Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How to be a Foreigner

“To cement a new friendship, especially between foreigners or persons of a different social world, a spark with which both were secretly charged must fly from person to person, and cut across the accidents of place and time” - Cornelia Otis Skinner.

There are over 250 000 foreigners currently living in Seoul and of these, I have met no more than a hundred. These meetings have generally happened by chance, involved either alcohol or the intention of drinking and taken place at English-speaking friendly locations: westerner bars, mutual friends' birthdays and plays. What these factors have led to is a dangerous belief that these environments are where I belong and where I can find my people. At the first shared word with an American, Canadian, South African, British, New Zealander or fellow Australian I think to myself, here I have found a friend based on the one tiny similarity that we share in language. What of the millions of other factors that go into building a friendship? Why do we insist on greeting one another based on just one fraction of who we are?

Halloween Had Its Moments

Unusual as it may seem, this year's Halloween celebrations gave me a perfect reflection of the expected behaviour between a group of westerners. Our costumes, designed in spirit for deception and surprise, offered another set of greetings that we foreigners have long perfected. It may be a safety reaction that we turn to in times of uncertainty; being unsure of what we are approaching we attempt to simplify it with recognisable overtures. Halloween was an environment rife with examples and I was one of the worst - upon seeing a friend my first words weren't, 'so how was your week' or 'what did you get up to at school' or even, if applicable, 'are you feeling better?' It was one of two comments: 'what have you come as' and 'I love your costume'. By dressing up we created yet another impersonal platform from which to communicate. It didn't matter that the conversations we had after these initial moments were much more involved. They all began with the same desire to determine and catalogue. After waking up the next day, costume either rubbed off or missing, I realised why the night before had seemed so familiar, despite me having never truly celebrated Halloween before. My behaviour was identical to how I greet every new westerner I come across, and how they respond to me. There is always one question and one answer: 'where are you from', followed with either 'I've been/lived there' or 'that sounds nice'. Every single time, this is how I attempt to create a relationship with these people and the reason lies within our shared label as foreigner. If I met someone in my home country I would probably ask what they did for a living or which area they called home but as all foreigners I meet generally live in Seoul and are teachers, this avenue has also been taken from me. We have pre-knowledge before we even meet a new person and while this should drive us to be more creative in our creating a friendship, we take the easy road and use a foreigner greeting template. And what do we ask after we've secured the home country of the person: 'where are you going after this?' Have we really just skipped over the entire present tense of a person's life? What of their experiences in Korea, their jaunts to nearby lands, their miseries and triumphs and new found loves? There seems to be a pattern amongst foreigners where we assume our experiences in this country are all in all similar and so we leap to subjects removed from the immediacy of now. We react to what we recognise not in ourselves but in the greater scheme of foreigner politics.

A Big Wide World

Personally, I think Koreans have the right idea. When speaking to someone, be it a taxi driver, waitress or subway traveller, they are much more interested in what I think of Korea as opposed to where I've come from. True, most assume that I'm American and when I tell them Australia they often mistake it for Austria but all this really does is make my origin unimportant. Their interest in me comes from how I relate to the country I currently live in, not how I got there. They want to know which parts of Korea I've seen, what food I eat, where I go to drink or dance and every time I answer them I realise that I've rarely been asked these questions by another foreigner. This baffles me. These details are a fantastic jumping point for any conversation because they are full of relate-ability. 'You like kalbit'ang? So do I. There's a great place in Suwon that you should check out.' Think of the opportunities missed ignoring these details. This is a problem I haven't experienced with the locals; my friend wanted to know which exactly was my favourite type of kimchi, if only to look smug when I told her I loved them all. This of course is good old Korean-style pride, a powerful force; one man asked if I loved Korea or Australia more and my answer received quite a talking to until I said 'of course, it's very beautiful here'. Despite this, their attitude is such a refreshing way of communicating that I find myself seeking out Koreans for conversation. The problem, ironically enough, lies in the language barrier. It seems that finding the best of both worlds is a near impossibility. Those I can speak to are interested in a life I no longer live and I haven't the ability to talk to those who want to share in my present. I just don't have the words.

Despite my opinions on foreigner relations, I have met a lot of truly excellent westerners since arriving in Korea with whom I've experienced culture and custom. While writing this I thought about the people I've come to know, through proximity or by chance, and I understand why we share our lives the way we do. What more do we have in common with a new person if not what we immediately recognise? This was the reason I waved to other white people while travelling through Nepal, and why hearing an Australian accent in the bowels of a Yorkshire club would set me looking for its owner. When in a country that speaks my language, I am drawn to a familiar accent and when in a non-English speaking country I search for words I know. We foreigners play it safe with each other and ask the easy questions because we need to cling to something we ourselves feel: communication ultimately leading to conversation which, if undertaken by two friendly people, has every chance of developing into friendship, however begotten.

Lara promises to ask the next foreigner she meets if they have ever watched a biopic of Hunter S. Thompson and not loved it.

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