!” Even in a small elevator, people will talk about you as if you aren’t standing right beside them…even after you spoke to them in Korean. It’s really baffling. And so, after being reminded so often of being outsiders, that World Cup Soccer moment made us forget about that for a moment. And it’s really those times where we engage with Korean Culture that we feel a little more accepted here.

Speaking Korean, though, is a different story, and we have two different reactions to us speaking Korean. Most of the time, whenever we use whatever Korean we know, we’re met with “wow he speaks Korean very well!” or “wow your Korean is good!” Now, we know that this is not mean spirited. It just feels similar to those times that we’re pointed out in the streets as being foreigners. I think this is hard for us to explain fully without an example. Recently when we were walking Spudgy, we told a Korean couple (who were looking hesitantly at Spudgy) in Korea, “Don’t worry, he doesn’t bite! It’s okay to pet him” and the boyfriend turned to his girlfriend and said, “he speaks Korean very well” and we said, “Oh thank you” In Korean, and he once again turned to his girlfriend and said, “Oh they speak Korean very well.” Now, we totally know he wasn’t trying to be rude, but COME ON! We’re standing RIGHT THERE, and we can clearly understand you! He literally added nothing to the conversation except that point.

The result of this kind of reaction is a constant reminder of our distance from being a part of Korea. You remember our Korean Like a Pro segments? At the end, when we’re pointed out as being foreigners, and then complimented for speaking awkward Korean…yeah, that’s not really a joke, it’s really what happens.

Now for us, it’s not as bad because we only speak basic conversationally Korean, but for our friends who are planning to live permanently in Korea and speak Korean fluently, their intellectual conversation can be disregarded because it’s a foreigner saying them. Again, it’s not to say that foreigners aren’t allowed to have good points in a conversation. It’s more that their good points are lost in the surprise that people feel at hearing someone speak Korean well. It’s like, if you heard a toddler give you his position on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and how it affected postmodernism, instead of listening to his points, you might be more amazed by the fact that the toddler made it through that book, let alone formed an opinion of it. And so it feels the same way for us.

The other experience we get from Korean people when we speak our little bits of Korean is simply the “well, why don’t you speak MORE Korean? Why don’t you speak it more fluently?” position, and this position can be held both by Koreans, and Korean speaking foreigners, with an air of disdain. Now, we don’t experience this all of the time, but we have experienced it enough that we feel that we need to comment on it.

But how can we comment on it? It annoys us. Yes, we don’t speak Korean fluently, and that’s been our choice. We’ve dedicated every free moment to making a video blog. Instead of learning Korean, we learned how to shoot and edit videos (seriously: have you seen our first videos? They’re TERRIBLE!). We learned how to code a website, and we spend a vast majority of our time trying to talk to different people online, respond to their comments and answer their emails. And, hey, we also taught full-time. Plus, when you’re a happily married couple, you don’t have that urgency to get out there and start talking Korean to meet a hot Korean guy or girl.

But, even if we didn’t run a website, even if we weren’t that busy, it’s still not fair to ask that of people. Some people just don’t want to learn languages, not out of stubbornness or out of a sense of elitism, but because – hey – maybe they don’t like learning languages. Maybe they’re not good at it. Maybe they like the experience of newness. Maybe they don’t have long term plans for Korea. Whatever that person’s reasons may be, we don’t think it’s fair to ask them why they haven’t learned how to speak Korean as if it’s a requirement that comes with every country you visit.

The only time we feel a bit upset at people for not learning Korean is when they EXPECT that people in Korea should all speak and understand English, and then they are upset when Korean people don’t understand them. That, we totally disagree with. If you’re expecting all Koreans to understand everything you say in English, and you refuse to learn any Korean, then we feel it’s right to ask you why you haven’t made the effort to try and compromise for the sake of communication.

Anyways, despite our few discomforts with living in Korea, we hope that most people can see that we really appreciate the eye opening experiences life in a foreign country has brought us. We wonder if other people have experienced similar feelings of “foreignness” here in Korea, or what their position is on learning a foreign language in a country that isn’t necessarily their home.



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Reactions to Learning Korean Culture


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  1. I hear you with the your English is very good part. My husband’s family is Chinese and they are constantly saying that to me, even when I know I am making mistakes. The worst part about Chinese though, is it took me forever to get used to the giggling. Every attempt I make at Mandarin gets a fit of giggles followed by them speaking rapid fire to each other in hushed tones.. Instinctively, you feel like you are being made fun of, but in reality they are thrilled that you are attempting praise your Chinese relatives for having such a good daughter-in-law.

    6 years ago
  2. which friend were you talking about? do they have a youtube channel? if they do, can you please post a link?

    7 years ago
  3. Even though I understand perfectly your point, I’ll continue to be happy when the Korean owners at the korean restaurant near my house tell me my pronouncitation is really good. I think I even go there more often just to hear the compliment rather than to enjoy the food. Ok no, that can be it, the food is as delicious as the compliments then…

    8 years ago
  4. totally agreeeee that World Cup was superrr awesome in Korea. I had the blessing to experience World Cup back in 2002, and i never knew Korea could be so…loving?? and united and there was just this spirit of togetherness. :) :) :)

    8 years ago
  5. Oh thank you for this blog!!!! I’ve been trying to get answers if Korean people do the same as Japanese when you speak Korean. I was in Japan for 4 years and constantly got that infamous “nihongo ga jouzu desu ne.” (your Japanese is great). They also switched to English even when I started off in Japanese, so I continued in Japanese and let them fumble around in English.
    Now if I do get to go to Korea one day, I know what to expect from the Korean people and I will just continue in the language. :)

    8 years ago
  6. Hmmm… my english is not good. Sorry.
    Your video is wonderful and comments are so interesting. As always :)
    After all of that i have one question: why `russia saram` with `eyebrows` means `prostitute`?
     I’m Russian, so I really wonder why Koreans say it. >_<
    As for the language …. every time I talk to foreigners, they say to me: "Oh, you have a good English!" Although I know very well that it is not. Especially funny when they say it, for example, in the Czech Republic or Finland. Most want to answer "Yes, you too, good English"I also teach Korean. And my teacher says other Koreans, "She's fluent in Korean," I replyin Korean, and they are looking at me saying, "Yes, she has a good Korean" are not embarrassed by the fact that I'm standing next to them and understand it. Sometimes it's so … strange. 

    8 years ago