Monday, February 09, 2009

This Headline Reminds Me Of A Story

"Man Booked For Trying To Talk To Foreigners"

Funny headline... the story goes a few Scottish fellas were trying to have dinner when a drunk old man came up to learn English from them. He refused to leave them alone, even when the restaurant staff member intervened, and it led to an altercation between the old man and the restaurant worker.

Anyway, I've been approached for free English lessons, too. All of us have. Sometimes it's fine, sometimes it's wonderful: I don't mind if somebody practices their English with me if they're helping me to get un-lost in a new neighbourhood, for example, and used to tell my students to go down to Insa-dong and help people who looked lost for English practice. I also usually don't mind if the person looking for free lessons is funny, charming, interesting, or cute and female.

But there are also times, after a long day, or for the tenth time that day, when one wants to be left alone... and there are some places one does NOT want to be approached for free English practice.

For me, the worst ever was this:

It was two months after my mother had passed away, and my relationship with exgirlfriendoseyo was starting to come apart at the seams. Saunas were one of the few respites I had in my day, after managing a stressful new supervisor job, and having exgirlfriendoseyo not answer my calls, because she was studying for a test.

I went to a sauna, feeling like crap; frankly, close to tears. I sat in the cold pool, in the nude, of course, on my haunches, so that the water was brushing the bottom of my chin, and let the shocking cold clear my mind, when suddenly...

a very fat, very naked ajosshi (older gentleman) waddled into the pool as well, and stood directly in front of me, so that his big, fat gut, and his man-pieces completely filled my line of vision, put his hands on his hips, and rumbled, "Where are you from?"

I closed my eyes and tried to ignore him.

Not one to take hints, this ajosshi tried again. "Where are you from?"

I shook my head, which must be ajosshi sign language for "try to guess and I'll give you a free English lesson."

"America? Russia?"

I still had my eyes shut (floating man-bits, remember?), and I put my forearms into the "X" formation that Koreans use to gesture, "NO," and kept them like that until he waddled away. He ruined my sauna -- ruined that entire (otherwise perfectly good) sauna for me, forever -- I've never been back there since -- and may have set back my entire grieving process for a half a month.

Later that evening, I asked a Korean friend to teach me how to say "I want to be alone" -- a phrase that has come in handy from time to time.

To any Koreans reading this: do NOT approach foreigners for English practice in...

1. a sauna, or any other place where the foreigner you want to approach is partly or mostly naked, or partly or mostly sweaty
2. if you have seen the person be approached once or twice already, at the coffee shop, gym, or restaurant where you see them
3. if they have an unhappy look on their face, or if they're reading, or doing anything else where they appear focused on their task -- if their face is up, looking around, interacting with the world, go ahead. If their nose is buried in a book, back off.
4. in a sex-toy shop. It's never happened to me, but I can just imagine...
5. on a Saturday morning, if they have bags under their eyes (hangover = bad conversation)
6. if the foreigner is the opposite sex, close to your age, and he/she is with someone who might be their significant other
7. if the foreigner has his/her eyes closed (in the sauna, on the subway), or headphones on (in the gym)

On the other hand, it IS OK, and cool, to approach foreigners who...
1. are standing in front of a neighbourhood map, or looking at a map, and appear to be lost
2. are looking around the room, making eye contact with the people around them, and appear to be in a good mood
3. look bored, or lonely
4. are smiling, and climbing a mountain

and it is always OK to invite a foreigner to sit with your group, if you buy them drinks, and if you leave them alone after asking twice.

In general: don't invite a foreigner to chat, sit, or walk with you more than twice. Foreigners will be much more open to chatting with you if you give them things: food and drinks are especially effective. Laughter will do, if you're funny.

Foreigners aren't stupid, and we can tell which people approaching us just want free lessons, and which people approaching us are really, generally friendly, outgoing people who like meeting new people. If you're interested in me as a person, and not just as a walking dictionary, I'll chat with you. I have a pretty good nose for smelling ulterior motives by now. So take a real interest in us, and be fun company, or you won't get far.

We can also tell which kids are coming up to us because they're outgoing, and want to meet us, and which kids are approaching us because their parents told them to. Don't send your kid over to talk to the foreigner if he/she doesn't want to.

Just so's ya know.


Anonymous said...

So how do you say I want to be alone?

