Until you become an expat, it never occurs to you how much you take your daily lifestyle for granted. Only after living abroad, do you realize that culture shock and a country’s lifestyle differences comes in daily life-sized capsules called language barriers; and eventually, it mocks at your inability to do the simplest things.
Do I feel stupid when a store clerk or bank teller has to translate a form for me, when I’m making a transaction or signing up for a store point card? Of course, I have a master’s degree! Yet, in Korea I’m illiterate. To an expat living in a new country, it’s the everyday, mundane, simple things which become your greatest enemies.
Language Barriers in Korea: The Expat Version
Coming to Korea, I didn’t calculate the fact that the language barrier might pose a high wall within the daily workings of my lifestyle. I mean.. duh. I knew language barriers would affect me, but not to the extend it actually does.
To work around my weakness, I gravitate towards products with pictures and universal symbols to narrow my down my guesswork.
But that’s still not enough. Living in non-English speaking country like Korea is like trying to figure out tiny puzzles on a daily basis. It’s all trial and error and for every one step forward, you’ll feel like you’re taking five steps back. Grappling with this type of long-term culture shock isn’t easy. This affects my daily survival.
But for each struggle, there’s the air of humor. It’s a frustrating challenge and yet, it’s a much more entertaining life than dealing with the dreariness of a lifestyle you’ve taken for granted. My life is anything, but boring.
Do you have the right item ?
I was running low on shampoo. Thankfully, the store had a recognizable U.S. brand- Head & Shoulders . But was this bottle, shampoo or conditioner? Without knowing exactly which it was, I bought it anyways.
It took me close to two weeks to realize that the funky new Korean non-lathering shampoo was not shampoo. It was conditioner.
Tip: Some Korean words are in Konglish and are pronounced close to English. It just happens to be written in Hangul. If you have a basic ability to read hangul, it helps. Sounding a word out may lead to an English word, like the example below.
Are you using bleach, detergent or fabric softener to do your laundry? Aha! Until now, choices didn’t have large consequences for me.
I’ve not accidentally bleached my clothes, yet but I would love to use fabric softener soon. …If only I knew what fabric softener looks like.
With foreign countries, you also never know how strong or weak their products can be in comparison to the U.S.
I bought the all-purpose cleanser to clean my apartment and after five minutes of using it without gloves, I discovered it was not doing good things to my skin. Being able to read warnings and caution labels would help.
Can you live with information deficiency?
Skin Care Products & Vitamins or Medicine
In Asia, many skin care ingredients have whitening chemicals in the products. If you have dark skin or are Caucasian, finding a skin product without whitening may be your barrier to hurdle. Not mine. I’m Asian and I’m fine with being lighter.
But I take great delight in reading about the miracle skin healing powers each skin care product possesses. I love asking store clerks their advice. But in Korea, there’s different terminology for skin care products: tonics, emulsions, essences, cremes, etc… Of course, labels are all in Korean, so I always need to find an English-speaking clerk to try to translate it for me. It’s not easy. For five minutes, I go back and forth, miming and trying to pick out recognizable words for us to connect on (it’s a lot of effort),… only to walk away with the obvious knowledge that all those bottles “make wrinkles better”. Not to mention, I’m not always sure how to use it. It’s definitely cut down my time in skin care shopping.
What about knowing how to use your household appliances? Ever wonder what your washing machine directions might mean? While icons are helpful, some of them only beg more questions.
Who needs to do laundry anyways!
Tip: Household appliances, gather a list of things you don’t know how to use and have a Korean walk you through your apartment explaining them to you.
Have you ever scribbled off directions for a foreigner and thought nothing of it? I never thought of how legible my handwriting is until now. I don’t know if there’s a cursive or scripted way of writing Hangul, but one thing is certain– my reading skills in Hangul require crystal clear legibility and big spaces between characters!
How important is size?
I spent ten minutes assessing sanitary pads and tampons, pressing the packaging down over the product… hard. I was trying to see through the package. Would it fit my size, flow and scented needs? I make my best educated guess, only to discover at home, my guess wasn’t very educated. I bought a sanitary pad the size of a diaper!
On a good note, it was a good discovery. During heavy flow evenings, I don’t have to sleep with a towel under me or on my side.
Tip: Large stores like Lotte can occasionally have aisles and some products translated into English.