A friend from home came to Korea for a visit. She was doing both the ROK and Japan in one Far East swing. I convinced her to leave Seoul and had down to the country. We met in Gyeongju the next city over from where I live. She was impressed by my Korean, which shocked me since I can’t speak the language. What I know is maybe a handful of phrases and numbers. Basically I can go into a store and ask how much something costs and know how much to pay when I’m told. But after living here for four years I’m also a lot more comfortable not knowing what people say to me and having a “conversation” regardless of the fact that I can’t speak the language. Either I’m listening for one word I know and reply with one of the hundred or so I know, or I’m just playing a rather involved game of charades, which gets you pretty damn far.
Sometimes I know exactly what’s being said in some scripted exchanges because I know the script. If I’m buying groceries and I’m asked a question, it’s probably about whether or now I want a bag. I get a lot of mileage out of stuff like that. Or it comes back to the comfort level. Some people, like the shop keepers in my neighborhood, I see everyday, and I’ve stopped and chatted with them where they’re speaking in Korean and I’m speaking in English, but we’re having a conversation that I can only imagine resembles that scene in Ghost Dog where Forest Whitaker and his friend that works in the Ice Cream truck and only speaks Creole are having a conversation about a man building a boat on the roof of an apartment building. Neither speaks the same language but they talk to each other just the same.
Or in other words you can get pretty far here simply by playing a decent game of charades.