Monday, January 05, 2009


The Great Conversation Escape

Since I started taking the two-hour train ride from Chuncheon to Seoul most mornings and then back most evenings, something I’ve learned is that there are a lot of people on the train who want – possibly need – to give foreigners an earful.

To be more accurate, if there are 100 people using the train on a given night or morning, 99 of them may be content to sit quietly or occupy themselves in some other way. However, it only takes one person who really, really wants to have an unplanned conversation and one other person who is too polite to make him/her go away.

Even if they make up 1 percent of the train-using population, there are still quite a few people in Korea who crave conversation with fellow passengers. Maybe it’s because of my height, the distinctly not-black color of my hair, or the some other indication of my foreignness, but the person on the other end of their conversation almost always turns out to be me.

The bright side is that these experiences have offered some clear insights into their personalities and how to deal with them. Wherever you are reading this right now, I’m sure you can learn from it. The first kind is:

The Person Who Enjoys Conversing with Strangers: In Korea, this takes the form of The Korean Who Wants English Practice. Unlike in America, where high school students have the option of studying Spanish, French or some other foreign language they don’t have to actually learn, all Korean students are required to study English without not actually learn it.

Therefore, many of those who can speak English are very shy, to the extent that it would probably require enhanced interrogation techniques for them to say a complete sentence (other than “Nice to meet you”) to a stranger.

The rare Korean who not only speaks English competently, but also won’t hesitate to talk to non-Koreans is the type most train-riding expats encounter. If the expat has very little to say to people he or she has just met, well, that’s no obstacle at all, because The Korean Who Wants English Practice has a lifetime’s worth of events to share!

This person won’t just ask questions about where the foreigner comes from, whether or not he or she is married, and whether he or she loves Korea or merely likes it. He or she has numerous statements of his or her own to make, about their profession, the National Assembly member that they once met at a wedding, plus pictures of their children and/or their trip to Japan.

Occasionally, the overly conversant person user of this type turns out to be a pleasant individual; some have even offered to assist me in my studies of the Korean language. So, one should at least give them a chance. If The Person Who Enjoys Conversing with Strangers is saying nothing of import to you, your best bet is to look tired: Start yawning repeatedly, volume growing each time. If necessary, feign the onset of sleep.

The Person who’s Had/Having Too Much to Drink: I first encountered this type before I got married, when I was traveling to and from Chuncheon on weekends. Many go to the Chuncheon area for hiking, bringing not only hiking gear, but also large quantities of mekju (beer) with them.

Occasionally on their way back, the more inebriated of their ranks will spot a foreigner on the train and attempt to make conversation. They may know a very minute quantity of English, and the foreigner a similar amount of Korean, but through their alcohol tinged lenses the language barrier seems much smaller than it really is.

Also do to these lenses, the activity the foreigner is undertaking – be it reading, writing, talking on the phone with an acquaintance who has one minute to live – all seems less interesting than having a conversation with The Korean Whose Had/Having Too Much to Drink. He (and trust me, that is the appropriate pronoun) will not be deterred by your appearance of busyness. Drunk people have low attention spans, however, and after long periods of no response may move on.

However, the Korean sense of hospitality is not dimmed by drunkenness, so the foreigner may get a free beer out of the experience. Even if you, like myself, don’t drink, it’ll make a good souvenir, along with the eight extra sets of handkerchiefs your Korean colleagues have gifted you with on every major holiday since you arrived.

The Lonely Person: Many people crave conversation wherever they can get it. Now, there exists a stereotype that those who come to Korea to work do so because they can’t find jobs in their own country. This is not true; I’ve met practicing doctors, lawyers and accountants here, plus successful journalists and educators who came here for the sense of adventure it would bring. Every now and then, though, one meets a fellow expat and gets the suspicion that they’re in Korea because people in their native country can’t stand them.

They’ll come to you while you’re sitting on the train engrossed in whatever task you’re undertaking to pass the time. If you happen to look up, sensing a sudden concentration of caucasianness in your vicinity, you give The Lonely Foreigner the invite into your world, apparently for the rest of your trip.

TLF: So where do you live?

You: In (insert city).

TLF: Are you teaching there?

You: I used to but I work at a (insert profession name).

TLF: I’ve been teaching in Cheongpyeong for the past six months. I like it, but the kids can be little monsters sometime. It’s the kind of work I enjoy though, so I’ll definitely stay for another year.

You: Oh.

TLF: I used to do that kind of stuff at home in (insert country), but I was denied tenure and so I had to look into another option. I don’t know if I like Korean food but I sure do like a lot of other things you can find out here, especially the bars …

By now, their insistence on conversation should be clear, leaving you with only one course of action: Tell The Lonely Person you have to go to the bathroom. Wait there as long as possible. Peak out now and then to make sure they’re not waiting for you to come back.

It’s true wherever you go: When faced with unwanted conversation, you need to be rude. You just need an exit.

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