Monday, March 22, 2010

Wanna Chat with Foreign Beauties? How to Make Friends with a Foreigner Part 2

This is part 2 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.

Tip 4: Be open. My favorite line in Avatar was when the Navi told Jake why they couldn't explain their culture to the human scientists: "You can't fill a cup that's already full." This is true of foreigners, too. If your mind is already full of ideas about foreigners, you'll miss the chance to get to know ME. My name is Rob, not Foreigners, not Canadians, not English Teachers. Even if your friends know a lot of foreigners, it's better to forget everything you've heard about foreigners. Even the positive stuff. Not all Canadians are polite, not all African-Americans are athletic. Not all Koreans are good at math, are they?

Tip 5: Be ready (to speak Korean). If I speak to you in Korean, answer me in Korean, especially if your English level is lower than my Korean level.

[UPDATE]: I forgot to mention this, but I don't want to make it into its own point: If I DO try to speak to you in Korean, please respond to me as an adult communicating in your language. Being told "You're cute when you speak Korean" is frustrating and patronizing.

I'm speaking Korean to communicate with you, not to entertain you: your language is a language, not a party trick, so please stop responding to my attempts to speak your language as if I'd just performed a really great party trick. Listen to what I say, and answer. Don't congratulate me as if I were a six-year-old who just tied his shoes for the first time.

"Good boy! You speak Korean SO WELL!"  (that's how it feels)

Go ahead and praise my Korean if I'm doing well... actually doing well. Giving commands to a taxi driver after living here for four years doesn't count as doing well, and doesn't warrant a "You speak Korean very well!" If I've been here for a month, it does.

Tip 6: Be confident. It makes a big difference. Don't focus on your English mistakes, and never apologize for your English ability. A lack of confidence leaves a bad impression. Saying, "Sorry about my poor English" is like saying "please ignore the zit on my forehead" - you're only drawing attention to it!

If you're nervous about approaching foreigners, don't forget that most foreigners in Korea are excellent listeners, because we talk to second-language English speakers every day. Just relax, and talk, and focus on the person, not yourself, and especially not your grammar. Try your best, have a good attitude, and I’ll do the same.

Tip 7: Be brave: for a long time, I never started conversations with the Koreans around me because I was worried I'd embarrass someone who didn't speak English well. You’ll probably have to start the conversation, because I can't tell if you can or can't speak English by looking at you. Getting out your English study book when you're sitting next to me on the subway usually isn't enough, either, unless you're a very attractive member of the opposite sex (if that’s true, all these tips are more flexible). If I gave you my phone number, send me a message or phone me: that's why I gave it to you!

Tip 7.1: If the English book you are reading on the subway is about a topic that interests you (say, travel photography), rather than something that gives no hint about your character ("TOEIC Vocabulary Level 4" "Tuesdays With Morrie") I’ll be much more interested in a chat with you, if I have the same interest.

Tip 7.2: Either talk to me, or ignore me, but please please please don't stare at me. Making eye contact three times is about the limit: after that, you have to either talk to me, or stop looking. This is especially true for men staring at female foreigners, and triple-especially-super-true for staring at female foreigners' body parts. They know you're staring at their breasts. They always know. Just trust me on this one.

Tip 7.3: Also, please don't talk about me in Korean where I can hear you: most foreigners know the word for "foreigner," and we can tell by people's voices and body language when somebody's talking about us. Almost all my most uncomfortable moments in Korea involve staring, or people talking about me in Korean, not realizing that I can understand them.

Tip 8: Be more than an English speaker. By itself, speaking the same language is not reason enough to be friends with someone. Think about your Korean friends: you like them because you share some interests, or some experiences in life, not just because you can practice your Korean together. Foreigners are the same: we prefer being around people who have something in common with us. If English is the only thing we share, it's probably not enough for a good friendship, unless we live in a place where there are very few English speakers in town.

This is especially true in cities with large foreign populations. Instead, as I described before, develop some interests, and look for facebook events related to them.

Tip 9: Be honest. We're smart, and we can tell who's sincerely interested in being friends, and who actually just wants free English practice. It shows in your body language, your voice, your eye-contact: everything. If you want English lessons, be honest about it, and negotiate a fee. Don't pretend you want to be friends, when you really just want English practice.


Unknown said...

Excellent list. I believe that this can apply to any country, not just Korea, but for the sake of consistency, I'll put my additions in the Korean context.

-Don't constantly complement on our ability to speak Korean unless you really mean it. It gets really tiring to hear it every time we open our mouth, even if all we say is "hello." (Also, the fact that we hear it less when we can actually speak the language better does make us wonder)

-Another don't is to constantly complement our ability to use chopsticks. Yes, most of us come from the land of forks and knives, but that doesn't mean that we were never exposed to chopsticks at home. Furthermore, anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a chopsticks country and still doesn't know how to use them is probably not interested in the local culture or getting to know you, or they are really slow and have trouble controlling their hands. For you to act surprised when we can use chopsticks feels condescending.

-If you really want a foreigner to warm to you quickly, especially if you think that person has been around for a while, try approaching them first in Korean. While they might not understand much Korean, the fact that you were willing to take the chance that they did instantly sets you apart from everyone else who has to hear it first hand to believe it. It means you actually see us as capable of learning your language, even when you don't know us yet.

I might have more, but that's all I can think of for right now. Interesting story about the first one. Most of my Asian experience has been in Japan, where the foreigner/local relationship is very similar to the Korean context and I met a group of people who I was speaking Japanese to until I started speaking English to the Finn in the group and one Japanese lady told me "Oh, your English is so good!" in the exact same tone of voice that Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese say "Oh, your Japanese/Korean/Chinese is so good!" I think that it's safe to say that that experience made my day.

Alex said...

I loved both of these posts. ...Especially about the staring and the boobs. It is true, women always know. :)

Brian said...

Great points, Michael, and Rob I especially like #2.

As somebody who was trying to learn Korean, and who didn't like being the boob trying to force English on people, I spoke in Korean as much as possible, and, yeah, my Korean is better than most Koreans' English. I guess that made me a dick, but you know what, I came halfway around the world, I earned it. There are countless opportunities every day for Koreans to learn and use English, so there's no reason to pester the white guy and belittle him by insisting on trying to use English.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Getting the Red X Of Death on that acne image, here. But no worries, I'll just mentally fill in my high school graduation photo.

Roboseyo said...

ook. Which browser are you using, TSI? It shows up fine in firefox and chrome.

James Sutton said...

Smartest thing I ever read.

It's good to show both American and Korean mentalities when discussing this. I see no bias. If I ever go I will be sure to remember these wonderful tips.

koreanboy said...

i read well how you feel towards korean. As u said, korean usually laugh at when the other foreigners are trying to make some sentences in korean, its because we feel appreciate not making fun of you. it's just our culture to respond in such a way, so .. better understand though you 'll feel insulted or some sort of it.