An American guy I once met in Nepal two years in a row was incredulous when I turned down his offer of pot. “You come to Nepal and you don’t smoke?”
Smoking wasn’t the main reason he came–he was attached to the Kathmandu tattoo convention–but it certainly played a big part of his experience. My not taking him up on his offer seemed in his mind to be like going to Rome and not eating pasta, to france and missing the Eiffel tower, like going to London and not getting rained on.
Interestingly, the guy had never set near the Himalaya, or any other mountains in Nepal for that matter, which put him in the minority of tourists there. I don’t think it had ever occurred to him that hiking in the mountains was even an option. He didn’t know the pleasure of striding into a new village, the thrill of seeing children and goats playing together, the brash music of Tibetan monastery over 3000 meters into the alpine wilderness.
Nor should he. I’m not picking on the guy. One of the pleasant parts of travel–of life, really–is that we can pick and choose our experiences. As our friend Cat Stevens says, “There’s a million ways to be.” But this attitude is rife amongst travelers.
In Korea, this mindset takes on a very specific form. This comic below sums up the attitude perfectly.
Never mind that it falsely conflates the unhappy foreigner with a non-Korean speaker (many of the unhappiest [or at least most vocal] expats here are quite proudly fluent in Korean). The judgement here is clear: if you don’t speak Korean, you don’t deserve to complain/are lazy/and deservedly negative. This is a widespread belief the permeates much of the foreigner culture here. To be fair, there are absolutely some people like that. The comic isn’t entirely wrong. But it misses an important concept.
Even more so than Nepal, I think Korea has a real variety of options. Things like jimjilbang (spa), galbi (meat restaurant), and shopping are the favorite things for many foreigners here. Maybe most. In 3+ years here, I haven’t done any of those (apart from grocery shopping, of course.) Likewise, the long urban strolls I take most weekends are not on many other people’s list of favorite activities.
As you have no doubt guessed, I am including learning Korean as an interest. There is undoubtedly a bit of cultural Imperialism to this categorization–you don’t have to learn other languages when you speak English. Some people love learning new languages. Other people don’t easily pick up new alphabets, or don’t care to. There are reasons not to as well. By not speaking Korean, you can exist in a sort of simplified Zen state where life is simple and uncomplicated. A good friend of mine calls this “the bubble.”
There are many advantages to learning Korean, of course. Reading signs, catching buses, chatting with co-workers are all worthwhile rewards. Participating in the culture you live in can be important. It can help communicate with students and is useful in a million other ways too. Learning Korean is a great thing to do.
There are also benefits, not least financial and liver-related, to not spending lots of money at the bar each weekend. Or to hiking a couple times a month. Or to walking instead of catching cabs, not eating meat, going to the gym. Many things that most of us don’t consistently do.
The idea that people who don’t speak Korean are lazy or not making an effort is an unexamined position. There are good reasons to learn Korean, and if one was planning to live here for a long time it would make a lot of sense. But there are good reasons to do lots of things most people don’t do. And there are good reasons not to learn Korean as well. Just as it’s okay to go to Nepal for a tattoo convention and not go hiking.
These are my thoughts. I would like to hear yours.