1.4 Spring 2020 (COVID Archives)

June 15, 영어 울렁증 or Englishphobia

I only wanted to cry three separate times today so… progress?

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I came into 6-1 with the plan to match their energy lest I be more depressed and tired from their lack of interest. I wanted to say something sharp and mean (and true): when you act this way, I wonder why I ever came to Korea in the first place.

I didn’t say that of course. 6-3 was thankfully more alive and my spirits were partially restored.

I have not seen Weak Boy once which means he either transferred schools or is staying at home. There’s no trio without him. Tank Boy has been looking especially down in class, even though he participates when asked. I miss seeing the three stooges goofing off in the hall.

After class I checked my phone and had received a strange message: the international hospital had scheduled me to receive my results in person at a consultation on Tuesday morning. This was news to me: I thought they would deliver results via email or phone.

I called in confusion. The nurse told me results must be delivered in person and the dermatologist only works on three weekday mornings, so when would I like to reschedule? I asked her if I could see another dermatologist on Saturday since, you know, I have to work. She said she would check and get back to me.

I spent lunch in a daze; man, life really couldn’t be easy for a second, could it. When C and I came back to the classroom, she asked about the phone call she overheard and I unintentionally unloaded on her. Every doctor’s appointment where I was scoffed at, asked to bring in a translator, or talked at in Korean even when I didn’t understand came boiling out. It tied into the larger theme of today which was: no one cares about English.

I told her it often feels like Koreans’ fear of English is greater than their desire to help me. I don’t care if you have an accent, I don’t care if your English is perfect, but apparently the judgment of other Koreans along with one or two stories from a friend of a friend of this one guy who tried to talk to a foreigner in English and it backfired, all culminates in this culture of silence.

I find that darkly hilarious: Koreans judge other Koreans on less than perfect English, regardless of their own level.

I left to wash my hands and coming back in C had formulated a response: I was more patient than other foreigners, and if I need to go to a local clinic we can go together so she can explain.

The nurse had called me back and on the return call she said I can see a general dermatologist (“they’re not a fellow like the doctor you saw, just wanted to tell you because that’s important to some people” “I could care less”) but I must do a walk in at the crack of dawn to be seen on Saturday morning. I agreed. She helpfully added that if I come to the international clinic they will help guide me through registering at the dermatology area which is not a part of the clinic. The nurse also laughed and said, “oh, I’m working Saturday! I’ll see you then,” which made me feel a little better.

I do feel bad about unloading on C; she’s not my friend and I need to reign in any emotional outbursts, especially if they’re less than kind about her fellow citizens. But after six months of feeling abandoned by my employer and then also feeling like I’m going at it alone for important visits like cancer checks, the frustration was overflowing.

I’m not mad at Koreans (well, yes at the ENT who rolled his eyes at me when I didn’t understand all his Korean) but just sad that this second language culture has transformed into one of silence and fear. I don’t know how to make it better.

Listen, I don’t expect to drop into a country and have everyone speak my language. But I do expect that those educated in English, like doctors, to shelve their fear for the sake of their patients.

Is it true that every Korean has had a bad experience speaking English? Or is the truth an urban legend and everyone fears the possibility of being ridiculed?

I told C to tell me who are the rude or impatient foreigners and I’ll beat them up. And now I wonder, would I just be fighting specters?

The more accurate picture is likely this: a tourist asks a local for help in English. The local freezes, having not spoken English in several years, and mumbles an awkward knee jerk response. The tourist doesn’t understand and asks the local to repeat. The local’s confidence drops; the local doesn’t remember what the question was or how to say “turn right”. The tourist says “Thank you” anyway and continues on with no information.

Another likely scenario is this: a local starts a conversation with a tourist. The local uses outdated phrases, out of context topics, or incorrect intonation. The tourist does not understand. The local is embarrassed and disappears into the shadows. (For example, S once turned to me in the middle of a silent afternoon and asked me what a sub prime loan is. Not being a real estate investor I had absolutely no idea what she said or what the word was. I assumed I misheard and asked her several more times until she became quieter and more embarrassed. I tried to explain, it’s not your pronunciation, it’s that I have no context for this at all. I had to research to find out what the word was.)

The PhD from last year, who was fluent in English having studied at an international school, confirmed this to me once: Koreans will judge other Koreans on their English and especially if it’s good, it’s seen as being pretentious. There’s the addition of perfection stressed in every academic endeavor which culminates in the college entrance exam. Don’t get perfect scores? Then you can’t enter a good university. That perfectionism permeates every corner of academic life, especially where it shouldn’t.

This former idol from Crayon Pop describes opportunities she missed being to afraid to speak and how she rectified it:

Sam Hammington also describes Koreans as being especially fearful of English. He reminded the audience that of course you will make mistakes but foreigners won’t laugh, they’ll simply ask you to repeat yourself.

Sam says that confidence rather than writing practice are the key to speaking English well. “Koreans in particular are afraid of English.”

The best remedy would be to send everyone abroad (and I mean everyone, even Americans) to a country of another language to learn empathy and understanding of basic communication.

I think of my Thai, Chinese, Libyan and Malaysian friends from the Korean course last year. None of them had perfect grammar or pronunciation in English and yet none of them cared. They understood the purpose of a second language as a mode of communication rather than a mode of study. Language is a real, living, changing thing. You can hold it in your mouth and feel its heartbeat then in the next moment it release it like doves into the air.

I think if I didn’t know any Korean, my experience would be different: no one would attempt Korean with me, I’d seek out foreigner establishments only, and I’d happily live in ignorance.

But because I speak Korean, the onus of communication is instead on me. Maybe if I just pretended I didn’t speak Korean all these problems would disappear…

I don’t want to be resentful. It’s been a weird time and I get unfairly heated at what I perceive to be a lack of help when the reality is, everyone has their own problems. We’re all on the struggle bus.

When I got home, I ordered fried chicken and watched funny videos which turned my mood around. Maybe I was just hungry today?

I still haven’t heard about Gyeongnam. Tick tock, my visa expires in little over two months and right now I have no concrete plans.

It did occur to me… what if I do another language program right after this contract?

As a result I spent half the day looking into university programs, all of which follow the same ten week structure. There are programs all over the country and so I contacted two in Busan, one of which was very responsive. The benefit to doing a language program is this:

  • Convert my expiring E2 teaching visa to a Korean Language student visa D4 without having to leave the country
  • Extend my stay in Korea for three months while I interview for new jobs and gather paperwork; D4 can be extended for up to two years as long as I’m studying Korean
  • Avoid spending six unemployed months in my home country; instead return in November in time for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and NY then get back to Korea in February for a March contract
  • Avoid returning to my home country at the peak of COVID
  • And of course, keep studying Korean to add more concrete skills to my resume (and if I ever want to be on Korean reality TV, I’ll need better skills…)

You might ask, why not go home first then come back a few months early for a language program before your contract/new visa begins? That is in fact what I did last year— but popping in and out of countries to switch from a tourist to E2 visa (that change must be done outside Korea) is not possible in a post COVID world where borders are largely closed. Hence the appeal of the easy E2 to D4 rollover. Trying to get a student visa outside of the country for short term is a challenge.

Either way, something’s got to give. If I’m going to be in limbo, I’ll do it in a city other than Seoul.

Everything is still a giant question mark but if I’m honest, this uncertain living is more familiar to me than five year plans which COVID has proven are futile. Roll with the punches and all that. Mary Oliver told me to leave some room in my heart for the unimaginable and I’ll have to do just that.

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