Tag Archives: foreigner

Screams at Midnight

I woke up suddenly to screams coming from the road below my apartment. I jumped up and went to the window. It was almost midnight and the road was deserted. Then I saw the small figure shrinking back against the wall on the edge of the streetlight’s circle of light.

night alley

What should I do? I had only been in the country for two weeks and I didn’t know the language beyond basic phrases. I stood there for a few moments, listening to the cries and praying other neighbors would call the police and relieve me of any responsibility.

The windows across the road from me remained dark and I saw one light go off and unseen hands pull the shutters closed. So that’s how it was.

I thought of just going back to bed, but how could I sleep like that? How could I stand by and do nothing while someone was suffering? I had always been appalled at stories of people who heard muggings and murders going on outside their apartment and did nothing for fear of getting involved. On the other hand, I didn’t want to go get involved in something that was none of my business.

Finally, I got dressed slowly and went to the door. I would at least go try to get a better idea of the situation. I went down the stairs and peered out the front door.

The figure—it was definitely a woman—was in the same defensive position, but I could not see anyone else. I took a step outside, still scanning the shadows. The fact that she was apparently alone alarmed me almost as much as if someone had been there beating her.

I walked into the circle of light and the woman abruptly went quiet. The next thing I knew, she was clinging to me, looking back over her shoulder at the empty road. She was talking to me, fast, but I had no idea what she was saying.

She seemed to be in her 20s, long black hair, and almost freakishly thin. Her skin was cold against my arm. Strangely enough, she smelled of wood smoke, a smell I have always loved.

“Uh, are you okay? Okay?” I said. She gave me a look of incomprehension.

What was I supposed to do? Finally, I asked, “Do you want to come up for tea? Tea?” I made a drinking motion, then hoped she didn’t interpret it as alcohol. I remembered the word for tea and said it and she nodded.

I lived alone and my apartment was not exactly neat. I blushed and tried frantically to clean up, at least superficially, as we walked in. She didn’t seem to notice—just sat on the couch and looked around. I was glad she had calmed down, at least.

As the water was boiling for tea, I tried to make small talk, which is very hard without a common language. I showed her my language study book and she seemed to approve. Then we silently sipped at our tea and smiled at each other when our eyes happened to meet. Finally, she stood up and took a deep breath.

“Thank you,” she said, one of the few phrases I knew in her language. “Thank you, thank you.”

“No problem,” I said, completely forgetting the appropriate response.

She walked to the door and put on her shoes.

“Uh . . .” I began—she had walked out with my mug in her hands. But then she turned and gave me such a radiant smile that I let her have it. “Have a good night,” I said. “Bye bye.”

“Bye bye,” she said, in English, and giggled.

The next day, I asked my landlord about her. It took him a few minutes to understand. “Ah, I know. I know the girl,” he said at last. “Yes, she is not . . . not okay in the head, you know? Sometimes she cries at night on the street. Don’t worry, don’t worry.”

“What happened?”

“Years before, she had a boyfriend, he was very bad. He hit her a lot, very badly. Then one day he hit her on the road right there and she hit him back with rock and killed him. No trouble with the police—not her fault, but after that she not okay in the head. If you see her, don’t worry.”

“Okay,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I had made her tea in my apartment and that she hadn’t seemed crazy to me.

Two days later, I opened my door to go to work and found my mug sitting in front of the door. It had been washed and was stuffed with money, mostly dirty and wrinkled bills. There was about $25 worth in all. After that, other cups and containers appeared in front of my door, all filled with money. After six months, I had over $300 collected.

I didn’t spend the money—I felt bad just having it. I wanted to give it back, but I never saw the woman again. I looked for her but couldn’t find her. No one seemed to know where she lived. Based on the smell of wood smoke, I even wandered out into the forest, wondering if she lived in a cabin out there.

Even now, a year later, the money still comes from time to time. I’ve thought of hooking up a camera to catch her in the act. I just want to tell her thank you, that I don’t need the money, that I want to know more about her. All I can do now is study the language and keep my eyes open.

What else can I do? What would you do in my place?

