Crossing the Language Barrier the Stupid Way

Two weeks into my trip to Korea, I’ve managed to not pick up more than two phrases in Korean, a feat I previously thought impossible. I really can not do anything I set my mind to/I’m apparently a natural at funnelling words through one ear and out the other, do not pass go.


Because there are so many cheap food options around Korea University and because CJ House (my dorm) limits each resident’s fridge space to a 5-liter container, I eat out for most of my meals. Which means I have the following daily conversation when my group of decision-avoidant friends painstakingly debates where to eat:

Friend 1: What about bibimbap? I’m good with anything, of course.

Friend 2: I don’t have a preference, but we just ate that yesterday.

Friend 3: Udon? Chicken?

Friend 1: Eh… I don’t know. But it’s fine if you guys want it!

Me: *pointing* There? It’s got lots of options. Cheap.

Miraculously, everyone appears appeased. We approach the menu outside the restaurant and find there isn’t an English menu.

Me: Too bad I can’t read.

And then we usually continue our trek if it’s not already too late before we discover no one speaks English.

Potential reasons why I’m still illiterate

  1. I made Korean friends, so when they’re present they just explain everything on the menu and order for us. When they’re not… well, we’ve by now taken to the useless leech lifestyle.
  2. I’m not studying Korean. I put practicing on Duolingo on the backburner and now I’ve been off it for so long it almost seems disrespectful to try again. Also, I’m not taking Korean here. Instead, I’m taking a human resources management course by a sweet Korean-American professor who wants us to enjoy our summer and a history course for which I have ~100 pages of reading every night. (It was off-putting, having an old white man teach a class of mostly Asians about Asian history and culture, but he does know his stuff.)
  3. I downloaded Google Translate. This isn’t a sponsored post—by choice, and not my choice—but the app’s useful, if a bit slow to load. You can take a picture, highlight Korean text, and it’ll translate the characters to English.
  4. Workarounds.

I basically know no Korean, but that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from having to communicate. The two phrases I know are “hello” and “thank you,” which generally serve me well enough. You’d be surprised how many conversations I’ve survived with the other party none the wiser. And in English, “sorry” and “thank you” make up 90% of my daily vocabulary anyway, so I’m halfway there.

(Someone’s suggested I work on “my Korean is really bad” instead, which I think is entirely unnecessary since I could convey the same idea so readily with 100% less effort.)

So when I don’t have the words to express myself, I get unnecessarily “creative.” Below are four real-life scenarios.

Scenario 1: You’re at a traditional Korean BBQ restaurant and an ajumma (older Korean woman) is the only one in the restaurant. Your group has managed to get by so far by just pointing to pictures and nodding yes to all her questions, but now you’ve finished eating. She doesn’t understand “pay separately.”

Workaround: You circle your finger in the air, point at the bill, and cross your arms in an X. No, you say. Then you pull out a bill, stick up your index fingers, and repeatedly bounce them up and down as you say “one-one-one-one-one” until she cuts you off.

Scenario 2: You’re getting takeout kimbap (Korean maki rolls, kind of) for your friend and for yourself, on different cards. The ajumma brings out the friend’s order and when you point to yours, she thinks you’ve changed your mind and tries to take back your friend’s card.

Workaround: Engage in tug-o-war, occasionally crossing your arm in an X, pointing to the card, and vigorously shaking your head no. She takes that as “this is the wrong order” and tugs harder. You point to the food, spastically nod yes, then point to the other card and second order with two fingers. The reached understanding is a Christmas miracle.

Scenario 3: In an underground market, you’re shopping for sandals to replace the ones that fell apart during the orientation day downpour. All shoe vendors seem to have colluded, not displaying prices for any of the shoes. You have to discuss prices with vendors, but they’ll upcharge you once they realize you’re a foreigner.

Workaround: You walk out. (After you bit the bullet and asked “10,000 won?” in English, they laughed and gave you a price so high it was actually insulting.)

Eight stores later, you start trying on shoes without a word and then ask “how much?” You get up to leave when the price is higher than what you thought, and the vendor lets you have it for your ask price. You’ve accidentally haggled.

Scenario 4: You’re standing with a group of girls on the subway at night. A Korean lady stands up and approaches one of you with a note on her phone that reads, in English, “Please do not speak loudly in public places.” (This has happened to some in your group before.)

Workaround: You stop talking and the woman goes back to her Sudoku. After talking to Korean friends another day, you learn that her rule does not exist, especially when others around you are also speaking loudly, just in Korean. You wonder if she has that note pre-written and saved as a picture to show to less intimidating foreigners.

You think what if, next time it happens, you’re prepared and immediately pull out your own phone in response, with a pre-written Korean equivalent of “F YOU.” You think this would be hilarious. You find yourself as amusing as the Koreans probably think you’re an American idiot, but at least things are infinitely more entertaining this way.

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Last post: Signs of the Time

8 thoughts on “Crossing the Language Barrier the Stupid Way

  1. Ha! Pretty sure I’ve done all of these at least once! I submit scenario 5 from China: picking up food delivery. The deliveryman doesn’t know your apartment number, so he calls you you ask where you are, but speaks really fast in a dialect you don’t understand. Workaround: repeating “yes” several times, then running outside in the rain to flag him down.


    1. I just went through all my “Pending” comments and found this! I’m so sorry I missed it. Thank you so much for your thoughts even though I’m nearly a year late! And you know what, your method worked, which is really all we can ask for.


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