Socialising in Solitude

The general consensus in Korea is that you will spend time outside of work eating and drinking with your coworkers. It’s habitual that these nights are funded by the boss. These social outing are practically a written clause in your contract, and those who don’t participate will find themselves somewhat isolated in work. From the moment that the companies finish work, hoards of employees will stream into local bars and restaurants. Generally, you will hear their raucous discourse from 7pm and it will continue deep into the night, no matter what day of the week it is.

This dogma persists within the hagwon world. It tends to vary dependant on the academy how much time you will spend socialising outside of work, but the idea remains the same. This is a great opportunity for foreigners to come to terms with the various Korean dishes. Because most restaurants only provide a Korean menu, the naïve foreigner may find themselves ordering something that they do not want to try (such as chicken bum, which I had the misfortune to order!) Therefore, venturing out with the locals is always a much safer option. Not only do they tend to order delectable Korean cuisine, but you can decipher what various items on the menu are for later reference. Even better is the fact that you don’t even need to put your hand in your pocket.

However, these expeditions do come at a small price. You may find yourself sitting through a whole meal where the conversation is predominantly in Korean. This is not the most enjoyable experience; in fact, many people would find it distressing. To feel excluded from the conversation at a dinner party which you have been invited to sounds absurd. Maintaining your composure during the course of the night may also prove to be tricky. Unfortunately, if you are a quiet person you will feel as though there is not much that you can do to swing the conversation into your own language.

Initially, I was immensely offended by my coworker’s continuous Korean chatter. Paranoia gnawed at my brain like a parasite and I was certain that they were bitching about me whilst I sat with them. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that their actions are not malicious, but the result of a long day teaching English. It must be tiring for them, so who could blame them for reverting to their mother tongue when they get the chance? Not I. Actually, I don’t believe that they are even aware of how they make me feel. Consequently, I’ve learnt to handle these outings in a professional manner; I enjoy the food and try to ignore the conversation.

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Hung up on Hangul (한글)

Native English speakers tend to forget how lucky they are. This is the language that dominates the world and it is one that most students learn from a very young age. In many schools in England a second language only becomes compulsory at the age of 11 and you can drop it at 14. The lack of encouragement that students face when deciding whether to continue with a second language means that a vast amount are left knowing only the basics and their own mother tongue.

Teaching in Korea certainly reinforces how importantly the English language is perceived. Students strive to grasp the language as it is seen to be required for success in later life. However, when you step outside of the classroom you are confronted with a completely different language with its own confusing characters and complications.

Prior to moving to Korea I had no desire to learn any other language, partly because I am lazy and mostly because I believed that the majority of people spoke English  so I didn’t need to speak another language. But I decided that if I was going to live somewhere that English was not commonly used I needed to step out of my comfort zone and learn some Korean.

Learning the Hangul characters was easy enough; I just copied them down a couple of times until I had it pinned. Luckily, one of my coworkers was keen to tutor me for free. There are also group study sessions in the area, but I prefer the one on one approach. It took no time to grasp the basics: directing a taxi, ordering at a restaurant, finding items in the supermarket etc. I now know enough to just about get by and where my language fails I use body language and Google translate. Of course as my coworker and I became friends, our study sessions slipped into gossiping. A key thing to bear in mind if you find yourself in a similar situation to me is that these sessions are also a chance for your tutor to practice their English. So don’t feel guilty if they are free.

Since I have mastered the basics in Korean my desire to learn anymore has waned. There are people who pursue the language; there is even a TV program (Non-Summit), where foreigners debate in Korean. However, the majority of the foreigners that I meet tend to only learn the basics. It really reiterates the bad reputation that English speakers have in the world of speaking.