Lots of Koreans speak or try to speak English, but that doesn’t mean that what comes out of their mouth is what would come out of a native speaker of English’s mouth. In fact, some really strange and sometimes almost offensive things could come out of their mouths because their culture is so different from people who speak English as a first language. They are always writing all these articles about what not to say or do when you enter a country, but what is it Koreans shouldn’t say when they encounter a native speaker of English?
If you have been following my blog, you will realize that Korea is a Confucian country built on a Confucian model for society. Your place and age in society is very, very important in Korea. This influences a lot of things they say that come across as very strange to those of us who speak English as a first language. To begin with, if you meet someone for the first time, they will probably ask you how old you are. To people in America or in other countries where people speak English as a first language, that is a big “no-no.” You don’t ask people you hardly know how old they are, especially the women. It is too personal, and people in the west are worried about prejudice, and one of the prejudices they are worried about is age prejudice.
If someone is young, they don’t want people to think they are very young. They want respect. It always drove me crazy because my older sister is only a year and a half older than I am. Because she was the oldest, she got lots of privileges I didn’t get. When we went somewhere as a family without my dad, but my mother drove, my sister sat in the front seat because she was the oldest. As a child, being able to sit in the front seat can be a sign of respect the other kids aren’t getting. If you are younger, you get pushed around by the older ones. When you are a teenager, everyone can’t wait to get to 16 years old in America so we can drive. When you go and try getting a job, if you are too young and inexperienced, good luck. They may give you a job, but it will be a bottom of the rung job, and it will pay nothing because they will think because of your age that you know nothing, and they can get by with making you scrub floors or wait on tables. You aren’t given much responsibility, respect, or salary if you are too young. Many young people in America just want to grow up and eventually get some respect. Girls especially feel this way. They at least hire guys for physically demanding jobs, so they get paid a little more, but people have a tendency to think many young women and teenage girls are just pretty to look at and nothing more. There are many young people coming to Korea right out of college to try to get good job experience because they have to start somewhere, and they don’t want to come to Korea and have people bossing them around because they are young. They want respect.
In Korea, they forget that everyone is different, and it doesn’t matter, we can still be pretty if we are different. In India, the ones considered the prettiest would be considered slightly overweight in America. In Nigeria, the women we think are big and fat in America would be considered beautiful. In Korea, the women other countries find beautiful would be considered big and fat, and so ugly. The standard of beauty is different everywhere.
The other problem with asking someone their age when you encounter someone from the west is that women can easily get offended. If a woman is in her thirties or above, she begins to worry that she isn’t everything she used to be physically. She has been encouraged her whole life to try to keep her figure. In their thirties, a lot of women in the west begin losing their waist line. If they diet and exercise enough, they can slow down the eventual process of looking like they are getting older. If they use enough creams on their faces they can put off the wrinkles. If they use enough cover up, you can’t see the dark circles around their eyes, etc. A lot of pressure is put on women to stay pretty and young looking as long as they can. If a women takes care of herself, she could look ten or twenty years younger than what she is, and she doesn’t want to admit her age to people. She feels complimented when she is 40 and people think she is 25. To ask women like this how old they are just isn’t going to make it, Koreans You will offend women for sure to ask them how old they are.
Another way Koreans offend women from the west is by calling them fat when they wouldn’t be called fat in the west. I knew a woman whose husband was in the military, and he had to live in Korea alone with her just coming to visit occasionally. When I got to know her, I found out why. She was a pretty woman who took care of herself. She went out and ran a couple of miles everyday. She was in her late thirties or early forties, but she still had a nice figure. However, when she went into a shop to look at the clothes, the patron of the shop said, “There is nothing in here for you, you big, fat, American woman!” She was treated like she was ugly when she wasn’t. She was treated like she was fat when she wasn’t. She refused to live in Korea, and I don’t blame her. There have been times that they got rude with me too. I have walked into a boutique to look for clothes for my daughter, and the patron would say, “There is nothing your size here. Just go somewhere else.” When we first came to Korea, my daughter was 14 years old, and she easily wore Korean clothes because most Korean women look like they are 12-14 years old, and I easily bought clothes for my daughter. They didn’t even stop to think that I might not be shopping for myself. I know I am taller and broader than the Koreans, but I don’t care. I am not the age that I am worried about the beauty competition anymore. When I first came to Korea, there were only American men at church. Either they were single or their wives decided to stay in America and not come with them. Some of them said to me, “I am surprised you can live in Korea. Most American women say they can’t live in Korea.” I really didn’t care what anyone thought of the way I looked, so it didn’t matter.
Another thing Koreans say that can offend or confuse people from the west is by calling people “sister” or “brother” when they aren’t, and they hardly know them. In the west, we call our friends from church “sister” or “brother” sometimes. However, what they do in Korea is different. The first year I came to Korea, a Korean woman teacher that I barely knew that I eventually figured out was trying to get close to me because there was a Korean guy hanging around me she liked, and she wanted to compete with me said something really strange to me. She asked me, “Can I call you older sister?” The older part made me feel like she was trying to compete with me because I wasn’t that much older than she was, and eventually, I figured out she was after a guy who was following me around, so she was trying to compete. For her to ask to call me sister was silly because we weren’t close, we didn’t go to church together, and we weren’t related. However, in the hierarchy of the Korean culture, she felt completely justified in calling me “older sister,” or in Korean “ohnee.” She was trying to establish a close relationship. If a Korean woman makes friends with another Korean woman, they will call the older one “ohnee” even though they aren’t related or going to church together. They fain closeness that feels strange to foreigners.
