As Americans we expect all, or most, of the tourists visiting our cities to speak English. Our cities swell from their interest. We curse them as they stand in packs of four or five clogging the sidewalks while they burrow in their neon fanny packs pulled as tight as corsets around their waists. We sigh and shake our heads when they order two shots and a beer and don’t tip the bartender. Then we laugh with malicious glee when they wander the room holding a dollar that no one will take. They wear heavy cameras around their necks that slump them forward like a hunchback while they read their travel books with Independence Hall glistening on the glossy cover. Or they wander around the Washington Monument squinting at the shimmering white marble obelisk while they whisper their native language to each other in a conspiratorial conversation. The vast number of tourists from other nations makes us weary of learning any language, or educating ourselves on any of their cultures. We don’t hate them, they just disrupt our routine; they’re common and plentiful and treated with curiosity when it suits us, and disdain when they are inconvenient. We soften though when they attempt to speak our language, giving us the feeling of a master guiding an apprentice.
By fumbling through a, "Thank you," or clacking together a phrase devoid of prepositions like "I run store,” they ingratiate themselves to us. Other nations are not as weary of tourists as America.
South Korea lacks the diversity of America. If you are not Korean than you are clearly a traveler. Surrounded by Japan, China, Thailand, and other popular destinations they see every tourist as a chance to improve their national reputation in the west. Being a travel afterthought, though, has left the nation with low self-esteem. They often ask me why I chose to come to their country as if it were a strange choice to make. Then they ask what I think of their country and hold their breath waiting for my answer. They wait for my answer with the posture of a housewife from the 1950s asking the other women in the neighborhood how her dinner party went. They take pride in the architecture and achievements of the nation as if they were their own. When I tell them I think their country is fantastic they breathe easily and smile. Men, women, and children often stop me, and friends of mine, on the street to practice their English. But with so few westerners to practice their English on, they don’t notice their mistakes until they are made aware of them. Or a difference in culture creates uncomfortable situations. Here is a list of the questions, comments, or chats I’ve had with different people (who will remain anonymous) since I arrived in Korea:
“Do you know about Jesus?”
“I love boobs.”
“What’s the matter with the thoughts in your head?”
“Do you have bad thoughts in your head?”
“How do I use high-five? Can I say, ‘I want the high-five,’ or do I say, ‘high-five me?’”
I showed a woman my arms, and she said, “You have tattoos.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you a gangster? I don’t want to talk anymore if you’re a gangster.”
“Can I hit you with belt? Some men enjoy it when they get hit with belt.”
“Are you a racist?” (This question was asked in the same tone this person used to ask which city I was from in America and how many brothers I had.)
“Do you want to come to church?”
“Do you know why Jesus was born?”
“Why did you come to Korea? No, seriously, why did you come to Korea?”
“Are you a racist?” (asked by a different person)
“Call me diamond ring.”
I hope, with practice, some day I can ask someone in Korean if they are racist. Or develop enough skill to say I love boobs when I’m asking for ice cream.