How I Learn Languages · Life · Life in Korea

Yes, it’s OK to Be a Foreigner (Read: “Look Stupid”)

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a stupid sunflower
Although this is not the first foreign country I’ve been to, this is the first time that I felt… truly foreign. I do feel that I’m slowly starting to blend in, by which I do NOT mean that I’m dressing k-pop style, dumping BB cream on my face, and dying my hair in trendy colors. Some foreign, especially Chinese, students here do that. (I might add that some pull it off quite well.) But that’s not what I mean. I want to “blend in”—linguistically. And it’s not easy…

I’m used to blending in. Whether it be in the U.S., in Japan, or Taiwan. I’m just one of them—one of everyone. And it gives me a sense of satisfaction, knowing that people in Taiwan or Japan cannot tell that I’m actually *gasp* a foreigner. In Korea, however, that is not the case—at least not yet. The level of my Korean is far from native.

In my first month here, I was struggling to buy a food ticket from a cafeteria vending machine. The girls behind me tried to help by telling me that I could just buy a ticket from the staff member instead. The staff member said, “It’s OK. She’s a foreigner.” DAMN IT, I thought. I had asked her a question earlier and she must have been able to tell. Even worse, when I handed her my meal ticket, she said, “Enjoy your meal,” to me. in English. Smiling. Thanks, but no thanks.

Luckily, I have become better at blending in. Last month, I stayed out late and caught the last train home, only to find that it only stopped halfway. Confused, I approached a middle-aged man to ask what was going on. We ended up sharing a cab, since we were heading in the same direction. He also happened to have attended Korea University, so we had something to bond over. When I explained to him that I was actually just a student at the language center, he gasped and said,“You’re a foreigner?!?!?!” (Then he paid for my taxi ride. Yay. But I digress.)

Rather than pretending I’m Korean all the time, I’ve come to embrace my foreign-ness even when I don’t need to. Today, on the Line 2 train back home, I swallowed my pride and asked the woman sitting next to me if the color of the forest green floor was 푸른색 or 초록색 (two kinds of blue-green. Korean is one of the many languages that originally did not distinguish between blue and green.) After staring at me as if I were stupid, she told me 푸른색 and quickly turned away. I swallowed my pride again to ask, so what’s 초록색?? As if finally realizing that I was a foreigner, she softened her expression and told me that 초록색 was a lighter green like the color of 새싹 or “sprouts.” I didn’t know that word at the time, so I stared at her blankly, and she kindly pointed to a sign in that color. That was faster than me googling these colors.

I’m so used to asking people stupid questions in all other aspects of life. Why have I not done this earlier?? Maybe I’ll make some friends this way too!

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