Speak your piece ― like the natives doThe Korean language has returned to Apgujeong-dong’s Rodeo Street. During the last few months, English was the lingua franca of the Seoul fashion district. With hordes of yuhaksaeng (students studying abroad) and gyopos (Koreans raised overseas) coming home during the summer vacation, the street became more like one in New York or Los Angeles. They looked Korean, yes, but most spoke only English.
I’m not criticizing them for speaking English in Korea. If it’s their first language or the language they feel most comfortable with, that’s fine. But whenever I saw or heard them, I could not help recalling my Korean-Argentine friend, Emma.
I met her in Philadelphia while I was studying English there. We were in the same course and became close.
Since we both share Korean blood, you might think we spoke Korean to one another. We did not. Well, I sometimes spoke to her in Korean, when I didn’t know how to express something in English, but she always responded in English. She wasn’t fluent in Korean, but she wasn’t fluent in English either; Spanish was her first language.
But when we met South Americans or Mexicans, she talked to them in English instead of Spanish. I was a little embarrassed by her attitude at first, but I thought she must really be dedicated to improving her English.
I was wrong.
A few years later, after I left the States, she e-mailed me and other Korean friends to tell us that she would visit Korea. I couldn’t meet her because I was studying in England at the time, but I e-mailed a mutual friend to find out how she was doing in Korea. Our friend wrote back saying Emma did not speak English. She refused to speak to anyone in any language but Korean. This came as a shock, since she had been so adamant about speaking English before.
After wondering for days why she changed, our friend asked Emma to explain.
“Because I am here,” was her reply.
She spoke only English in the United States because that is the language there; she spoke Korean in Korea because it is the language here.
Her attitude left an impression on me. I looked at how I was doing in England, and asked myself whether I was really trying to be a part of that country. I was grateful for her reminding me of the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
by Park Sung-ha
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