all my life, i have never met so many first generation immigrants from korea as i have in the past few months of living in nyc. of course when i lived in korea, i spoke plenty of korean to just about everybody. but they weren’t immigrants. they weren’t speaking in korean with me instead of speaking in english which might be a more difficult language for them. and when i moved to u.s. i have mostly lived in college towns, where immigrants were harder to find unless you were talking about grand parents or great great parents, etc. so imagine my surprise with different treatment, better treatment when i speak korean in dry cleaners (just this morning got 5 dollars off 15 dollar asking price for fixing my pants), hair salon, deli, some of the restaurants (not all because ones in korea town or some parts of flushing, practically expect you to speak in korean it feels like), and lastly, i just got a job offer partly due to the fact that i’m bilingual.
why are people, immigrants, nicer to you when you speak their native tongue? are they nostalgic for their own country back home? probably not. are they grateful for not having to speak in english? maybe, but most of the people who can speak conversational english do it all day long so what’s the difference of not speaking in english for a minute or two? only thing i can think of is that when someone, even someone who looks like korean anyway, speaks in korean, seemingly choosing to instead of speaking in english with them, i think first generation immigrants just like it. they like knowing 1.5, 2nd generation or people whose english has no accent can still speak korean. and boy when they hear practically no accent korean from people who they might not have expected, i think they just appreciate the respect for choosing to speak in their native tongue and the fluency just makes them happy.
and then there are cultural factors. in english, you don’t have much way of showing deference to elders. you show more formal respect to strangers perhaps, but never out of respect for elders in ways that koreans are used to. so then when you speak in korean to people who works in stores or elsewhere, you can show repsect in ways that english limits you from expressing. and saying familiar or idiomatic phrases gets a chuckle out of people and a smile. i find that i speak way more korean now with strangers in nyc than i ever have. when i lived in boston i only spoke korean with my parents once a week or so on the phone. but boy oh boy in nyc, it’s every other store you walk in to where i get an opportunity to put a smile on someone by speaking in korean. it’s nice. it’s weird that it works even though i was made in korea and raised in korea. people might expect me to be fluent in korean by the way i look pretty much unmistakably a korean. but no. my experience has been that people are gracious and happy when i choose to speak in korean to them even though they know i can speak english and i know they can too.