When in Rome ... avoid learning the language at all costI left home to teach English in Korea with certain hopes in mind, like seeing new places and meeting new people. But one thing that was not a priority for me was learning a new language.
Maybe I was just another arrogant American. Why bother? After all, English is the world’s lingua franca, right?. But in the end it wasn’t arrogance that kept me from learning Korean, it was sheer laziness. Not that I didn’t put in a hard day’s work while I was there, but basically I saw my year in Korea as an extended post-college vacation. And when on vacation, who wants to spend his free time with his nose stuck in a book? No way. I wanted to explore the Korean countryside, hit the karaoke bars and hang out in Itaewon. (Yeah I was one of those guys.)
But then I met a cute young lady who convinced me that we should meet sometime for a “language exchange.” Of course, I didn’t see this as a tutoring session ― I saw it as a first date. And a fantastic date it was. Despite the language barrier, we got along great ― until I kissed her good night. At that point I realized that she had the worst breath I had ever encountered. I never called her again. And thus, my half-hearted attempt to learn Korean ended.
I went through the next couple of months blithely ignorant of what the Koreans around me were saying. But of course I couldn’t help picking up on a few phrases that I heard over and over again. One night, while knocking back a few cold ones with some of my business-English students, I heard them say a few words that sounded familiar.
“What does that mean?” I asked one of the guys. “My middle school students say that to me all the time.”
“Really?” He seemed appalled. “Your students say that to you?”
“Yeah, all the time,” I replied.
“I can’t believe these kids nowadays!”
It turns out those middle school punks had been calling me some awful names. And I, not knowing (or really caring) what they were saying, just let them do it. No wonder they got such a kick out of me. I now realized that they probably weren’t singing my praises, but life was much easier when I was blissfully ignorant. At least then I could delude myself into thinking that they were saying things like, “He’s so cool” or “He’s so funny.” Those carefree days were gone.
It seemed that the more Korean I picked up, the more humiliating my life became. I guess my initial instincts were correct.
I never should have considered learning Korean, and I should have covered my ears and started humming “America the Beautiful” whenever my Korean-speaking friends tried to clue me in.
by Darren Perkins
The writer taught in Korea from 1998 to 1999. He lives in Los Angeles.