Invisible Barriers: Culture, Language, and Social Hierarchies

by SoYoung Choi

Written for Diversity and Difference (LARTS 221, Fall 2013)

Social categories such as race, appearance, gender, economic class, and religion shape who we are as individuals and how we identify ourselves. They represent differences between people, and those differences become the basis for inequalities. Inequalities make invisible barriers between dominant and sub-dominant groups of people that cause miscommunication and discrimination intentionally or unintentionally. Invisible barriers are not obvious in life, but they are substantial elements in social relations. Invisible barriers made by different cultures, language, and social hierarchies have changed my character and the way I interact with people. These barriers limit my ability to express myself, others’ ability to understand my qualities, and my social and professional opportunities. However, as I have begun to overcome these barriers while interacting with people of different cultures, languages, and ages, I have become more adaptable and positive about those differences.

            Assumptions created by prejudice about different cultures define and limit the way a person relates to people from another culture, and cause them to generalize about these people’s personalities. Moreover, when people face another culture, incorrect assumptions often lead to communication difficulties. Once unfavorable sentiments are embedded in the mind, it is difficult to have friendly conversations or become closer with a person from another culture. When I first came to the United States, I often thought that Americans were rude and disrespectful. It seemed that they did not respect their elders in the same way that Koreans do. In Korea, people are respectful to their elders, and the word “friend” literally means people born in the same year. However, in America, everyone is able to become friends with each other. Once, I was surprised by a story I heard about a student who almost made a professor cry because the student kept pointing out the professor’s mistakes, and was being very picky. I couldn’t imagine how a student could act in that way to a teacher, and how no one stopped the student. In addition, in America, it is natural to call teachers by their first names, whereas this is forbidden in Korean culture. These cultural differences made me think that Americans were disrespectful and rude, and these negative assumptions made it difficult to make friends with Americans. I didn’t want to approach my American peers at first because I didn’t know how I should behave toward them, and because I was reluctant to be friends with someone who had questionable moral standards. Because of my passive attitude, my American peers had difficulty getting to know me. One of my American friends, whom I became close with after two years of knowing each other, later said that at first he thought I didn’t want to talk to him or that I disliked him. Incorrect assumptions and passive behavior based on these barriers cannot be resolved until we realize that our assumptions about each other are wrong. Now, I don’t think Americans are rude or disrespectful. They are friendly and gentle, and this culture makes everyone closer even though they are different ages.

            The language barrier is another key element that shapes relations between cultures and limits communication, expression, and knowledge. Speaking English as a second language makes it difficult to express myself and understand my English-speaking peers. The conversational topics between my friends and me are limited to casual subjects, such as the weather or our school day. Often our conversations come to a halt due to my lack of English vocabulary, especially if we are having a deep conversation. Also, because English is not my first language, I often have trouble communicating with my teachers. I’ve never had a long conversation with my violin teacher. Not only am I shy to speak, but I am also not comfortable speaking naturally in English. When my violin teacher asked me what I thought about a passage or what kind of sound I wanted, our conversation would often falter until she started to give me options. My silence created a misunderstanding between us. My teacher thought I was afraid of her and that I believed that she was mad at me; she kept saying “I never get mad unless you lie to me,” “Don’t be afraid of me!” or “I am a nice person.” Similar to the way that people make assumptions based on cultural differences, here there were assumptions that limited our understanding of one another because of the language barrier. Later, the teacher downloaded a dictionary application on her phone, and whenever I was looking for a word she asked me to look it up. Also, I think trying to say some words without being afraid of getting them wrong is important, because then the teacher knows what I think or what I am looking for, so she can make it clear and lead to a good result. 

