Back to the Basics: Storytelling

Welcome back!

Wow! One month(ish) in Seoul! I find this kind of hard to believe. I’ve finished my third week of class and we’ve made it through five units already. I’ve learned some new grammar, a bunch of new vocab, and my fluency has already increased a lot. Time is definitely flying by, and I am starting to become more aware of how quickly this summer will be over. This week I want to focus my discussion on communication, and the ways I have been adapting to the language barrier inside and outside of class.

On to the discussion.

On Tuesday I met up with my SNU buddy after class ended. We headed to a restaurant to grab lunch (I had stone pot bibimbab which was DELICIOUS but I forgot to take a picture. Again. I swear I am eating while I’m here). After that, we went a couple of shops over and chatted in a café for a little longer. It was a really challenging but rewarding couple of hours.

At first, I felt very embarrassed of my slow speaking and the way I wasn’t constructing perfect, grammatically correct sentences, but I relaxed as our conversation went along. I had to ask her to repeat herself a couple of times, and sometimes we pulled our phones out to look up words on Naver (the Korean equivalent of Google), but it was a more ore less smooth interaction. She definitely did more of the talking, but I found ways to work around my limited vocabulary and still convey some of my personality.

We talked a lot about SNU and Yale, comparing the campuses as well as scheduling, class structure and registration, and social life. I managed to somewhat explain the concept of Greek life, and the role partying plays on most American college campuses. This was very difficult for me to explain, since Greek life doesn’t really exist in Korea. We were talking about the ways students have fun when not studying, and I wanted to explain that, although clubs exist, most are either closely related to academics or networking, or exist as a way to party. While drinking is a very common activity in Korea, the concept of a Frat House and that style of party is not really something that exists. We also talked a little about our families, and she told me about her time visiting America.

이세원 is super friendly and patient with my slow speaking. Our first meeting was pretty short, so I was relieved to find out that we had more in common during this meeting — we talked about tv shows and musicals and bonded over our love for The Good Place and Hamilton, among other things. I even managed to make a joke about having to use subtitles even when shows are in English. We’ll be meeting again next week, and I’m excited to chart my progress through how easy these interactions become over the course of the summer. 

During my interactions with 세원 and with my classmates, one thing I have noticed is the universality of certain humor. One of the things I was most nervous about when coming to Korea was how my personality would come across to my classmates and native Koreans. I take a lot of pride in the way that I tell stories and jokes, and I usually make new friends through lots of laughter. My personality and humor are one of the aspects of myself that I like the most, so I was definitely afraid of having that stripped away by the language barrier. Unfortunately, I am nowhere near fluent enough in Korean to make the exact same kinds of jokes or tell the same stories. I’ve been pleasantly surprised, however, at how easily I’ve been able to communicate certain funny things. With the aid of a bit of pantomiming, I can still make my personality come through. It’s kind of fun to practice this different way of communicating, which although it feels very juvenile, is surprisingly effective. Because of the language barrier, I am forced to become a more active speaker — what I say will be very simple, but when aided by hand gestures and sound effects, I can still yield a laugh.

This type of storytelling has also been one of my favorite parts of class so far. All of our teachers rotate, so most classes have 3 or 4 different teachers each week. My Wednesday/Thursday teacher is the head coordinator for my level, and is absolutely hilarious. This is the same teacher who told the story about why not to get a dog as a pet, as I previously wrote about in a post a couple of weeks ago. This week, we had a couple more funny discussions.

One was a debate about what order you put your socks and pants on in, and what foot you put you pants/socks/shoes on first. It’s hard to capture in writing what was so funny about this discussion, because there was just a lot of very adamant leg patting, repeated shouts of “왼쪽” and “오른쪽” (left and right), and some very disgusted faces.

This teacher also loves to travel, and has tons of really interesting stories from his time outside of Korea. This week, he told us a fifteen minute long tale about meeting a blind man in Shanghai who “wanted to see the sights” — my teacher was apparently scared by this choice of words, but wanted to practice his English, so he ended up going with this man and leading him around tourist places. Not only was the way he told the story engaging, but he had me help him demonstrate the way he led the blind man around. I get called on to help demonstrate a lot because my seat is at the front of the classroom and closest to the teacher.

This kind of demonstrative and very sight-based storytelling makes it so much easier to share these experiences despite having such limited vocabularies. It also has revealed to me the skill of our teachers at being able to communicate more complicated ideas using only the words that we know. For example, I have no idea what the word for “blind” is in Korean, but my teacher was able to convey this key point to us by using specific grammar and words that we were all familiar with.

Highlights of this week…

Visiting a cat café, watching Toy Story 4, and going on a spontaneous adventure to Myeongdong with Eunji! The allergies were worth suffering through; the movie was funny, scary, and endearing, and I would definitely recommend it; and Eunji and I ate plenty of street food while having good conversation. So, of course, another good week in the books!

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