Say What You Mean – Seoul, Korea

Our first two days in Korea were a total blur thanks to the trifecta of traveller’s stomach, jetlag, and too much soju. Eating well was a given from day one, even when my stomach was acting like it wasn’t going to be cool about it; I guess beef cures all ills. I had an interest in seeing more of Seoul, but R was chafing to get out of town after he recovered from his day of gloom and I figured that I could wait for our return to Seoul to get my big-city fix.

We left town on an express bus after a series of errors in figuring out where exactly we wanted to go (South? Because north is not really an option…) and how to get there. When we got that first part down and thought we had a handle on the second part, we were hit for the first time with the challenges of illiteracy. There are not a ton of English-speaking tourists in Korea; most Westerners are there for business or are living in Korea while working as English teachers. This means that there are not hordes of touts and English-language signs to direct backpackers like us in the right direction. While we met a handful of Koreans who spoke a little bit of English, none of them were there to help us find the bus station. We must have spent an hour circling the area where our map told us it would be, but we couldn’t find it for the life of us. We tried sounding out the name of the terminal in Korean to passersby, but they either looked at us in confusion or else responded with presumably detailed directions how to get there- in Korean. We finally found the station, which was literally behind our backs the whole time, but this experience was just the first taste of what it means to not be able to read, write, or speak in a totally foreign country: really frustrating!

This one is easy

The funny thing is that locals seemed surprised or even annoyed that we didn’t speak any Korean. I chalk that up to the fact that there are so few Western visitors who are purely tourists; I imagine that most Koreans we came across assumed that we were English teachers or in Korea in a business capacity. I can understand annoyance at a person who choses to live in Korea and diddn’t take time to learn some very basic questions and direction markers. We were really proud of ourselves for having learned how to sound out Korean letters, although that only allowed us to recognize place names and food items that we were already familiar with- but then again, we were just passing through. Due to a combination of an insular local culture, funny-looking letters, and reliance on habit, lots of Westerners we met in Korea didn’t speak any more Korean than we did, which is to say next to none. Those living in Seoul could get by well enough because there are enough English speakers and a lot of American restaurants and shops, so you could feel safe just pointing and knowing what you were getting. Outside of Seoul, though, they’d be stranded without a lifeboat. Koreans in smaller cities and in the countryside as a rule don’t speak English. Like at all- not even toilet, which we learned with some alarm.

Maybe it makes sense in Korean?


Our way of coping with the language barrier, which was simply too great to overcome in 15 days, was to email all of our Korean-speaking friends in the US and ask them to translate a set of questions and comments for us. We then saved those phrases on an iPod touch and were able to flash them as needed. This only works if you don’t need to decipher the response, although when we asked for recipes, we asked for them in Korean, to be translated later. Time and time again on this trip, we have marveled at the advantages of technology. Our computer, iPod, e-readers, digital cameras, etc. were liabilities in a sense, but the benefit of having all these gadgets outweighed the risk of loss or theft. Maybe we’ll write a post about the most handy gadgets we carried and the surprising uses we got out of them.


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