            Still, the language barrier limits my own sense of intelligence, my ability to express myself intelligently, and other people’s impressions of my intelligence. I read news and other articles mostly in Korean because Korean is my native language and takes less time to read. Also, before college, I learned everything in Korean; however, I often feel foolish or unintelligent when I cannot express or explain something that I know in Korean, but do not know how to say in English. For instance, a Korean student who went to college in Korea had a lesson with my teacher, and the teacher asked her what the sonata form was. The student knew the answer but she couldn’t explain it in English. My teacher thought she didn’t know about the form and started to explain the basic idea. She also told her to take a theory class, even though the student already understood the theory and didn’t need the class. According to Beverly Green in “What Difference Does a Difference Make,”

The information communicated about [people different from us] and the impressions formed of them are shaped by many complex sociopolitical and economic variables that may have little to do with the reality of who ‘those’ people really are. (5)

In this case, the teacher incorrectly believed that the Korean student didn’t know basic theory, only because the student couldn’t express her knowledge in English. I also often feel frustrated by these kinds of situations, and I become afraid of what people think about me. Having a dictionary would help solve the problem, but people who are not used to English need to try hard to learn English musical terms when studying in America. They also don’t need to be frustrated in these situations, but just be motivated to learn more and more things. Also, it would be helpful if they could explain the term in English, without fear of mistakes. 

            If our different cultures and languages have made barriers between Americans and me, Korean customs also make barriers between Koreans and me, even though we have the same culture, and use the same language. As I wrote above, the word “friend” is used only for people who are in same grade or born in same year, so people who are younger and older than me are not my “friends” in Korea. Therefore, there are age gaps between people close in age, just as there is a generation gap between people who are distant in age. Since we need to be respectful of our elders and the relationships between younger and older peers is strict, we feel our elders are distant, and it is uncomfortable to make eye contact and interact with them. To be respectful, action, behavior, and attitudes are limited to trying to be kind, nice, honest, and polite. For example, my middle school had some funny customs. On the school bus, first-year students would sit in the front, second-year students would sit in the middle, third-year students would sit in the back. There was almost no communication between these age groups, and first-year students could not talk loudly or ask to watch something on the bus television because they were afraid of the third-year students. I remember my friends would bow their heads in the hallway, because if they didn’t, they would get punished by the third-year students. We even have a lot of formal ways of speaking to anyone that is older. These customs cause a barrier that makes people feel distant from others they know well but who are different ages, and that limits what people can do. Many Korean companies lack creativity because of this custom. Since disagreeing with a superior’s idea is treated as being against the “superior,” people just follow the idea even if it has problems. The custom is good in some ways; it makes work fast and efficient, but often ends in failure. It is good to respect elders, but elders should not abuse the power of their position, because it makes a gap between generations. 

            Michael Zweig stated that “We are of course all individuals, but our individuality and personal life chances are shaped—limited or enhanced—by the economic and social class in which we have grown up and in which we exist as adults” (130). In my opinion, not only economic and social class, but also customs and cultural difference have affected my individuality and personal life chances as well. Many different barriers created by different customs and cultures have limited my understanding of others, and limited my personality or changed it into new personalities that made me confused about my original identity. I feel that my personality significantly changed after I came to the United States, where I have more freedom but at the same time where I was forced to be extroverted. After I noticed my personality was changing, I was afraid of being a different person, and I had to take time to find my identity again. When I went back to Korea in 2013, I was happy because I could play music with my Korean friends and was dreaming of a great experience with them. However, I felt so different from them. How I rehearsed with people in America and how my Korean friends rehearsed were very different; my Korean friends just read the music, and there was no discussion about it. I felt lost among them, and I was very surprised at the difference. However, it was not true that the new culture and customs of America had had only a negative influence on me. I learned how to express my feelings and how to feel and play music differently, but I am still trying to keep the good values of my culture: respecting people and controlling my words in front of people. Therefore, if someone asks me, “so do you prefer to stay in one personality or one social culture?” I would say I would rather not, because now I know that I am growing up and maturing through facing complexities and struggling through changes.   


Works Cited

Green, Beverly. “What Difference Does a Difference Make?” Diversity in Human Interaction: The Tapestry of America. Ed. Larry C. James. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. 3-20. Print.

Zweig, Michael. “What’s Class Got to Do with It?” The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class, Sexual Orientation, and Disability. 6th ed. Ed. Karen E. Rosenblum and Toni Michelle C. Travis. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. 130-133. Print.


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