This is part 3 of a series on forming friendships between Koreans and expats. It sure isn't the final word on the subject, but maybe it's a start.
In some kind of search for balance, because I can only represent the expat's side of the equation, I asked a few of my "Korean Korean" readers to contribute some advice and insights from the other side. Those posts will alternate with these ones, in an effort to redress the imbalance. Here we go...
Tip 10: Be different. Almost every time a Korean approaches me to start a conversation, they start off with the same questions:
Where are you from? How long have you been in Korea? Can you speak Korean? Are you married? Why did you come to Korea? Do you like Korean food? What's your job? ... and so on. Honestly, it gets boring answering the same questions every time... which means that if you ask all the same questions as everybody else asks me in the first five minutes after you meet me, my first impression will be that you're terribly boring: a bad start for a friendship.
Repetitiveness is bad. And sometimes frightening. (gif from here)
Most of the common questions are perfectly good ones, so feel free to ask them later in the conversation, but not all at once right after you meet me, OK? If you ask more interesting, and more varied questions, I'll be more interested in talking to you again.
Tip 10.1 Here are some questions that are too personal for the first five minutes after you meet someone. Save them for later, if you ask them at all.
How old are you? How tall are you? Is your hair naturally blonde/curly/red? (How would you feel if I asked, “Are your eyelids are real or surgical?”) "Tell me about your family" is always better than "Are you married?"
Tip 10.2 These comments are strange or uncomfortable in my culture:
Any comment about someone's personal appearance, even positive things, too early in a conversation. "You are very handsome" or "You are very beautiful" is a strange thing to say to a person right after you meet them: it sounds like a pretty strong come-on. It is especially uncommon for men to compliment another man's looks in North America.
"You have a small face" and "Your skin is so pale!" -- these are not considered compliments to me. Nobody pays attention to big or small faces where I’m from, and "You have pale skin," to many white people, is like saying, "You're looking a bit sick."
"Your skin is pale" makes most white folks think of something like this: (source)
not something like this:
"You have nice eyes" is better than "you have big eyes".
"You look like (famous western person)." This one reminds us of that stereotyped and racist saying "they all look the same to me" -- especially when every curly-haired man looks like Tom Hanks, every blonde woman looks like Nicole Kidman, and every bald man looks like Bruce Willis. Don't say this one unless I really, really, really do look like the person. Imagine traveling in Europe and having people tell you that you look like Jackie Chan or Lucy Liu. Again and again and again.
Tip 10.3 Just Annoying:
"Are you from America?" (non-Americans HATE when people assume they're American. Imagine if everybody said "Konichiwa" to you during your tour of Europe.) "Where are you from?" is better.
"What do you think about Korean women/men?" (basically means: "I want you to flatter the people of my country.")
"Can you eat spicy food?" (unless we're about to order a meal together, this one is strange, especially because the stereotype that foreigners can't eat spicy food isn't always true.)
Not. Always. True.
Tip 10.5 Very rude in our culture:
Any comment about somebody's weight, any negative comment about someone's looks.
I've heard so many expats in Korea complain about well-meaning people saying things like "Are you sick? You look really terrible!" Once I was giving level tests at my adult language school, and the first words the student said when he sat down for the interview were "you look terrible!" He wanted to show concern, or interest in me. Instead, he offended me, and made me immediately dislike him. Just sincerely ask "How are you doing" or "You don't seem well...is everything ok?"
One last thing: if you ask "Is your girlfriend Korean?" and your tone sounds like you don't care if she is or not, I don't mind answering, but if you make the question into a big deal, I wonder why you care about it: you're talking to ME, not her, and if interracial dating is a big deal to you, I start thinking you might be a little bit racist.