An Unlikely Stranger

In 3. Language, The Art of Travel, Washington DC by Matthew Chung1 Comment

If I were to talk about my experience with language studying “abroad” here in D.C., it really wouldn’t be very entertaining. Not only is this my third visit to the nation’s capital, but English is also my first language so it was not much of a culture shock moving over here for the semester. More interesting, I think, would be to talk about my recent summer internship experience in South Korea.

So if you’ve been following my past blogs you would know that I am ethnically Korean, born but not entirely raised in the Asian country’s capital. I’ve lived in Korea for approximately four years and grew up learning English in a school called Seoul Foreign British School, as surprising as that may seem. Last summer was my first time back in Korea in about four years so I was really excited to go back to my home country for a couple of months. Of course I was going to be working the majority of the time, but I was still extremely hyped.

I should probably also mention that I am not fluent in Korean. I can understand it fairly well, but speaking it is another story. Many times other Koreans come up to me and begin speaking to me in their language, assuming that I too am fluent because I appear Korean. It must be extremely shocking for them when I reply in my broken Hangul (official name for the Korean language) and explain to them that I am from the states in my limited vocabulary and pronunciation. I feel a great deal of shame in my inability to speak Korean fluently as this culture is undeniably a major part of me as an Asian-American. This fact was highlighted throughout my trip to Korea this summer.

Over the summer I was going to be working at an investment bank which was about an hour away from the place I was staying at. This was to be my first experience working and so I was fairly nervous. What made it even worse though was the fact that I was in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak the language fluently and I was no expert with public transportation either. The route I was to take required me to ride and transfer on three different subway lines and find my way to the office through an intricate mall. I can confidently say that I was feeling overwhelmed.

On my first day of work I left extra early because I knew I would have trouble finding my way to the office, especially knowing the circumstances I was under. I was able to get on to the first subway line easily without any problems; however, when I arrived in Gangnam and had to transfer to another a line, I got lost and started to panic. I felt “reduced … to the level of a near-idiot, trying to conjure up” anything from my limited Korean language bank to read the signs or communicate with someone for help (Alastair Reid). I finally mustered up the courage to speak to someone and got directions and luckily the person understood my broken Korean and gave me simple directions for how to get to where I was going. I finally got to the office in one piece and somehow managed to get there on time too.

By the end of the semester, not only was I an expert of the Korean metro system, but I had also gotten much better at my Korean through interactions with my family, co-workers, and strangers. Working and traveling throughout my summer in Korea was really an eye-opening experience for me culturally and personally as I learned to embrace the Korean cultured part of me which primarily played second-fiddle to my American side. I hope that later when I do have the opportunity to travel to new and unknown places that I will have the courage and desire to learn and grow as well as apply my past experiences.

(Image: SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - CIRCA August 2015 - Crowds of pedestrians enter and exit Gangnam Station in Seoul, South Korea.; Source: ShutterStock)


  1. Matthew, I really like that you decided to talk about your experiences in Korea especially with trying to learn the language. I relate to being able to understand a different language and then being kind of lost in responding. I live in SoCal where many speak Spanish and although I can understand it I really have very little experience and knowledge in responding back in Spanish. I also completely understand that in-between of being an Asian American and not being able to speak the other language. It is a sad feeling when you want to be able to completely understand what those around you are saying and you want to be able to speak back and have them understand you as well. I really liked how you described being able to embrace both sides of you and I follow in the hope of being able to apply my new experience from travel to the future.

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