Saturday, August 3, 2013

My Love Affair with the Barrier

One thing I've noticed is how much my friends and I talk about the frustrations of living with a daily language barrier in our lives, and, even if we're not talking about it, we're basically always thinking about it.  You never realize what a big deal it is until you try to live in another country.  For example, try ordering food off a menu that looks like this:
You may be fairly sure you know what you're getting, but if you have any dietary restrictions, it gets pretty stressful.  Or maybe you want to find things after a store rearranges its shelves  Heaven help you if you want someone's opinion about an item or if you want to convince a doctor you'd prefer a natural remedy to medicine.  The language barrier changes our lives in drastic ways here, and we frequently find ourselves discontent with those changes.

As my two-year anniversary with Korea has been drawing closer and my time here wrapping down, I've found myself growing increasingly nostalgic and analytical (those may seem like strange bedfellows to you, but I feel confident that anyone with a background in philosophy or psychology will make the connection).  I've been thinking over all my time here, and I've come to a conclusion: For better or for worse, I'm in love with the language barrier.  Certainly, we have our bad moments, our arguments, but, overall, I think it's a pretty good relationship, full of give and take.  I already drew a picture of how frustrating the barrier can be, but let me show you some of its more wonderful qualities.

  • I think one of my most (selfishly) favorite parts of the barrier is it's ability to hide me when I don't want to talk to people.  Thanks to the culture of my city and its particular barrier, I don't have to talk to anyone if I don't want to.  There are, of course, Korean-speakers here, and there are a good amount of English-speakers, but what you don't know is that there is a decent-sized Russian-speaking population here as well.  As a result, I can sit around and ignore all language that comes past me, and people will just assume I don't speak whatever language they've got going.  It's an introvert's heaven (well... in that aspect, at least).
  • I am now much better at charades.
  • Not being able to find things / communicate what I'm trying to find has helped me learn to prioritize: Do I really need this?  Would it be that big of a deal if I can't find it?  I've learned to let go of things that aren't so important and be persistent about that which is.
  • But the absolute best part of the language barrier is this: I have built friendships that are not based on knowing the trivia of each other's lives.  We are friends because we care about each other.  We see each other on a regular basis and we've learned to read each others' body language.  We cobble together our own language for communication, but that's not the core of the relationship.  Smiles, waves, and laughter; frowns, sighs, and even tears - This is the foundation of these relationships.  These people have actively and repeatedly looked out for my best interests.  I may not be able to tell you their favorite food or type of movie, but I can tell you when they're having a good day, and that, I think, is much more important. 

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