Monday, March 29, 2010

Wanna Chat with Foreign Beauties? How to Make Friends with a Foreigner Part 4

This is part 4 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 11: Be careful. Don't ask any question where the answer might upset you, and don't expect me to answer questions the same way most Koreans would.

For example, let's take the question "How do you like Korean women?" - a somewhat common question. When somebody asks this, it seems like a trap to me, because there's only one answer I can give: praise. It’s like the stereotyped girlfriend who says, "Do I look fat in this dress?" - she doesn't want an honest answer. She wants a compliment. Fishing for compliments is insincere and a sign of insecurity. Why is it my job to make you feel better about your country's women?

Next problem: what if I give an answer you didn't expect, or won't like? What if I had some bad experiences with Korean women, so I say something really nasty? Are you ready to accept that answer, and talk about it, without getting defensive? If not, don't ask the question. This is why I usually refuse to answer the question "What do you dislike the most about Korea" -- because too often, the person who asked the question got upset when I answered honestly. Clearly, they didn’t think about whether they really wanted to know my answer to their question. This kind of awkward situation will kill any chance of a developing friendship.

Tip 11.1: Don't be surprised if I give a different kind of answer than you'd expect, either. I probably won't repeat the talking points covered in the Korean media, because I don't read Korean newspapers or watch Korean news, and I don't always share the opinions that are common among Koreans. Basically: be aware of what you're getting into if you ask about controversial or hot topics, particularly ones that involve nationalism, China, America, Japan, and especially Dokdo.

Tip 12: Be considerate. Don't introduce me to the stranger parts of Korean culture unless I ask you to, or please prepare me for what's coming. A student once told me about taking his new foreign coworker out for Korean food, and suggesting he try Fermented Skate (홍어/Hongeo), without telling him what it was.

It’s not really surprising that the new coworker lost all interest in trying Korean food, and ate sandwiches and western foods for the rest of his time in Korea. By introducing his partner to the weirdest parts of Korean cuisine first, and treating parts of Korean culture as a practical joke to humiliate a colleague, he caused the coworker to completely close his mind to other Korean foods that he might have liked.

Introducing the weirdest parts of Korea first will usually have three effects on a foreigner experiencing culture shock: 1. it'll make her lose interest in learning more, and 2. it'll make her feel like an outsider who could never fit in, and 3. it'll make her resent you for using her to show off that you ARE an insider, while she isn't. It’s disrespectful to a person to make them feel like an outsider (this is why it’s also impolite to talk about me in Korean while I’m sitting at the table with you, especially if everyone present can speak English.) It’s also a terrible recipe for a friendship.

Some foreigners DO want to try boshintang, bundaegi, sea squirt, and hongeo, some DO want to go to a full-length pansori performance, or see the bullfighting in Cheongdo, and look around the dog market in Moran. If I want to do those things, and you've agreed to introduce me to Korean culture, I'll ask. However, many of us would rather experience the side that's easier to handle, and if you introduce the weird stuff to me without context, without preparing me, or explaining that most Koreans don't like hongeo, either, that dog meat is less popular than it used to be, or if you play the "do you know what you just ate?" game, I'll start thinking of Korea as a weird, backwards place full of strange people who eat and do strange things, and who certainly enjoy rubbing my face in the fact I’m not one of them. Is that the impression you actually want me to have? Moreover, is creating that impression worth the cheap laugh you got when I bit down on that sea squirt and made that funny face? (That actually happened to me, and it was very embarrassing.) Korean culture is not a prank to be played on outsiders, and treating it that way is a disservice to foreigners, and to your own culture.


kignusonic said...

Have you ever considered writing a book about this and all your other thoughts on Korean culture? I would definitely buy it.

stacey said...

I remember my three korean dorm mates asking me if I find them beautiful, and who among them is the most beautiful. Duh?! How am I supposed to answer that? I was tempted to tell them to find a big mirror and decide for themselves. Instead, I smiled and politely replied that each of them is beautiful in their own unique way.

Roboseyo said...

Yeah. That question is a minefield, along with "how old do I look" and "does this make my butt look fat?" -- but to be fair, I've been asked all those questions by non-Koreans as well.

orthostice said...

I got asked the 'do you like korean women' question a lot in the first couple months I was here. The response I hit upon, and which I think works well in many situations, was "I like all sorts of women" or something like that. It was always met with a good chuckle from coteachers.