CAUTION: Language Barriers Ahead

“Yes, international…” the TSA employee is glaring up at me, “This is all international.” She was gesturing at the massive line for the security checkpoint.

“No, but this is international terminal G. Where is international terminal A?”

“Yes, international!” She smiles. That’s odd. The familiar jolting halt of a language barrier appears in my mind, even though I’m speaking English. Maybe I’ll just ask someone else.

My flight is nowhere to be found, and I can’t even figure out which airline I’m on, but the timing of the two flights to Seoul from this terminal appears to be wrong. I remember seeing an information desk back near my gate for the flight from Denver. As I approach, the two elderly gentlemen sitting crammed into the desk shift uncomfortably, apparently thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to have to give some information.”

“Excuse me, I was hoping you might be able to help me find my gate.”

“You need to check the TVs.” Rudely and cuttingly. As though it were a burp and not a sentence.

“Um, yes. I did, and my flight doesn’t appear to be on them. It just says ‘International’ where the gate should be. I was wondering if it was international terminal G, or international terminal A. I had hoped to avoid going through security again.”

I pull out my itinerary.

“Give me that,” he burps, grabbing it out of my hand. He holds it at arms’ length, obviously unable to read it because he’s an aging badass who doesn’t need no gotdurn reading glasses. I bite my tongue.

“Well, first of all you’re going to need a boarding pass.”

“Actually, I already have one.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Um, It’s right here, sir.” I produce the boarding pass, slight irritation in my voice. He sighs audibly in frustration, and waves me off, mumbling something along the lines of “then you don’t need my help…”

Still no idea where my gate is, and time is ticking. I approach a pair of TSA employees about fifty feet away, who appear to be guarding an escalator.

“Excuse me, could you please point me in the direction of Asiana airlines?”

“Oceania airlines? That doesn’t exist.”

What the hell? Isn’t this my native language? How is there a barrier already?

I enunciate: “No, As-i-an-a airlines. I walked over to international G, but it doesn’t appear to be there, and on the TVs it just says ‘International’ without A or G where the gate should be.”

“Why don’t you ask the information desk?”

“I just did, and they weren’t very helpful. I’ve asked a few people so far and everyone has given me different answers….”

“What time is your flight?” the woman in the pair interrupts.

“I believe it’s at noon.” She laughs, and begins speaking to me in a tone and cadence normally reserved for preschoolers and/or Alzheimer’s patients.

“Well, that’s the problem. It’s 10:00 AM, and you have to wait until an hour before your flight until they post the gate.”  Obviously my well-worn backpacking gear isn’t enough indication that this wasn’t my very first time in an airport. A brief mental check that I was actually speaking English, then that I was in an English-speaking country. Surely I was accidentally speaking in Spanish, because this just shouldn’t be this hard.

“Pardon me, but the other flights to Seoul are posted, and one doesn’t leave until 1PM.” The male rounds on me.

“Look, why don’t you just go to the Asi-whatever ticketing counter?” Angrily.

Calmly: “I’d hoped to avoid going through security again if possible. I just wondered if it is possible to walk to both international terminals from here, or whether I need to go out and come back in.”

“Well, I have no idea where it is, and you should to just figure it out! Why don’t you just talk to the supervisor!” Raising his voice now. A small crowd of travelers has gathered around us.

“But I don’t know where the supervisor is…” They close the escalator off and immediately start badmouthing me, though I’m standing in front of them. Do they think that I can’t hear or understand them? An imaginary language barrier, much more porous than they appear to think.

“I just wanted a little help. I apologize for annoying you!” Oops. Probably a little more emphasis than necessary on that last word. I walk up to who I can only assume is the checkpoint’s supervisor.

“Excuse me, sir. I’ve had three people be rude to me and tell me different things about my flight, and I just need some directions. Do you know if this flight (holding up my boarding pass) is on international terminal G or international terminal A?”

“Oh, Asiana? That’s on A. You’ll need to go out here, upstairs and then through security again. Have a nice flight!” He points me toward the terminal, and I go out to go through security again.


Nothing like a great sendoff from the US of A.

Throughout that whole lovely experience, I was thinking in the back of my head how difficult it would be to figure out if one didn’t speak English, or even if one didn’t speak it perfectly. I like to think that I have a rather developed command of the language given that I grew up speaking it and have a degree from an anglophone university. Not to mention that I’m an English teacher.

The experience of so much miscommunication in my native tongue added a new anxiety to my worries about moving to Korea. If I can’t figure out what should’ve been a simple question, and manage to offend someone so badly that they yell at me in public using a language of which I have an extensive command, what the hell would I do in a language that I cannot even speak a word of?

Luckily, language barriers are moveable things. I wouldn’t have wanted to press my luck, but maybe if I’d pretended I spoke little English the people I asked for directions would have been more helpful, believing that I was lost and confused instead of just stupid. There are fewer excuses for not understanding when the other person assumes that you should grasp everything immediately.

When I finally arrived in Korea, and lined up for the immigration check, a thrill of worry that they would be as rude to me as my countrymen crawled up my spine. I stepped forward, and the immigration officer silently and calmly gestured what I should do. Your passport, please. Fingers here, please. Look at the camera, please. Thank you, and welcome to Korea.

Not a word was uttered, which was probably best because a severe verbal language barrier exists between me and Koreans at this point. I’m not even sure I know how to say “Yes” and “No” properly.

But that welcoming silence was far more communicative than all the speaking and yelling and directing of those with whom I shared a common language back in San Francisco. Language barriers are apparently only as thick as one chooses to make them.


5 thoughts on “CAUTION: Language Barriers Ahead

  1. Glad your adventure started, even if a bit rudely. I’ve experienced the same thing in Heathrow, or, rather, watched a rude immigration person speak English loudly at the top of his lungs to an elderly Chinese who obviously spoke no English. Gesturing properly worked at the end of their frustrating encounter, just as you discovered.

    Look forward to more fun posts of your acclimation to the Korean climate/culture!

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