Do You Say Hi to Other Foreigners?

This is a tough question all foreigners throughout the ages have faced.  ‘Here comes another person from where I’m from.  Say ‘Hi’?  Ignore?  Avert my eyes?  Introduce myself?’

It’s a tough thing to figure out.  It depends a lot on the actual density of your compatriots (If they’re thick on the ground the answer is most likely ‘Don’t greet or acknowledge’; if they’re few and far between you might consider asking them out to drinks), Your circumstances (Are you busy?  With someone?  A jerk?) and other factors (Are you doing something embarrassing, e.g. playing Flava Flav to a Korean rapper’s Chuck D?).  In general I say nothing, but these days I’ve been in a good mood, so when I’m in Bucheon, where there aren’t that many foreigners, I go ahead and smile and say ‘How’s it going?’ as I breeze on by, while when I’m in Seoul the high density rule dictates that I just keep walking.

Tonight I was in The Mall in Bucheon when I saw a tall white fellow walking my way.  He looked familiar, as white guys tend to, so I didn’t avert my eyes.  In fact, I was just about to give him a purse-lipped, ‘taking care of business’-style ‘How’s it going?’ when he tented his fingers, his elbows jutting out slightly, and bowed, stiff backed at the waist, butt jutting out slightly and gave a brisk ‘안녕하세요?’ (annyeonghaseyo, the standard Korean greeting).

Miyoung and I both laughed.  The guy looked kind of young, and I thought to myself ‘Well, that guy has answered the age old question of how to greet your countrymen.  Good for him!  He brightened my day.’ and various other bland, rather less than thoughtful thoughts.

Then a wave of indignation washed against me like the sea into a pier.  ‘Wait, what was with that little Chinese-looking Fu Manchu bow he gave?  What kind of racist junk is that?  Is he mocking the good people of Korea or what?  What’s the joke, and what am I supposed to take away from a dumb display like that anyway?’

Then another wave of reconciliation made its way down my spine like a shiver made of inklings.  ‘What’s racist about that?  This is like old Rosie O’Donnell’ s ‘Ching chong’ line, which I defended.  So the kid bows like a Chinese person from some movie he saw once.  His heart is in the right place.  He’s got a good attitude, he’s studying the language, I assume.  Some day he may come to a great understanding of Korea.  Who am I to judge?’

And this is the problem, I think, with the way I think.  I am in such a rush to understand things that I wind up repeatedly coming up with opinions, countering them, then countering them.  The good thing is, I avoid really flimsy first impression-based opinions masquerading as ideas that a lot of people practically live off of.  On the other hand, I wind up with an opinion that is better than that first dumb received knowledge but not by much.

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~ by Joshing on May 27, 2008.

4 Responses to “Do You Say Hi to Other Foreigners?”

  1. I also think that your length of time spent in Korea is a factor. When you’re fresh off the boat, you may smile/nod/greet every foreign face you see. Then after a few months, you start gettin’ comfy with the culture, know a few words or phrases, have a few Korean friends. At this point, when you see a foreign person walking towards you, you ignore them.

    This phase seems to last about a year.

    After that, you realize that you don’t know as much about the culture as you thought, realize that you are, in fact, still an outsider, and begin to acknowledge other outsiders again. This stage goes on indefinitely.

    At least that is my take on it. There are other factors as well, as you mentioned.

  2. That is absolutely true. Except for me, that second period you mentioned lasted for like, four years.

  3. I tend not to greet people but in my area the men stare through me and the women glare at me. Whatever. The weirdest thing is when I’m with my boyfriend. We almost never see other white female/Korean male couples but when we do, we all tend to smile at each other. We see tons of Korean female/white male couples. Usually they glare at us and hold each other tighter. I don’t get it.

    About the bowing…my first day at my taekwondo studio here, I bowed like I was taught to at my studio back home. It was the single thing Master corrected that day. “No, Amanda, too Japan” he said. Turns out my American Master had lived under the Japanese… And I still do the head nod bow to my non-Korean friends here. I’m afraid I’ll do it for a while when I go back home…

  4. I’ve always done a kind of “nod”/head bow thing, all my life, so I didn’t learn it in Korea. When I first arrived, friends told me not to do it so much. 🙂

    I don’t tend to say hi to strangers too much. I do find myself more often nodding politely and smiling, though, these days. For some reason, I especially go out of my way to smile in a friendly way at people whom I imagine get treated weirdly here, meaning non-white foreigners. But with those whom I imagine to be the kinds of frat-boys who have annoyed the crap out of me since first arriving here, I tend not to acknowledge them, or at most nod standoffishly and not smile.

    So I guess I’m kind of in a mixture of stage 2 and 3, with a dash of misanthropy and ageism and a pinch of white guilt?

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