On Language

한국에 온 지 1년 됐어요. 다른 나라로 이주하기 어려웠어요 하지만 저는 올해 많이 배웠어요…

Regardless of how broken my Korean is because it is undoubtedly so, the sentiment remains. It has been exactly one year since I moved, and I wish I was better able to articulate the experience beyond this platform, beyond the scope that this may reach, and beyond the restrictions that language has unfortunately given me. Rather than delving into subjects surrounding culture shock, food, navigation and the like, I wanted to talk about language. Specifically, how we communicate cross-culturally in a landscape that doesn’t allow us to be comfortable in our mother tongue.

There are different layers to cross-cultural communication which all come into play when relating to someone of either a similar or a different cultural background (western country vs. another western country or western country vs. eastern country). Our values influence how we speak to one another, and the way in which we speak, using both non-verbal cues and verbal behaviors and patterns in our speech. The importance of all of this isn’t necessarily in the details (at least for what I’m getting at) but how all of these things come together to make us feel different, to make us think to ourselves, yes, I am from here. Discovering these differences can be either a point of convergence or complete rejection, and while I think cross-cultural communication can occur here in the United States, I didn’t really begin to fully understand the nuances of it until I moved abroad. This level of awareness maybe can only happen in its most overt form by taking a subject and placing them in an environment completely unlike their home; that would be unfortunate given the state of the world currently (communication easier across countries via SNS), but I think there’s something to be said about how one has to experience this level of communication in order to appreciate language/cultural/societal conventions and how that relationship can change over time.

Understanding where others come from and how their culture influences their thinking is probably one of the most important aspects of cross-cultural communication as it can help relieve the intensity of culture shock that can later result in maladjustment. It’s true, at the heart of being abroad, you have to learn how to be culturally adaptive, and this is not to say that you have to simply forget where you have come from or the pieces of your culture that make you who you are, it really just means that you have to learn how to be fluid in your thinking, speech, and the way you relate to others around you. The basis of this, the most frustrating part perhaps, is language. The bones, the building blocks of how we communicate. There are layers to this. I can communicate a basic need in Korean: I would like coffee, please. Do you know where the train station is? Is there a bathroom? Would you like to go to dinner tomorrow? But, when I am asked: What made you want to move to Korea? Do you not like the U.S.? I am suddenly at a loss for words. Given my knowledge of the language, I cannot answer this. This is not to say I do not know the answer, but I’m restricted, just as the person sitting across from me asking such a question may be restricted in their ability to give an equally detailed response.

Language is an incredibly irritating thing. As a writer, I dedicate too much of my time to trying to find the right words. I’m constantly overthinking the placement of adjectives, verbs, and whatever else because I want to perfectly encapsulate a scene for my audience. I want to be able to present what’s in my head as accurately as possible – describe a feeling, create something tangible from the intangible, make someone else somewhere else in the world empathize, and understand. But no matter how many hours I sit in a cafe agonizing over the placement of words, I can never reach that thing called perfect. It doesn’t exist. There is no perfect sentence, no perfect phrase, nor a perfect word to convey a specific feeling. Language doesn’t work that way. Sure, I can write a string of words and construct an idea, but how a reader then decides to take that idea and run with it is outside of my control. Having complete control of the construction of a sentence only exists in those metaphorical moments of me typing out my thoughts here on this soon to not be blank canvas. Like right now. Right now as I press out individual letters on a keyboard. But what will you as a reader do with these collections of letters? That’s the thing. Communication insists upon the relinquishing of some of our control. And in some cases, relinquishing almost all of it.

