100 Things I Love about Korea: #69 - Konglish and North Korean Refugees

My good friend Nikki Muyskins originally wrote this article for Fulbright Infusion Magazine, March 2011. It was later republished on www.engagemagazine.com.  I offer it to you now for your reading pleasure.

As I was on the plane on the way to Korea for the first time, I remember studying some “learn Hangeul” print-outs that I had with me, desperately trying to get some of this new writing system to stick in my mind.  I had a list of “Konglish” words to sound out for practice, which I suppose was meant to build confidence, but did little to calm my nerves when I would tediously sound out a word like “pi-ja” and still be unable to make the connection to the English word “pizza.”  What match would I be for the language barrier, if I couldn’t even understand Koreanized words from my native language?  How would I overcome linguistic and cultural obstacles, and learn not only to adapt to Korea but also to thrive in this foreign land?
Thankfully, I encountered many friendly people to help me along the way, and I have gradually learned more and more Korean.  Sometimes I enjoy the convenience of English loan words, if, for example, I want to take a “tek-shi” (taxi) to the “bus-seh tuh-mi-nuhl” (bus terminal).  Sometimes I just get entertainment out of Korean pronunciation, like the lack of “r” in “ma-teh” (mart) or the “sh” in “shoo-puh” (super(market)).  Other times I feel frustrated with loan words like these, like if my students don’t understand my pronunciation of “suh-tuh-di room” (study room) or laugh at my attempt at spelling a word like “saen-deh-wi-chi” (sandwich) in Hangeul.  Sometimes life in Korea can give me so much “suh-tuh-rae-suh” (stress), yet I am grateful that our languages do overlap in some instances.  Otherwise, how would I ever navigate the “in-tuh-net” (internet) on my Korean “com-pyu-tuh” (computer)?

With my blond hair and blue eyes, I never fool anyone into thinking that I am Korean, and this generally earns me the benefit of the doubt along with some extra help.  I fit very well into Korea’s conception of a “way-gook-in” (that is, a foreigner).  To be sure, yes, I am a foreigner, but I am not the only type of foreigner in this country.  People come to live here from all parts of Asia and the rest of the world.  Some look foreign, but others blend in.  Some have Korean heritage, but have grown up entirely in another country, like America.  There is yet another group, a group now over 20,000 strong, who look Korean and indeed are Korean, and yet grew up in a land very foreign to modern-day South Korea.  These people are North Korean defectors, and they face their own challenges in adapting to life in this Korea. 
North Korean defectors don’t face quite the same language barrier that I face, since they obviously have more words in common with South Koreans than I do, but the North and South Korean dialects have developed in different directions, just as their cultures have evolved in vastly different ways.  In many respects, South Korea can be more foreign to them than it is for me.  Aside from the mere existence of English loan words that are likely foreign to them, the ideas that they stand for can also be novel.  Most likely there are “taxis” and “bus terminals” of some sort in North Korea, but in a country where the “du-bal-cha” (two-footed-car, i.e. pedestrian) is the primary mode of transportation, and even the very concept of unrestricted travel is unheard of, a comparison can hardly be drawn.  Similarly, “marts” and “supermarkets” operate under an alien system called capitalism, which the North Korean regime has tried hard to suppress.  “Study rooms” speak to South Korea’s strong emphasis on education, particularly on English education, in contrast with North Korea’s primary goal of idolizing the Kim family.  The normalization of the word “sandwich” speaks to the prevalence of Western and fusion foods, which must seem exotic if one is accustomed to a place where even rice can sometimes be outside of one’s price range.  Given that situation, “stress” cannot be a foreign concept, but its source can be vastly different.  Rather than being concerned with getting the next meal on the table, they may wonder how they will ever be able to navigate the wealth of knowledge available to them on the “internet,” that bastion of freedom of information.    Although they are indeed Korean themselves, their experience in adapting to South Korean life, with its basic freedoms that I take for granted, must actually be quite new and challenging.
While many South Koreans have very limited experience with this invisible minority, I have had the privilege of getting to know some of these North Korean defectors through volunteering at a community center in Seoul and an alternative Christian high school in Cheonan, called the Heavenly Dream School.  Among the many things foreign to them about South Korean life, English is one of them, and I can play a small role in making the transition smoother by teaching English conversation classes.  Before I started volunteering, it was easy to categorize them as “other,” as having lived through and overcome situations that I can’t really imagine, but upon meeting them, I have found that they are strikingly like me, like other Koreans, like regular people.  Perhaps Koreans experience the same sort of shock when meeting me, as they realize that my identity as a foreigner in Korea does not make me alien to the whole range of human emotions that they too experience.  Meeting people who actually came from North Korea does not negate the abstract knowledge that I have gained from articles, documentaries, or books; it just makes it that much more real.
  Never have I felt a more poignant sense of this reality than when I attended an arts performance at the Heavenly Dream School, where the 15 students that I teach put on plays, sang, played musical instruments, and demonstrated Tae-kwon-do.  In the midst of these fun performances, one girl slowly came to the podium, and, to soft piano accompaniment, began to read.  A hush, then a reverent silence, fell over the audience as she proceeded to read a letter she had written to her mother and sister, who were presumably still in North Korea.  What does one say in a letter to family so precious, that it won’t likely be delivered?  Life here is sometimes hard, she writes, but she is well.  She asks if they are getting enough to eat and keeping healthy, and she sends her love.  The letter continued, but exceeded my powers of translation.  It was almost more poignant that way, in the sense that the cadence of her voice required no translation to communicate powerful emotions.  The harsh truth of her and her family’s situation was real and palpable, and yet the genuineness of her love for them was and is real too.  Her letter held the weight and mystery of the “untranslatable,” and yet did not shut me out.  We have the shared experience of being foreigners, both adapting to life in South Korea, and more importantly, a shared humanity.  I can do very little to help North Korean defectors to thrive in South Korea, but that does not leave me without connection or purpose.  Rather, because of what we do have in common, because of the reality that we do live in, I feel that my liberation is bound up with theirs.
  It leaves us with a call to work together, as fellow sojourners.