Rob said...

"Honja dehgo shipeoyo" = "Alone being I want."

Roboseyo said...

can anyone corroborate that, or lay it out in hangeul? ...I was going to, but I'm not sure if my spelling is accurate.

Thanks, Rob.

Nice name, by the way.

Gomushin Girl said...

혼자 되고 싶어? Sounds just a bit odd to me . . . I tend to use "대단히 죄송합니다만 . . ." which is a polite way to ask to be excused, followed by "좀 바빠서 . . ." followed by a pissed off "아이, 귀찮아!" and usually they get the picture. I also feign complete and utter ignorance of my native tongue.
Of course, I'd be much more eager to "practice" my English with you, too, if you were an attractive fellow somewhere around my age, instead of a strange man who has at least two decades on me. And if you're forcing your bratty child to come speak with the foreigner, please be aware that I will teach them some excellent swear words in both our native languages. Won't that be fun?

Anonymous said...

yeah, sorry about the jim jil bang incident. I think I can imagine the scenario. Terrible timing, wrong place, and basic insensitivity. Sucks.
I had a few annoying run-ins at coffeeshops where I was deep in a book or writing. It breaks my concentration and mood but I usually humor the fellow for a bit and then very obviously go back to my story. Alas, very few people seemed to have gotten the hint or if they somehow (mind-bogglingly) missed the hint, I guess their agenda was more important to them than being rude.
My worst run in wasn't for an English lesson but from a crazed, Christian ajumma who literally blocked my way along the sidewalk with her arm. I was having such a wonderful night too, reflecting on life, stories, the moonlight, etc. She probably had the best of intentions (to her mind) but she went about it so terribly, rudely wrong. Accosting people on the streets, jamming them into the corner with broken English and strange smiles, and not taking the boldest of hints is not the way to win hearts and minds. Sheesh

Gomushin Girl said...

ah, on further reflection I think "I want to be alone" would be "혼자 지나고 싶어요." (more like, I want to spend time alone . . . if you use 되다 it implies "becoming" rather than "in the state of")

Roboseyo said...

Hey GG: Thanks for that added, streamlined, "memorizable by even the shortest-attention-spanned expat" version.

I know for myself, if I try to learn three phrases at the same time, I'll forget them all, but if I try to learn one, chances are it'll stick.

Thanks again.

Becky said...

When we had only been in Korea a few weeks, I had a young Korean walk up to me and ask me where Suwon Station was in English. I was only a block away so I pointed at the station and said, "It's right there." He then asked the time which I replied I have no idea. He then asked if he could practice his English with me.

Since I was carrying two heavy bags and had a few blocks to walk, I told him if he carried my bags back to the hotel, we could talk on the way.

He was thrilled and so was I. It's been one of stories I love to tell about my adventures in Korea.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks for your story, Becky: I've also had a lot of really good experiences come out of being approached by a stranger in Korea, and it's good to balance out what makes me sound like a surly expat with the fact that, when I'm in the mood for it, or when the person's nice, being approached can be a helpful reminder of how friendly and warm Koreans are at their best.

matt said...

Good post! I still remember the first time someone approached me to practice English - a middle school girl in Kyobo Bookstore. Since it had never happened before, I was confused as to why she wanted to talk to me, and was also mystified by the way she constantly covered her mouth when she wasn't speaking to hide her smile (in the last 8 years, that habit is one that seems to me to have mostly disappeared in Seoul (either that or it's just become invisible to me)).

A guy who talked to me for a few minutes on the subway near city hall appeared on a bus near Balsan station (near where the incident with the Scotsmen took place, actually) several months later and I immediately remembered him because he covered his mouth when he talked. The problem was that he didn't remember me...

Another friend who was here doing research on Korea's political economy had a Sauna experience as well, but in that case the man making 'Where are you from' conversation turned out to be involved in economic policy, and my friend arranged an interview with him...

The Korean said...

혼자 되고 싶어요 is correct, but it makes you sound like a drama character. Here is the most natural way of saying it: "가만히 좀 놔두세요."

Roboseyo said...

:) fanks.

maybe I WANT to sound like a drama character.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience, except I was in the locker room at my local gym. There are situations where striking up a conversation with a foreigner/stranger is NOT a good idea.

Of course, there have been times where I've had fun helping Koreans practice their English.