#8 - Say “hello”
If there is one word that is known well in this country, it is hello. And I can tell you that the word hello is not one that the Korean people are shy to use. When I arrived in Korea, I was told that people would come up to me and want to speak, and not necessarily in English, just to speak with a foreigner. I kind of just thought yeah, ok and didn’t think much about it after that. But then I started my life here, I started exploring the city, I started taking public transportation, and I started having strange conversations with the locals.
There is a very popular park right in front of my apartment building and every day I walk through it on my way home. I cannot tell you how many times I have walked through that park and been approached by a stranger that just wants to practice their English or simply be hospitable to a foreigner. I was writing in the park the other day, just minding my own business, and an older Korean lady ,who could not speak English at all, came up to me and started rambling away. I looked up at her from my seated position and I explained to her in my best Korean voice that I did not understand and that I can only speak a little Korean. She thought my Korean was funny… so she just kept on talking… and I just kept on staring at her with a perplexed expression, pondering the sounds that were coming out of her mouth. She was gesturing to my face and giving me the two thumbs up, which I can only think means that she thought I was sexy. It’s the only explanation that I can come up with.
Additionally, on the subway a few weeks ago, I was sitting, waiting for my stop, smart phone in hand, with 2 seats on the bench separating myself from the short Korean man to my left. As I updated my Facebook status, I noticed that the man on my left had scooted closer, now about half of a seat between us, and was now peering over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of what I was doing… or maybe he wanted to know who I was “poking”. I don’t know. I felt this man’s energy invade my bubble (very normal occurrence here, more to come later) and turned to find his face about 6 inches away from my left shoulder, staring at my phone.
"Ah!" I reacted.
"Ohhhhhhhhhh, very goooooood!" as he pointed at my hand-uh-pone.
Soju is a VERY popular alcoholic beverage here (a rice wine, similar to Japanese Sake) and this man was a dragon unleashed, breathing soju fire all up in my business. Again, like the lady in the park, he rambled on, laughing and smiling, in Korean and asking me questions that I could barely make out. I was able to catch the usual where are you from? and what do you do? and I answered in my best Korean. Two stops later, my nose and I finally escaped and I was able to breath the fresh Korean air on the street level.
As many foreigners as there are in this country, most of which are English teachers, it’s still nothing like the States. If you go to Seoul, Busan, or one of the larger cities, it is more common to find a new foreigner around every corner but still, Koreans heavily make up the majority. It’s not like New York, San Francisco, Chicago or any of the other big cities where you can find Chinatown or Little Italy. They don’t have Californiatown or Englandville in any of the cities here, the foreigners are just everywhere and not centralized to one particular area. Because westerner’s are still a very small minority, especially in the smaller cities, the locals get surprised when they see us. We are like aliens, kind of. And I prefer it this way. It’s fun to have a random stranger come up to you and say Hello. It’s a friendly gesture that A LOT of the people make which signifies that I am welcome here and it really does feel nice to be welcome so effortlessly in a foreign land.
I’ve never had a perfect stranger approach me in a park, subway, or city street back home just to say Hello, just to have a conversation… and if I had, I would probably feel weird about it, and tell that person that my mommy told me not to talk with strangers.
But not in Korea. It’s all friendly here. A simple hello seems to go a long way. Say “hello” to someone today. Ask them how they are.