Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wanna Chat with Korean Buddies? How not to make an Ass of Yourself: Part 1

Ooh, dear expat readers:

You thought I was going to let you off the hook, didn't you? You thought I was going to put all of the onus on the Koreans who approach us, to defer to our cultural uniqueness, to be the one who comes to us, to adapt to our special situation.

No flippin' way!

Halfway through preparing this series, I realized just how high-handed, and totally unbalanced, the series was coming out to be... due to the fact I can really only present one expat's point of view, and generalize from there, it's not surprising the viewpoint was one-sided, really...

but I wasn't going to be satisfied with that: maybe you remember this post, where I requested some of my Korea born-and-raised readers to contact me... the reason I did was for this series, so that I could ask some of my Korean readers and friends: "What are the things that foreigners do, that annoy or frustrate you?" and present the opposite side of the equation when a Korean and an expat meet, and unintentionally annoy each other.

So interspersed between posts with tips for Koreans trying to be friends with foreigners, are posts with tips for westerners to avoid being "that foreigner" to your Korean friends.

A lot of common complaints were connected to that awkward and (let's admit it) needy situation where one is asking one's Korean friend to speak Korean on his/her behalf.

[Update: Kimchi Ice Cream has a great post that basically takes this exact theme, and applies it to the school situation. If you want to endear yourself to your coteachers, read Jason's rundown of the 14 behaviors that will quickly have the exact OPPOSITE effect.]

Tip 1: Be Appreciative

See, good expat, you're lucky to have a Korea friend who has the forbearance to do this for you, and you really should be appreciative and grateful to the friend who's helping you out. Seriously.

Yeah, I know it's frustrating living in a country where suddenly I can't pay my phone bills on my own anymore... but if you have a Korean friend who is HELPING you pay those phone bills, it's the barest of good manners to take a break from resenting Korea for not being an English speaking nation, and to show some gratitude toward the people who are helping you navigate the ins and outs.

And before whatever objection comes into your head, ask yourself: when was the last time back in your home country, that YOU helped that Bangladeshi family that moved in down the street, sort out a dispute with their landlord? Yeah that's what I thought. Bear that in mind next time you're thinking about making yet another needy call to your Korean buddy.

If your Korean friend has agreed to help you out by speaking Korean on your behalf, that's great, and you're lucky... but it's also helpful to be a bit thoughtful about what you're asking them to translate.

If you give them a speech like this one to translate:

recognize that you're being a bit of a douche, and very definitely a high-maintenance person, and don't be too surprised if that well runs dry kind of fast. If you really must order that way, learn how to explain what you want yourself... but also recognize that that's usually not how folks roll in Korealand, and you might find yourself butting your head against a wall, not because of the language, but because NOBODY orders takeaway food... but also an extra serving divided in half and packed evenly, with one of the halves not spicy, but the other half spicy but vegetarian, and with extra side dishes double-wrapped in saran wrap (for the smell) and can you deliver the spicy half to a different address than the plain half, and do you have a frequent customer card? Seriously, keep it simple, you clown!

If you do have complex things to cover, make sure everybody's clear before heading into the electronics shop or whatever: draw a picture, make a checklist, talk about it beforehand, and get your ducks in a row.

Tip 2: Make an Effort: If it's your first month in Korea, and you don't speak a lick of Korean, your generous-hearted Korean friend will probably let it slide, yah? But if you've been here for six or ten or twenty months, and you're still looking to your Korean buddy to help you order a tuna kimbap ("Sorry: I always forget the word for tuna!") then you're being a bit helpless now, aren't you?

Learn to read hangul before the end of your second month in Korea. It's not hard. Learn the names of your favorite foods, and if you have predilections for or against certain things, learn how to explain it yourself. Learn the word for "vegetarian" or "milk allergy" or "I die if I eat peanuts" or "I don't like tomatoes" and know how to talk to the cabby.

Even better: instead of looking to your Korea friend to speak for you, ask him/her to teach you the phrases you keep not knowing how to use. Seriously: make at least the effort to pick up survival Korean as quickly as you can, if only so people don't keep looking at your Korean friend and wondering why she/he is hangs out with mentally challenged foreigners.


Unknown said...

Some fair (albeit glaringly obvious) points I suppose, I guess that by now you should be fluent in Korean? I have no idea how long you have been in Korea but if it has been more than two years then you should be close to fluent in the language.

Galinaros said...

@ Buddy
That's terribly presupposing :P

I'm no Picasso said...

Fluent in Korean after two years? Clearly Buddy has been working very hard on his own Korean if he thinks that's reasonable. Let's hope Buddy has the same kind of expectations for his students in English, as well.

Good stuff, Rob. And very, very needed. Keep it up.

Roboseyo said...

I make a lot of fair, but glaringly obvious points in the companion piece, Buddy; it's only fair to be equally high handed towards both sides now, isn't it?

ggko said...

if this behavior is so glaringly obvious, why don't half of the foreigners I know see they are doing this?

would you take a saturday to help your foreign neighbor or coworker if you were living back home? i have seem it many times here "take me to immigration!" "help me buy furniture!"

the foreign residents in the states have to find their own means of getting what they want. they probably live far out of their comfort zones, but we cannot... must enlist every available korean in the vacinity to get a LOW FAT latte "WHY DON'T YOU HAVE LOW FAT??! WHAT KIND OF COFFEESHOP IS THIS ANYWAY?!"

Jason said...

Fluent in Korean in 2 years...uhm, what are you sniffing?

Rob, nice work.

Jason said...

Just realized I should probably write the inverse of my blog post:

Coming soon (?)....Western English Cultural Taboos and Korean English Co-teachers

Or some title along those lines....

Should be a fun one to write....well, if the trauma of reliving some of the taboos doesn't get me in a mood..


Roboseyo said...

I'm pretty sure there have been entire blogs devoted to that exact topic, Jason.

Jason said...


Okay....well, I'll do some research....

I know everyone writes about Korean teachers breaking the taboos, but it's the HOW they do it that I think might be different with the way I'm thinking of writing it up.

- define the taboo
- illustrate why it's a problem
- give KETs strategies on how to avoid breaking the taboo
- use language that is as objective and neutral as possible

I suspect that I won't find much if any writing that fits that criteria.


Roboseyo said...

Yeah, I was mostly jesting there, Jason: there have been entire blogs dedicated to whining about that topic... but I'll bet the ratio of helpful and edifying discussion of Korean coteacher faux-pas to griping and whining about Korean coteacher blunders is pretty low, and yeah, especially given that your site is already a storehouse of useful info for Esl teachers, it'd be suitable add your bit to the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Roboseyo. I think you hit the nail on the head with your Tip #2. The only thing I'd add is that when making Korean friends, we're all ambassadors in that we're probably their first and only foreigner friend. So what we do, say and how we act shape their views tremendously. But once you get past that become their real chingu, all bets are off. :)

Jason said...

Hi Rob,

Sorry for missing the jesting tone...

I was surprised by your comment cause you and I both know that vast majority of content blogging about KETs breaking English taboos is ..... not so good for trying to convince the KETs to learn about them and not break them.

Anyways....yeah, that one went right over my head, lol.


Roboseyo said...

if i may ask,,is it easy to live in korea please answer me and thank you

Roboseyo said...

about as easy or hard as anywhere... that is, it depends on a lot of factors.