It’s obvious that traveling to a foreign country after taking the minimal language course is not the most optimal choice if you’re trying to communicate well with others. I was often reassured by others that Koreans actually know a lot more English than we expect, and that everything would be labeled in English. To some extent, this is true. I was pleasantly surprised by how foreigner-friendly, most notably, the tourist areas seem to be. Train stations and large attractions have the English romanization so that names are at least pronounceable. Most people approached could at least offer help and understand basic English phrases like “where is the bathroom?”.
It shouldn’t be surprising, but the more suburban of an area you go to, it starts getting a little harder to see English everywhere. It is ideal to learn basic Korean phrases and have them in our back-pocket whenever we need it. That goes without saying— it’s common knowledge.
However, what people don’t talk about is the fact that ordering food would be a whole situation within itself. It is definitely something I didn’t know I had to worry about. I remember the first time we walked into a restaurant, assuming that there would be some sort of English translation on the menu. Ah, so young, so naive. We were seated and handed menus. You can imagine our blank faces when there were no pictures or translations to be found. Our solution was to try to make out some of the limited words we knew— “bap” means rice, “jji-gae” means stew, and “guk-su” means noodle. Some of the Korean words could pronounce out to a familiar English term, such as “ga-rae” being curry. While that helped, we figured trusty Google Translate would be able to be of further assistance. It did for some, but didn’t for others. A memorable translation was “soppy rice” for black bean rice. We ended up picking random items and hoping they weren’t something too adventurous. To their credit, the food was very good and I would recommend.
After this traumatic event occurred, we adapted. We picked up this tactic that could only be described as “taking pictures of their advertised items (sometimes restaurants had menus or flyers outside) and showing it to the waiters”. I know it’s not the most graceful adaptation, but it worked. Most of the time. It pains me to relive this memory, but one time, we took a picture of a menu and went into the store next to the banner. A friendly face emerged and asked for our order. I showed her the picture I had just taken and her face becomes bewildered. She says something in Korean, before realizing I don’t speak/understand Korean really well. Seeing that I am Chinese, she starts speaking in Chinese. (I’m not entirely confident in my Chinese either, but at least my parents spoke it at home.) At some point, I make out enough phrases to realize that we probably took a picture of a menu that is not from this store. Yeah, it was incredibly awkward.
So let me be the first to tell you that I’ve had my fair share of awkwardness. There have been times we have gotten calls from the apartment-call system, only to hesitantly pick up and the caller to become frazzled when they realize the other end isn’t comfortable speaking Korean. The language barrier is inevitable. I find that the only way to get over the awkwardness is to embrace the awkward. People are often friendly in the sense that they respect you to stepping outside of your comfort zone. Learning another language is hard and people are empathic. So, go ahead and pronounce it wrong! Confidently make mistakes and don’t be ashamed. After some correction and repetition, your language skill will improve. I can guarantee you that.