Thursday, May 31, 2012

South Korea: Annoying Things that Foreigners do, written by a Foreigner

On this last day of Asian Heritage month, I bring you another episode of "Annoying things that Foreigners do, written by a Foreigner", the South Korean edition. This segment was guest written by my good friend Ryan Patey, founder and editor of T.O.F.U. Magazine and about a zillion other projects. Currently, he lives in Daegu, South Korea, as a children's book editor. As a side note, I would like his job.

Here's what Ryan has to say:

By no means am I a seasoned traveller, but sadly after spending six months in South Korea, and taking two trips to Thailand, I believe I've seen enough instances of foreigners doing annoying things that I can write about it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not pulling a "holier than thou" routine here. I'm just as guilty as anyone else on most of these things, but I think calling everyone, including myself, out on this shit could do us all a world of good. Or it might at least help to avoid giving the people that live/work/play in the countries we have the privilege of visiting another headache from our shenanigans.

So, in no particular order, here are a few pet peeves I've come to develop over my time outside of my homeland:

1) Assuming the person you need to talk to understands English, or any other native tongue outside of the one their country has been using before and after you graced them with your presence.

Despite the efforts of various powers, and perhaps even your fine teaching skills, English has not wiped out every other language. It's done a great job of erasing a lot of them, but there are still a number of them to keep things interesting enough to make you walking into a Burger King a minor cultural experience for all involved (I’ll admit the lack of a veggie burger was no major shock, but I’m still not sure what a bulgogi burger is!). Don't start it off on the wrong foot by assaulting someone with the language you think everyone should know simply because you do.

Simply asking if the person knows English can go a long way. If they’re comfortable with using English, then you’re good to go. If they are not, then break out the guidebooks, online translator, or whatever else you can think of to find a common ground. Just don’t act like the onus is on them to cater to you. It’s not.

2) Assuming the people around you do not know English and thus you can judge them, their country, their culture, or some other element of their lives even while they're within earshot.

Even though it may sometimes seem to you like everyone you need to communicate with lacks a basic understanding of English, assuming that the people next to you at the cafe, bar, or bus do not know what you're saying while you express to your friend how funny it is that the locals do this, their food tastes like that, or their country smells like something you'd rather forget is just ignorant. If it ever puts you in an awkward situation of having to apologize to someone, I hope they know enough English to truly put you in your place.

3) Disrespecting authority figures and/or local rules and customs.

Just because they may not be able to communicate easily with you in English does not mean those with authority deserve any less respect than a similar figure in your home country. Similarly, if you don't understand a rule or custom, it doesn't mean you should ignore or ridicule it. Granted, there are some things that are simply wrong and deserve to be questioned, but I’m thinking more in terms of the little things like keeping quiet on a train or not taking pictures of temples, important monuments, etc…

If the locals are not thankful for your actions, or you’re doing it covertly and giggling at the same time, chances are you fall under this pet peeve.

4) Complaining about how you would kill for a "normal" anything.

You're in a foreign country. What you grew up with is not "normal". It's all relative, and acting as if the things you know are the universal standard reeks of far too much bullshit to dissect here. If you're going to travel, soak in the world around you. It's all "normal" to someone, and having you whine about how "backwards" something is because it's not like your country is just a sign that you’re probably not really ready to “see the world” yet.

5) Spending your time out with friends (both local and foreign) by talking about how strange something is compared to back home, and how silly it was for it to be different from what you have grown to expect.

You don't enjoy sitting and listening to someone criticize your culture, pastimes, neighbourhood, etc… How do you think someone else would feel about it? Not to mention the fact that you're most likely alienating some folks in the group when you could be including them by talking about a million other things. You have common interests between all of you; don’t make the evening be about how great maple syrup and back bacon is compared to fermented cabbage.

6) Complaining about the price of something or arguing/bartering with someone to lower a price when it amounts to a simple dollar or two less out of your pocket.

I know there are a million and one arguments for and against this whole cultural experience, but I think I'm still mainly on the side of the fence that thinks privilege should be heavily considered in any transaction like this. Personally, if someone wants to ask a higher price of me based on my appearance, and it really only means another $1 or so out of my pocket, I'm fine with that. They’ll probably get more value out of that money than I would in a country I don’t know.

7) Not taking the time to learn a few simple and polite pieces of the local language.

Chances are, if you're able to handle jumping from hostel to hostel, and working out the coolest spots to eat, drink, and play, you can probably take the time to learn how to be polite in any given country. A lot of times, even though you may sound like a small child with poor grammar, simply showing that you made the effort can help to improve your experience with the people around you. Plus, it helps smooth things over for all the times when you do the other things on this list.

8) Complaining about a lack of respect from the locals and believing it’s because you're a foreigner.

See all of the above for reasons to keep your mouth shut about this one. Maybe you’re just being a jerk.

So, let's leave it at that, shall we? I'm sure I can probably think of more, but I'd rather not dig up other memories of my past experiences, as well as my mistakes. At least, if you keep these in mind you'll be doing everyone a favour, and we can all enjoy the experience of being able to see what this world has to offer without pissing off everyone along the way. We've got politicians for that, right?


Other "Annoying Things Foreigners Do" posts:
Namibia, by Gloria