[PERSPECTIVE]My resolution for 2008: bridge the language gap

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[PERSPECTIVE]My resolution for 2008: bridge the language gap

For this, the last “Perspective” of 2007, I’ve decided to step forward and join in a time-honored pastime of expats living in Korea by offering a few opinions of my own about this place.
I’ve been here off and on for about two and a half years, and have studied Korean for 10 months of that. The rudimentary knowledge of the language that I’ve gleaned from those lessons, along with the experience of working in Korean companies (as well as working for this paper, I also host a radio show), have given me a glimpse into how intricately the culture and the language are intertwined here.
This is particularly evident in the use of titles when referring to co-workers, friends and family members. To establish the appropriate way to speak to a colleague, you need to know their position, age, how long they’ve worked at that particular place and even how long their career has been. I’ve seen this lead to more than a few battles over who gets to speak to whom in the lower form.
Because foreigners working here tend to do business in English rather than Korean, and thus refer to people either by their first name or as Ms. or Mr., expats are left out of the complex Confucian hierarchy of relationships and the resulting sense of belonging.
This, I believe, is one reason why the feeling of being an outsider is particularly strong among the expatriate community here in Korea.
Learning the language is one way to delve a little deeper into Korean life, but the fact that so few foreigners do so tends to restrict many conversations to the realm of:
“Wow, you speak Korean very well!”
“Thank you, but no I don’t.”
“Yes! You do!”
So, what’s my new year’s resolution? To try and make myself worthy of the barrage of compliments that a simple “Anyeonghaseyo” often elicits.

By Richard Scott-Ashe Contributing Reporter [richard@joongang.co.kr]

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