Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sometimes, a Good Korean Friend Can Truly Be Hard to Find

Wow! I'm in shock right now.

But let me begin with a story from awhile ago.

When I first arrived to Korea, I was starry-eyed and open to all of the new possibilities that the country could offer. I knew I would be exposed to a new culture, new food and new people. I knew I didn't speak Korean, but I was hopeful that I would be able to make good friends here easily. After all, I am a friendly person who likes meeting new people.

On that hiking trip some years ago. The woman referenced in the post is not in this picture

One day, I went on a hiking tour with a group of strangers. About half of them were Korean, and the other half were foreign students, military and teachers like me. I figured it would be a good way to meet new people.

While riding on a bus toward the mountain, a slightly older Korean woman approached me. Her English was good, I thought. She made up some small talk, asking me all sorts of questions about where I was from, and what I was doing in Korea.

When we talked about our hobbies, it appeared that we didn't have much in common. We weren't into the same leisure activities, didn't listen to the same types of music, nor did we have anywhere near the same sense of humor. We were different people, and that was okay. However, I did notice something. She stuck by me.

Throughout the bus ride and the long hiking trail, she made sure she stayed with me. The lady kept chatting and chatting with me. Even when I wanted to just walk, she seemed to always have something else to say. At the end of the day, she made sure she got my phone number.

Once she had that, she kept texting via SMS and calling, asking about when we were going to meet up again. She really wanted to hang out with me. Was she my new Korean friend?

Sense anything wrong yet?

It didn't take long for me to realize that many of the Koreans who speak the most English also happen to be the most aggressive. These particular people seem to be so pushy. They're always talking to you when they get the chance, bothering you on street sidewalks and in subway stations, urging you to talk to them. They're always looking for "friends" and they seem to always be after your phone number.

Whether I'm actually interested in them never seems to figure into the equation.

So, what was wrong with the lady on the mountain? I already mentioned that we pretty much had nothing in common, but more importantly, she was after my English.

Due to the English craze in the country, many of the locals are trying to get more of it in order to get ahead in different areas of their lives. Most Korean students studying English at private academies (called "hagwons") are children, but many adults study in these institutions as well. Other adults seek out private tutors to improve their English. The broke student variety is more likely to rely on language exchanges for real practice.

Then there's a 4th, rather sneaky type of an adult Korean English learner. They are the ones actively seeking out foreign native English speakers for one-sided "friendships." They can be found any place where foreign people congregate.

It's important to watch out for people's motives
I know that I have to watch out for these people in particular, because they easily make up the majority of Korean folks looking to "hang out" with me. The obvious downside is that the supposed friendship is only for their benefit, not mine.

Aside from these pretenders, there are the men who aren't interested as much in English, but rather in using it to have sex with women they deem exotic.

While I am female, I am also very much a woman from a western country. My way of thinking is far different from that of many Korean women. As a result, I tend to have little in common with the local women. That means I interact with Korean men more often.

This can also lead to cultural issues, which leads toward a more recent situation:

One day, I went for brunch with someone whom I considered to be a friend. We chatted daily and got along very well as friends. After we finished eating, he asked for another (Korean) friend to meet us, and he jumped the moment he saw me. When the friend became suspicious and asked questions, he claimed I was his language teacher and abruptly asked me to leave, saying that we should "have class" in two weeks.

In that case, I felt like I was thrown under the bus in order to appease his friend.

So, there you have it. As a foreigner, especially one that's not considered to be a "trophy," I also need to watch out for Koreans who don't have the capacity to uphold our friendship when culturally challenged.

That was certainly a learning experience. While I always need to watch the type of friends I make, with Korean people, this is true at least three times over. When interacting with people, I have to calculate their motives and demand respect.

It's truly hard work having to do so much filtering!

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