There was a time there was a student who was in trouble. She was passing out in the street from hunger and ending up in the hospital. She was over extended on her bills and scared of the people she owed. She had come to me for help, and I was feeding her and letting her sleep on my couch because she had been sleeping in the subways. I had to loan her money to pay her bills because she was so afraid of the person she owed money to. I got crazy text messages from her that would freak anyone out when she encountered the person she owed money to. It was like they were a loan shark trying to hurt her or something. She refused to go home to her parents because her dad was sick and she said her mother was crazy. I asked if she had other relatives, but she said she didn’t and needed my help, so I helped her. She said her grandparents were Japanese and her dad had immigrated from Japan, and her mother didn’t have family either. She thought the Korean government would make her drop out of school and support her parents, and she was right because I took her to a social worker, and they don’t have the same social programs in Korea as we have in America. She kept taking off with a guy in a car she didn’t want me to meet. She was calling him “uncle.” I asked her if he was her uncle, then why didn’t he help her. Why didn’t he pay her bills, feed her, and let her stay at his house? She said he had been out of the country. Come to find out, it wasn’t her uncle. I never figured out who he really was. When she stopped passing out from hunger, I helped her get a job. She eventually paid me back and went back to live with her parents. She dropped out of school for a while because of her job, but eventually came back, and when she did, she thanked me for helping her. I thought she was lying about the guy being her uncle, but in Korean culture, it was acceptable to call him “uncle” (samchon or ajoshee) even though he wasn’t actually her uncle, but just an older guy who was her friend. However, because she was speaking English, she called him “uncle,” and initially, I thought she was lying. They give all kinds of designations to people who aren’t in their families titles that we only give to family members in the west.
There is another thing they say that isn’t offensive, but can get confusing. If we are going to meet someone, and we are waiting for them, but they are late, we might call them and say, “Where are you?” If they are on their way, they will say, “I am coming.” However, they don’t say that in Korea. In place of “I am coming,” they say “I am going.” If a native speaker of English hears, “I am going” in place of “I am coming,” they may ask, “Where are you going? I thought you were coming here.” They would be confused.
When we greet someone in English and in several other languages too, we might say, ” Hi, how are you?’ The normal response is, “Hi, I’m fine, and you?” We may not even expect the person to tell the truth about the way they are feeling. If you live in Texas or California, you may get “What’s happening?” or “Que’ pasa?” as a greeting because of the influence of the Hispanics. When I was in Romania, they asked, “Ce faci?” (What are you doing? in place of “How are you?” If you meet a pocaiti (repenter), a person who isn’t Orthodox but is Christian) in Romania, they will say “pacea” (peace) as their greeting. In Japan, they asked “Genki desuka?” (Are you healthy?) If you greet someone in Morocco or one of the other Arabic speaking countries, they say “Salam Ali cum,” and you respond, “Ali cum salam. You are giving them the peace of God, and they give it back. These greetings all seem to be sort of similar if you realize what the Koreans say. The Koreans will have a completely different greeting. They will ask, “Did you eat?” (Mogosoyo?), and they may add “lunch” or “dinner” according to what time of the day you meet them. You may think they are inviting you to eat lunch or dinner with them, but they aren’t. It is a standard greeting in Korea. It is a little strange for me, so I found another used less often but that I am comfortable with, “Chal chineyo?” It similar to the Japanese greeting, but it is basically asking if they are in a good mood.
Something many foreign speakers of English do that is offensive, and I have even heard people stand in front of churches and do it because they don’t know what is cussing in English. They hear it on TV and in movies. They read it on the internet. They don’t think about considering the source. The bad guys on TV and in movies cuss. It will be hard to find someone in a Disney movie cussing. Native speakers of English, especially Christians, usually understand that there are certain words that are not accepted as pure or morally good. However, those words are all over the place now, and people from other countries who speak English, but don’t understand the weight of English words are picking those words up. I actually heard a Korean deacon get up in front of the church and use curse words in English. They use those bad and pornographic words that unthinking native speakers send out. We know only certain types of people use those words in English and others don’t, but foreigners don’t understand, and they pick those words up thinking, “Oh, I have a new word in English I didn’t learn in school. Aren’t I smart!” However, if they really understood the word, because of the kind of person they are, they would never use the word. I feel bad for these people when I hear them using those kinds of words. They are like children repeating every thing they hear. When my kids went to school, I had to warn them. I would say, “If you hear a new word, please ask me before you use it, and I will tell you if it is good to use or not.” They complied. If I hear a foreigner speaking English who I know would never cuss, but they are cussing, I pull them aside out of courtesy because I am an English professor and a missionary. I tell them they may not want to use that word and try to explain to them the weight of the word in English. They are always very grateful because they didn’t know.
Two people can look at the same thing and see something different according to what color of glasses they are wearing or what culture they are from.
There are probably other things they say, but these are some really good examples. Because of the cultural differences, and not just because of the language differences, you may misunderstand what a Korean says even though they study English and speak to you in English. Koreans have a completely different background from people from the west. Their categories of thought are from another world. They have one pair of glasses that may have green lenses, and ours may have pink lenses. We are looking at the world differently, and it influences what we say and the perception of what we say is different from one country to another, even more so if one is from the west and the other from the east.