It is never easy to travel alone in Korea without a native guide and it can be exasperating to communicate with the locals who are only able to converse in their native language.
However, a big surprise awaited me when I visited Seoul last April.
While looking around a cosmetic shop in Myeongdong, downtown Seoul, I was astonished when a friendly sales assistant asked me in Mandarin if she could help me.
The same incident occurred when I was shopping at an underground shopping mall on Jeju Island. A Mandarin-speaking sales assistant even offered to explain the benefits and the usage of the skin care product when I looked puzzled over the content that was only available in Korean.
After exchanging a few words with them, I realized these sales assistants mostly came from China and migrated to Korea through their marriage to Korean men.
In recent years, due to Hallyu, or a boom for Korean pop culture abroad, the number of Mandarin-speaking visitors from Southeast Asia, China and Taiwan has increased significantly. Most of them share a keen interest in Korean pop culture and even attempted to learn the Korean language through watching Korean dramas.
While English still plays a vital role in promoting tourism, knowledge of Mandarin could also aid as a support in assisting visitors who are only able to communicate in Mandarin.
Learning Chinese is getting more popular as China emerges as a world economic power in the 21st century. More Korean parents are sending their children to Chinese institutions for private lessons.
Even my Korean tour guide told me that he's now learning Mandarin from his Mandarin-speaking tour members through simple communication.
Saying ``Ni hao'' (hi), a friendly sales assistant approached me when I entered a souvenir shop at Cheong Wa Dae. ``Ni hao,'' I responded.
``Qing man man kan'' (please take your time and look around), she said in halting Mandarin and I could see that she was a native Korean.
Within 10 minutes, I picked a naval blue T-shirt from the rack and proceeded to the counter to make my payment. As I was about to leave the counter, the sales assistant bowed to me and said, ``Xie xie ni'' (thank you). She said it not once but twice and as a foreigner, yes, I was indeed touched by such a friendly gesture.
Chua Chern Nee
Fourth-generation Chinese Singaporean