The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language

This morning is a Saturday, and Saturdays are always a tough day to write a blog post. I dug through my purse to find my external hard drive, hoping that going over some old pictures would spark something that I could use. I quickly realized that I’d accidentally left my external hard drive at work and there would be no access to photographs until Monday. Shucks.

So, I headed over to the Daily Post, who has been posting different prompts for NaBloPoMo writers everyday. Most of these have been much more geared towards personal blogs, and I haven’t had a chance to use a single one yet. But the most recent prompt was a strike of luck. It read:

You get to choose one superpower. Pick one of these, and explain your choice:

– the ability to speak and understand any language
– the ability to travel through time
– the ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, as a travel/expat blogger, I’m sure you can guess which one of these superpowers I would choose. Time travel, obviously! Jokes. No, I’m convinced that being able to speak and understand any language would be the ultimate superpower, for a myriad of reasons. I’m going to tell you about each and every one of them

Easier & Carefree Travel

This is a pretty obvious benefit. You could literally go anywhere in the world and find a place to sleep, eat and sightsee with minimal effort. Your safety automatically doubles, because if you’re lost you can ask for help, you can get warnings ahead of time about unsafe areas of the region and you are more likely to talk yourself out of any potentially bad situations. You can ask about bigger towels at some tiny, cheap motel and you can read the street signs in the area. Learning the language in a country you’ll be traveling in just makes everything, all around, way better.

A good Spanish word to learn is "Peligro", which means danger. Which is also not something you'd expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.
A good Spanish word to learn is “Peligro”, which means danger. Which is also not something you’d expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.

Hear People’s Stories

Sit down with your hostel owner and a cup of coffee and learn about his family, how he came to open a hostel, what makes him happy in life. Ask the person next to you on the plane where they’re going and what they do for a living. See an elderly Jewish grandmother in Germany and be able to listen to, understand and learn from her experiences in World War II. Ask a little girl what her favorite color is, her favorite book is and whether she has any younger siblings. People are fascinating and they have incredible stories to tell, especially those that live a different life than you. And from people like that, there are endless amounts to learn.

Always Find A Job

This reason is a bit superficial, but you instantly have job security. If you’re ever, and I mean ever, unemployed, speaking rare, difficult languages will solve your problem and quickly. Where there isn’t a translation position (which there always is), there are other corporate positions that just need someone to relay information between two global units of the same company. Talk about breathing easy!

Secret Eavesdropping

Oh, the things people say to each other when they’re alone… or think that no one can understand them. This one is especially lucrative, because you can always pretend you don’t speak a native language and hear both sides of a negotiation. Of course, this also comes with a downside: people say stupid, annoying things all the time. You’ll never again have the illusion that people abroad are less obsessed with the superficial than people in your country.

This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I'm happy not to eavesdrop on.
This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I’m happy not to eavesdrop on.

Insane Dreams

Have you ever had one of those bilingual dreams, where one person is speaking English and then in your dream you’re trying to come up with the German words for your response? And then French or Korean or Spanish comes out of nowhere and you wake up super confused? No? Just me? Well, if you can fluently speak and understand every language, everywhere, then you’re going to have some absolutely crazy dreams. That’s pretty cool.

Better Informed

You know when the news only reports one side of an international story? You know when all the newspapers all say the same thing, because there was only one person who was able to translate the Cantonese and that exact translation is the same source for every TV station? Speaking every language would put an end to these limited information scenerios. You could tune into foreign broadcasts, read the newspaper in Spain and even shoot out an email to a contact in Ghana. You would be the best-informed person around.

LEARN spanish travel informed
Learning Spanish means you can read about news in all of South America, from South American sources. That’s pretty valuable.

I’m going to let out a little of my teacher side, now. While it’s probably impossible to learn all of the 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the entire world, it’s totally possible to cultivate a little slice of this superpower. Just by virtue of being able to read this, you’re already able to communicate with nearly 10% of the entire world (a little over half of those people speak English as a second language). If you learn Mandarin, just one second language, you’ve just upped your percentage to 20-25%, depending on that ESL overlap. If you learn Spanish, with 406 million native speakers, you’ve just racked up another 5% of the world with whom you can have a conversation, not adding in second language learners.

You see what I’m saying here? You can actually have 1/4th of a superpower, if you want. Yeah, it’ll take a few years of hard work and looking like a fool (with your pants on the ground! Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And true, it’s not something you can mindlessly do, you’ll have to put in the time and effort. But you could have one fourth of a superpower! Isn’t that awesome?

That’s why I’ve written a language resource page for Korean and shared other updates on my life, while studying other languages. If other people are inspired to study a foreign language, then they are actively making their own lives better. I’ve experienced these benefits firsthand and they are real. They are significant.

And for me, all of those reasons are what keep me going in my own language studies, be it German, Spanish or now Korean. It’s always, always been worth it. And I can promise it would be for you, too.

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7 Ways South Korea Has Changed Me

I’ve been a little retrospective lately, as my contract comes to a close this Christmas. A year and a half isn’t really a long time and the time has certainly flown by, but when sit down and really think about my earlier self, I realize that I have changed a lot. Some of these changes are surprising and others simply hilarious. (I also suspect that landing in the USA will reveal an entirely new host of transitions that I didn’t even realize I’d gone through.) For those hoping that my weird, not that funny sense of humor would be one of the things vanquished during my time in Asia, I have some sad news for you: my jokes are still horrible. Get over it.