While it’s frustrating being dropped down in the middle of a country and no longer able to openly communicate with those around you, it’s not the be all end all of the situation. At first, when I landed in Korea, I felt as if my tongue had been cut off as if this vital muscle was somehow carrying the answer to all of my anxieties. I was dramatic and naive, but most importantly, I was wrong. My words weren’t necessarily taken from me, they were simply shaped, warped, and transfigured into something different, something entirely new that I’m still learning and processing. So, as I found myself understanding less, I did the one thing that I’ve always done: I observed. I listened to the rhythm and flow of the language. I listened to how sentences were constructed, which sounds people held to longer, which phrases were said most often, and how the emotions that coated them were relayed. Even without understanding every word, I could pick up on context, and if I listened long enough, I could start to see the patterns in the conversations around me. This is when I started to adopt certain conventions in my speech. When I speak or text in English now, I’ve noticed how sometimes I drop adverbs or I use certain words more often because I hear them from non-Native English speaks. I speak slower in English and articulate each consonant, end each sentence definitively, making moving back home difficult at times when people speak to me in a slurred southern accent. I think so much more before I speak, and pause while talking, carefully choosing my words to make sure they make sense and I’m not caught rambling. There’s a sound response used in Korean when someone is speaking to you, and I often use it when I’m listening to others, regardless of what language they are speaking. There are outbursts, things that I automatically say when I’m angry or frustrated because I’m so used to hearing it from those around me. This is a part of being culturally adaptive.

Humans don’t get enough credit for how smart and adaptable we truly are. For everyone out there that is terrified of going to a country that doesn’t speak their native tongue, I can tell you this without a doubt: if you are at the very least somewhat comfortable with yourself, and okay with being a bit confused (and in turn, putting yourself out there due to necessity), you will be completely fine. Do not underestimate yourself. There may be moments of frustration where you wish someone could understand you perfectly and you didn’t have to trip over broken words and lost phrases in order to get your point across, but this does not determine your situation indefinitely. You will get past these things and learn that they are simply a part of being a foreigner; they are due to your environment but are in no way a reflection of your ignorance or lack of strength. Quite the opposite actually.

The language barrier is a real thing. It’s frustrating as hell and difficult to decipher, and often involves me pulling up a translation app or trailing off because I realize what I was trying to say is much too complicated, but I don’t mind it much anymore (to an extent). I have spent a handful of nights out with people who didn’t really speak English and still managed to have fun (drinking helps). It gives you a gateway to understanding others on a different level and provides an opportunity for connection that you might otherwise overlook. This is probably no surprise to anyone, but I have a difficult time communicating with people. My emotions are much more polished and better formulated through written words rather than spoken face-to-face. My schooling raised me to be judgemental of those can’t keep up with me, or don’t know enough about certain topics to provide an intellectual debate of sorts – an unfortunate side effect of going to a magnet school in the States. I’m culturally competent and prefer discussing deeper issues when getting to know someone. I look down on people who don’t enjoy reading. I spent my Sunday mornings in college at a cafe with a friend talking about philosophers, literature, and film – typical of a college student who believed she understood the world already. I’m pretentious, believe me, I know. I can’t write this part of myself away completely because I genuinely enjoy learning, and intellectual stimulation is important to me, but Korea gave me a chance to take a break from this part of myself. I was forced to stop being judgemental of others because I too was unable to talk about the things I normally enjoyed talking about. There was no quick way to delve into the more nuanced questions of life (I just sensed someone roll their eyes..I know, I can’t stop). I had to start at the beginning. Hobbies, day-to-day routines, family. Square one. It was like the first day of summer camp in every conversation. I had to become someone well-versed in small talk – something I never thought that I would ever have to do with such frequency.

The thing is, there is no perfect translation. Not from one person to another in one language, nor from someone who speaks an entirely different language from you. Yet, if you understand bits and pieces of another’s culture, it becomes easier, a task less daunting, it can even with time, feel comfortable regardless of whether you are able to understand with fluency or not. Language is not about communicating exactly how you are feeling, it’s describing a range and letting the person beside you pick up on the minute gestures, articulations, and atmosphere of what you are saying and translate that to their own perspective, their own experience, their own world. Meaning exists in the in-between of language. It’s impromptu, and beyond just the spoken, it’s in the brush of someone’s knee against your own, it’s found in someone’s eyes as they sit next to you at a bar and smile, it’s in the quiet of a pause in between breaths, it’s in the rhythm of someone’s laughter – it’s in the moment, and you don’t need to speak someone’s language perfectly to understand that. You just need to stop and listen.

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