Communicating in Korea

Due to the fact that my family and I are Korean and I speak the language fluently, I feel that during my time in Korea people treated me as a true Korean. This sometimes confused people, but it also gave me a better insight into Korean culture and everyday life there. It also helped that my family was there and I could ask them about some of the strange cultural differences that came up.

cge-blog-post-8-15-16To give a little bit of background, my Korean was mostly learnt through my parents and our church, so the language barrier was not a huge problem. However, I was missing a lot of core everyday vocabulary.

When I went to the bank to trade my Euros and Pounds for Won, the Korean currency, the bank teller asked me if he could have my ID. Since my parents and my church members never ask me for my ID, I had no idea what the word meant or what he was asking for. I asked him, in perfect Korean, “What is an…ID?” He looked at me, at this grown-up Korean man who just asked him in perfect Korean “What is an ID?” like I was crazy. Flabbergasted, he replied, “An… know…an ID?” I responded, “Is an ID that thing with your photo and your name?” He said yes. I gave him my American passport, and then he understood why I did not know the word “ID.”

On the flip side, it’s interesting how Koreans try to use English in everyday life. I looked around and saw that there is English everywhere, but a lot of times it is misused or inappropriate.
One day when I was traveling on the subway to see a friend, a lady asked me “Hey, why aren’t you in school?” because school in Korea tends to end a lot later than American schools in the summer. So I responded sarcastically, “Because I don’t feel like it.” She ended up giving me a 20 minute lecture on why I should go to school. When I said I was just kidding, she took it as “Hey, I just completely lied to you.” Then, she gave me a 10 minute lecture about not lying. And that was the day I learned that Koreans typically do not use sarcasm.

Even though I speak fluent Korean, there were still several cultural barriers to communicating with locals that I hadn’t expected. It made some daily experiences into comical interactions that I certainly won’t forget.

Yongwhi Lee
University of Tulsa ’17
South Korea Summer 2016