I Stopped (Binge) Drinking

I mentioned this shortly in my earlier reflections after a year post, but this is a huge contrast to my college years. Grandma plug your ears, but oh my gosh did I drink a lot and do some really, really dumb shit. I guess everyone does, but my senior year most people had cleaned up their act and I was still drunkenly stubbing toes and getting rides in police cars. Anyways, those days are over. Either it was my overwhelming and new-found maturity, the $25 price tag on a taxi home (living in the countryside does that) or perhaps the uncomfortable reality of Korean-made beer that tastes like water, but it isn’t actually refreshing. By some strange combination of elements, I stopped drinking anything but occasionally and now actually enjoy my sobriety. I don’t even know who I am anymore.

I may have stopped binge drinking, but Koreans did not.
I may have stopped binge drinking, but Koreans did not.

Road Rage

I’ve always been a patient driver in the USA, allowing people to be stupid, slow down in the middle of the freeway and calmly maneuvering around them. I used to let strangers merge ahead of me during rush hour, and condescendingly reprimand my cousin when she screamed at cars on the way to Denny’s. Those days are also over. Driving in Korea has made me an angry, angry, unforgiving and ruthless driver. My mouth is about as clean as my bathroom floor 95% of the year and thank goodness my windows are tinted because I have flicked a lot of birds. As soon as I step out of my vehicle, though, all is well and I’m a content, zen-like human being again. Still to be determined: if my road rage will diminish in the USA or if it’s here to stay.

Nothing Sudden Phases Me

I’m not talking about ghosts popping out from behind a tree here. I’m talking about life’s little surprises, also known as the tendency of fellow Koreans to not tell you what’s going on until immediately before it happens. Like when I have several extra classes and I’m told at 9:15am that morning. Like when my coworkers are missing, I go to find them and discover it’s picture day, my turn to sit and I haven’t showered. Like when all of my classes are cancelled for unexplained reasons, then rescheduled, then cancelled again, all within a three hour time span. I’ve become a strange life-events Gumby and sometimes it weirds me out. Today, some martial art competition was happening next to the building where my class was and some strange competitor decided to show me his abs. I calmly shut the classroom door and continued with teaching. Sometimes I walk around a corner and see the building that was there yesterday has now burned to the ground. Interesting. Next week it’s two new restaurants. Korea’s taught me to just roll with it.

So you went camping on the sidewalk... interesting.
So you went camping on the sidewalk… interesting.

I Understand How Studying Works

Yes, this was the skill set that I was supposed to learn in high school so that I could use it in college. In reality, I was too smart for my own good and somehow just remembered enough from class to get by with A’s and B’s. I honestly graduated university without knowing how to really, hardcore study. Insane, right? That’s not to say I’ve never studied in my life, I have, but not for long periods of time and never on a schedule. Korea, land of kimchi and student suicides because they study too much, made me realize that I totally didn’t even know what real studying was. Learning Korean to the less-than-stellar level that I’m at now required me to really sit down, study and then repeat. Regularly.

Honestly, I still really suck at studying. But at least I understand now how the whole thing works, and how to do it successfully, even if I’m not always able to execute it well.

I’m a Modest Dresser

The USA and South Korea have a complete opposite view of modesty. Arms and shoulders and chest are scandalous when they’re shown off too much in Korea, but in the USA, a v-neck shirt is pretty standard and certainly nothing to look twice at. Tank tops are everywhere. Hell, belly shirts are totally in fashion now. But none of that flies in South Korea, particularly in a professional setting, even more particularly in a rural professional setting where you work with a bunch of middle school kids. Even outside of work, I live in a building full of single, middle aged laborers and a town equally as populated with grandmothers. I just don’t feel comfortable going anywhere in a shirt without sleeves. Or shorts that look sexy. Or a shirt that is v-necked and wide shouldered. Yeah, that tube top I packed has definitely not been put to good use, and I honestly don’t even feel comfortable in it anymore. I don’t see us having a very promising future, that tube top and I.

I Like Spicy Food (or at least can always tolerate it)

My older brother was always the one with sixteen different hot sauces from Arizona sitting in the family kitchen. At least one of them had a skull and crossbones on it. I always, always ordered mild salsa with my burrito and did not participate in the extended family Quaker, Steak and Lube atomic wings challenge. (Yes, this really happened.) Well, in Korea I’ve had no choice but to eat spicy food all the time. Spicy chili paste is a staple ingredient in, well, everything. Ever. To enjoy my time and food in Korea, I’ve had no choice but to go in with an optimistic, “Yes! Spicy! I’LL EAT THE SPICIEST THING YOU HAVE AND LIKE IT, MUAHAHA!” attitude. Somehow it worked and now I kind of like spicy food. Some of it. Anyhow, I’ll be trying that medium Mexican salsa from now on.

Chili peppers, kimchi and other unidentified red specks? Alrighty.
Chili peppers, kimchi and other unidentified red specks? Alrighty.

I Don’t Care About Beauty

Korea is a really superficial culture sometimes and rocks their plastic surgery capital of the world title with no shame. Even more uncomfortable, the only compliment I get when I meet someone is that I’m pretty. The people I least expect sometimes surprise me by whipping out their new Dior brand foundation with a big smile. To add to it all, South Korean women are straight up tiny. I’m officially an extra large size in pants when I go shopping, as opposed to my usual single digit pants size in the USA. Instead of worrying about being up to snuff, I’ve found myself completely rejecting this obsession with image. I haven’t touched my high heels in months and partially in an effort to be an example for my students, mostly because I stopped caring, I haven’t worn make up more than three times in the last six months. I don’t even know how much I weigh, because I can’t justify spending money on a scale. My style has now become the style of being clean, wearing clothes and brushing my hair regularly. I just can’t be bothered to care about looking more “beautiful”, because it simply doesn’t matter to me anymore.

I’m a free spirit, ya’ll! Who wants free eye shadow? Because there’s no way I’m making space for something so useless in my suitcase, this time around.

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