Saturday, August 7, 2010

My Illiteracy

I know it may seem ironic for an English teacher to call herself illiterate, but that's the reality here in Korea.  This is what I'm learning about illiteracy.

It isn't fun or easy.  It is often frustrating.  It causes mistakes and mix-ups and it makes many things take longer than they should.  Here's what I mean.

My Korean speaking skills at present are VERY minimal, but better than anyone else in my family.  Therefore, when any sort of transaction needs to take place with a Korean-speaking national, I'm elected.  The bus stops are a particular place of enigma for us.  Much of the information at the bus stop is only in Korean.  Kindly, numbers are readable.  Buses are available on one side of the street going in one direction and the other side of the street going in the other direction.  Public transportation is wonderful here but you have to know certain things: where you are, where you want to go, the bus numbers that will take you there, the direction to go in.  Without the ability to read, we are at a bit of a loss.  What is the name of our bus stop?  How do we know the names of the bus stops that would be our destination?  How would we know when we have arrived? (for example).

The other day, as our troupe of KIS staff were waiting for our school bus at a public bus stop (as usual),  I decided to begin to figure this out.  I am getting a bit better on pronouncing the Korean letters and thought I would tackle the name of our bus stop as seen on the sign.  I spent a minute or two sounding it out (badly).  Ha- oon- dah - ee  Ah-paht.  Over and over.  Finally, the light went on.  Right below the bus stop name in small English letters was written Hyundai Apartments.  Hyundai!  That was the word I was trying to sound out!  So the bus stop name is Hyundai Apartments!  I did it!

However, it did take me a long time to read one little word, and the English translation was available.

Another fun little anecdote.  We were in Seoul at the Dunkin' Donuts with Sein.  Brent passed by a small clear pump/bottle.  Thinking it was hand sanitizer, he pumped some into his hand.  Turns out it was SYRUP.  Sein got a big kick out of that, and Brent got a sticky hand.

Let's talk about the market and grocery store.  As someone who is illiterate, I rely heavily on the pictures on containers, boxes, and bottles.  Since we are trying to set up our household, we need a lot of various cleaning supplies: toilet bowl cleaner, dishwasher soap, laundry soap, shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, kitchen cleaner, bathroom cleaner, floor cleaner.  Imagine going to Target to the cleanser section and seeking all these things only being able to use the pictures on the labels!  Got any questions?  You can't ask very easily.  Most people won't understand your English.  You could be creative and take a picture of a similar product and show someone, or go to a dictionary first and look it up and sound it out.  You could ask someone who is bi-lingual to tell you ahead of time, write it down and then ask someone.  You could do any number of creative and wonderful things, but none of them are easy or quick.

This is the world of the illiterate.

So, until my Korean gets better. . .

goo dah bah yee


  1. Thanks for the entertaining stories. I don't envy you, but the perspective you offer is enlightening.

  2. You have amazing stories jhere! Congratulations! ~Vic~


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