The Foreigner Card: Privilege Through Ignorance

Don’t you wish you had a get-out-of-jail card for small annoyances? If you’re a buxom blonde, maybe you do, but an easier way (at least if you look like me—neither buxom nor blonde) is to move to another country. In my case, Korea.

I’m not sure about other countries, but in Korea, we call it the foreigner card. It is an acknowledgement that as foreigners (i.e. non-Koreans), that along with all the disadvantages of living in a foreign culture, we have certain privileges by not fitting into the cultural system. It’s one of perks of living over here. Let me give you some examples.

  1. You are driving and run a red light. A policeman pulls you over, but upon seeing you’re a foreigner (and assuming you don’t speak Korean) he lets you go because he doesn’t want to deal with the situation.
  2. You want to return something at a store without a receipt. They refuse, saying it’s not the policy. You give them a blank look and keep nudging it towards them, saying juseyo (please give me) and eventually they just do it to make you go away.
  3. All the teachers at the school are going out to eat. Although there is mandatory attendance, you don’t want to go, so when they tell you about it—in Korean—you give a big smile and say, in English, “see you tomorrow” and just go home.

Now some of those are accidental and some are deliberate, but you get the idea. The idea is getting away with things that other can’t simply because we don’t fit in or people assume we don’t understand (or we pretend we can’t). Here’s why it works.

  1. We stand out. – I will never, ever pass for a Korean. I did have one man ask me if I was Korean, but he was either drunk or a bad guesser. I don’t stand out like a sore thumb; I stand out like a missing limb. If you happen to be black, then you stand out even more. Because of this, it is very easy for people to make judgments about us before we even speak. Here are some of the common stereotypes: foreigners don’t speak Korean; they don’t understand the culture; they’ve just arrived in Korea; and they insist on others speaking English.
This means "foreigner" in Korean

This means “foreigner” in Korean

And so on. The point is that even before I open my mouth, the other person has formed an opinion of me in their head.

  1. A lot of the stereotypes are true. – I’m not trying to bash foreigners living in Korea: I am one, and even though I speak Korean now, I didn’t when I got here. The truth is that there is a huge demand for English teachers here and speaking Korean is not one of the requirements. People often come for a year and then leave, which means they don’t have the time or motivation to learn much of the language. Because of this, they are forced to interact with Koreans with what they have: English and gestures, which can be frustrating for everyone involved. Some Koreans get so tired of going through this time after time that they just try to avoid it. Some shopkeepers type the price into a calculator and show it to me because they assume I wouldn’t understand them if they said it.
  2. Korean culture puts a high emphasis on service. – When you are a customer in Korea, then you are a king. Tipping isn’t practiced here and it’s very common for shopkeepers to throw in a bit extra or something free, just as good service. You run across people who don’t want to serve foreigners, but usually they will err on the side of good service.

On one hand, it’s very nice that people make exceptions for us at times, since as I said before, a lot of it is deserved. It is very humbling to live here without knowing the language, since you have to rely on others to help with a lot of things: setting up an account, going to the doctor, buying a cell phone, etc. However, some people try to game the system by pretending they are more ignorant than they are. Since people already assume we’re ignorant, why not use that to our advantage, right?

I try not to use the foreigner card if I can help it. Mostly because it’s dishonest if I deliberately pretending to be more ignorant than I am, but also because after living here for so long, I really want to fit in. I am very tired of always being the exception, even when it’s beneficial.

Also, I want people to know I speak Korean, because dealing with foreigners is very stressful for a lot of people. Koreans feel that because they study English in school, they should speak English when they meet a foreigner, not that the foreigner should speak Korean. I can see the fear in their eyes when I come into their shop, as they desperately try to remember everything their middle school teacher said while they were talking in the back of the class. So, I try to speak Korean as soon as possible to put them at ease. You can see some of them, usually younger people who have studied English, visibly deflate with relief when they realize you can speak Korean.

So, there it is: a way out of minor difficulties based on stereotypes, real and perceived language barriers, and cultural misunderstanding. Still, it’s nice to have it if you need it.

"Waygook" means foreigner

“Waygook” means foreigner. Source

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