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Notes from Stephanie Ruizesparza: Semester in South Korea, Part 1
In a couple months I will be traveling to a country that I only know about through television media and books. In order to start my trip abroad I have started taking Korean classes for almost two years now. As a person of Mexican descent, who learned Spanish through listening to my parents, it is a different experience learning a new language in a classroom setting, especially a language that is completely different from my native languages, English and Spanish.
In high school I took three years of French, and although it was my first experience in a classroom setting learning a new language, French, being a Romance language, was very similar to Spanish. It was easier to grasp, the vocabulary was simple to memorize, because words like bleu and vert and gris were super similar to blue and verde (green) and gris (spelled the same in Spanish) which means grey. Korean was a whole new type of adventure, where even the way we wrote was very different. We used Hangul instead of a Latin alphabet. It is always a struggle when learning new phrases and vocabulary in Korean because I do not have anything to reference. The word 친구(pronounced like chingu), I could have never guessed meant friend in English nor Spanish.
Learning a completely different language as a bilingual person is a different experience than that of a monolingual person. I find myself frustrated not becoming fluent at an instant (which is obviously impossible). Having the ability to switch between Spanish and English within seconds was something I definitely took for granted. Not being able to do that with Korean is a different type of frustration. Although I would consider myself fluent in Spanish, being a heritage speaker (learning only by speaking and listening) my grammar is pretty bad in Spanish. In Korean we learn the basics and correct forms of speaking, writing, and listening. Knowing that I will probably be better at writing and fixing grammatical errors in Korean than in Spanish some day is strange to me.
Regardless, I enjoy starting from the very beginning and learning this new language. There is a joy in learning a new language and it is a humbling experience not being able to communicate with someone efficiently at first but also knowing that one day it’ll come naturally. Because I have not started my journey yet, and have not set foot in Korea, I still haven’t had a chance to practice my language skills with native speakers. However, trying to communicate with my language teacher in class can be a struggle. And as struggling as it is, it is not a negative experience.
In fact, most of the times it is comedic and cute. My teachers who are not always fluent in English and as students who are not fluent in Korean yet, we tend to bump heads. For example, there was a time I was trying to tell my teacher that I did not want to eat eel, but I didn't know the word for eel in Korean and my teacher didn't know what eel was in English. So I ended up having to describe what an eel was, describing it as “a fish that looks like a snake” and I moved my arms in a snake like motion. As embarrassing as it was, the whole class got a laugh out of it and we somehow figured it out together. This story I believe summarizes the joys and struggles of learning a new language.
First Week in South Korea
I have finally ventured into South Korea and have successfully completed my first week in Seoul, South Korea. It was the longest plane ride I have ever taken, a total of 13 hours, plus an hour long bus ride to actually get to my destination. It was an interesting experience traveling for the first time without guidance. Also, due to the very long trip, I will confidently say that my first day here was not enjoyable. I say this because long trips turn my mood foul. All I wanted to do was get to my room, shower and sleep forever. Starting off, in the plane I had to use my pre-school level Korean skill to understand what was happening around me. I’m not sure how I managed to get to my destination, not having data and speaking little Korean, but nevertheless I got here.
Life in Seoul is very different than my Mexican-American ways in the United States. There are a lot more rules that I have to follow here in Seoul than I did in the United States. There is a strict hierarchy in Seoul that doesn’t exist in Latinx culture, or at least isn’t as enforced in Latinx culture. Things like; on the subway one cannot sit down if an elderly person is on the train (elderly people have priority seating) or needing to let them in front of you in lines. I know that in Latinx culture, typically, we praise our elders and have much respect for them. However, never has it been to the extent of the Koreans in Korea that I have witnessed.
Other etiquette includes having to have your plate of rice on the left side of you when you eat–out of politeness. You must always pour the drink of the oldest person first and go in order from oldest to youngest. Eating is an experience as well. Once you go to a restaurant and you are ready to order you must call out “yo gi yo” to get the waiter to come over each time. So you basically end up having to yell across the room if you need something. Also it is rare to go to restaurants to alone. Most places are family style because meals are believed to be shared between many people.
My roommate who also happens to be Mexican-American once mentioned that there were many rules to eating, whereas in Mexico we just eat without restrictions. There are many cultural differences that I have found during my first week here. I wonder what else I will find? These differences do make me think about the differences between the two cultures, Latinx and Korean, both which are considered somewhat collectivist countries, and yet how much they can still differ.