[Viewpoint] Don’t ask me, I’m not Korean

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[Viewpoint] Don’t ask me, I’m not Korean

The woman must have thought I was mentally challenged. My mouth half open and staring at her with a confused look, I was definitely not the person to give her directions. She said something again and walked away.

This was how it was soon after I came to Korea in the summer of 2002. Being Japanese, having the same look and the same color of skin, people easily mistake me for being Korean. I was often asked about the destinations of the numerous buses just outside a subway station by my apartment. In a queue of about 50 or 60 people, I would always be the one approached for directions. Many times I thought it was intentional torture to make me study Korean!

The problem was not only the language. During my first week or so, when I would visit a restaurant for dinner, I could not figure out what to do with the fragrant, colorful bowl of water served at the end of the meal. Having worked in Malaysia for two years prior to coming to Korea, I was not sure whether it was supposed to be a finger bowl (for washing your fingers after a meal) or a drink. It took me 15 minutes or so to find someone else in the restaurant drinking out of the bowl.

It was omijacha, a wonderfully refreshing dessert drink! It could have been embarrassing if I stuck my fingers in the drink, and I would also imagine it would have been quite embarrassing drinking water out of a finger bowl! After the adventures of my first week in Korea, it became clear to me that my knowledge of this country was very limited and there was much more to learn.

It did not take long for me to get to know the food since I love trying new foods and have no problem with spice. But when it came to the Korean language, it was a different story. My workplace functions fully in English and I can get by without speaking or hearing a word of Korean at the office. This is not good if one wants to study language and culture. Additionally, my job often requires traveling overseas. I might have had exposure to culture and food since my arrival, but my Korean language skills did not improve for a long time.

Once I was out with my friend. He is an American with blond hair and blue eyes, but it was not the appearance that made us very different. He could speak Korean, and I could not. As soon as we entered a taxi, he told the taxi driver in fluent Korean where we wanted to go. Through the rear-view mirror, the driver looked at us and asked again where we wanted to go. Obviously, I did not understand what the driver was asking. My friend replied immediately with the destination.

That completely confused the taxi driver. In his mirror, a Korean-looking guy seemed like an idiot tilting his head, and the guy with blond hair and blue eyes replied in perfect Korean. The rearview mirror, he thought, was deceiving, so he had to turn his head and look at us. Since we were running a bit late, my friend simply asked him to get going. After a couple seconds of pause, the driver took off. Throughout the taxi ride to the restaurant, the driver kept peeking back at us.

Another time, at a restaurant with my colleagues in Incheon’s Chinatown, we were a party of seven: two French, one Moroccan, two Americans, one Filipino, and me. None of us spoke Korean! A confused waitress found me at the far end of the table and came over. It was probably a natural choice based on my appearance.

It did not take long until the waitress began (probably) describing the specials of the day and so on. She was talking so fast that I could not cut in to say “Excuse me!” It must have been 5 minutes of straight talking before she realized I was completely clueless. I was just relying on the menu, which had Chinese characters and some broken English. After the waitress saw me reading Chinese characters, she began repeating everything in Chinese! It took me some time to make her understand that I was neither Korean nor Chinese!

After similar experiences, I decided that I should open a Korean textbook and try a bit harder to study. One thing I managed to do in relatively short time was learn to read Hangul. I did not expect that to help me so much in life here. There are a lot of words originating from Chinese, which are more or less the same as in Japanese. Being able to read Hangul made me see more of these words and made me understand menus, signboards and news headings. There was a whole new world in front of me!

But when it comes to speaking and communicating, I still have a long way to go. It will likely take a little more effort and a much stronger will to master the language.

Even today, people still ask me which bus to take. I can understand now, so I don’t have to look stupid, and I can at least point at which bus goes to where they want to go.

But I still wonder about one thing: Out of all these people at the bus stop, why me?

*The writer is a Japanese scientist at the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.

By R. Leon Ochiai
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