I’m walking to the bus stop because it’s finally a decent day after all the cold and freezing and wet that is winter. Finally, I can walk with just a light jacket. I have my headphones in, not loud enough to thoroughly enjoy but quiet enough to hear a motorbike come up behind me on the sidewalk. Safety first.
Except it’s not a motorbike that comes up behind me. It’s a regular bike. And the guy pushing it is yelling “excuse me” at me like I’m thoroughly enjoying my music. Which I’m not so he’s really loud.
Usually I humor strangers on the street, and I’m still hopeful it will turn out to be a good thing someday. I’m optimistic.
I keep walking but I take my headphones out to be polite, and he starts in, pushing his bike and walking just far enough behind me that I have to turn my head uncomfortably to make eye contact. “I saw you walking. I see you are foreigner.”
I reply, but not in English. Something about being pointed out as foreign is not impressive enough to give him what he wants. So I say, in Korean, “Are you Korean?”
Sometimes it’s not safe to reply in a language different from what a stranger speaks to you. Part of me was hoping that he was not Korean and he might recognize that I was putting him in a box, just like he had done to me a second ago.
Alas. He is Korean, understands me perfectly, and has no idea that his greeting has rubbed me the wrong way. He is also nervous and probably has planned what he is going to say next because he is already saying it.
“We can be friends! You can teach me English and I can be your friend.”
I have a sliver of benefit of the doubt to grant him. Maybe he just sucks at English and is meaning to make a polite request, but can’t.
I decide to switch to English to prove to him that I am an English master. “What do you do?” If he wants to be my friend, maybe a friendly conversation can bring out the best of him.
“I am a student. I go to school and I play music at night. I play guitar! But I have no money. Stop stop stop stop, I live up there. (pointing to a side street we just passed) Are you married? If we are married, we can’t meet.”
I stop walking but keep my distance. He closes it. I decide full disclosure is best. “I’m not married, but I have a boyfriend. I think we should not meet anyway.”
I expect awkward silence but there is none because he’s talking again.
“Good, if you are married we can’t meet. Boyfriend is okay. We can meet in a coffee shop and you can teach me. I will be your friend.”
“No.” There’s the awkward silence. “I work for a church. You live up there? The church is close by. At the church, I teach a beginning English class. If you want to learn English, you can come to the class. Everyone is welcome.”
“Okay, but I want to meet you so yo…
“No. I’m very busy.”
“Kakao talk ID give me.” The equivalent of getting my phone number, except that he doesn’t get my actual phone number and I can block him much easier if I need to.
I put my ID in his phone. I figure I will remind him about the church English class later.
He finally lets me go on my way after some more denied friend requests, and I pretty much end up just walking away.
This happens to me often, and I usually offer that I work for a church that has a service in both English and Korean, and they can speak to me there. But what I would really like to tell them is that:
- A foreigner is not for sale by friendship. We have our own friends already. If you want me to do something free for you, do my grocery shopping.
- A foreigner might teach English… FOR MONEY. Why do you think we will give a stranger free lessons?
- Please don’t ask the invasive questions that are okay in Korean culture but taboo in many others. Ergo, are you married, how old are you, do you have kids, how much do you weigh? All of which have been enquired of me by a stranger.
But here’s what you can do.
- Say hello (English language check), and strike up a conversation if you’d like to practice. Good questions are: Where are you from, how long have you been in Korea, what do you like about it, etc. Want to be friends? Be interested in us instead of what we can give you. At the end say it was nice to meet you and ask for contact information. For example, “It was nice to talk to you. Do you want to get coffee sometime? I know this awesome cafe that I take all my friends to.” See what I did there? Magic, you’re friends now. By making a friend, we will be teaching you de facto through conversation.
May I point out that if you already have a foreign friend, at NO POINT in the friendship is it okay to request us to teach you English. No matter how good of friends we are. It always turns the friendship into a used-user relationship.
Be more specific in your request: ask nicely for us to explain a certain phrasal verb, or ask for clarification of past perfect tense for your upcoming test. And if you have a report or something you want me to help with, you do all the work and I happy to help you by checking it.
More recently, while on vacation in the U.S. I received a text message from an acquaintance. “Katie, when your English class?”
I explained I don’t teach a class at the moment- it’s summer- and besides that I was gone for 2 weeks.
“Okay but I want to learn English.”
I left it at no response until I notified him of my return to Korea. Suddenly, he shows up at my work place- with a notebook, ready to study.
I asked if he had a textbook. No. Did he study on his own? Yes. How? Nothing. Why did he want to learn English? English is important for getting jobs these days, so he needed a good test score. He confessed he forgot what he learned in school.
I led the conversation into what he had done during the summer, and what he was going to do this month. He had some travel plans that were interesting to talk about, so it lasted for a while. But then I broke the news.
I was currently working, and that did not involve tutoring him on work time. Nor would it ever, but if the church held a class again, I would be sure to let him know. He could attend an academy that would provide structure, a book, and people to study with. Or he could pay me to tutor him at the going rate- 40,000 an hour. I also had a professional tutor friend who would gladly take him on for 60,000.
He looked sheepish when I said I was working. He looked hopeful when I said I would let him know if there was a new beginning English class. But then he looked distant when I suggested an academy, and he looked angry when I stated my rate.
I’m not sorry. I am sorry that expectations on foreigners seem to be out of whack.
Koreans, is it common to use friends like this? Should I know that this is normal?
Fellow Waygooks, how do you handle these awkward conversations?