Please be kind.

On Friday my new head teacher told me she'll be giving the students an assignment for vacation homework. They're to go somewhere in Seoul and interview a foreigner. She asked me for my advice about how they should approach so that they don't offend.

I know foreigners in Korea have really mixed feelings about this kind of thing, but the thing to remember is that the kids themselves are not doing this of their own initiative -- they have no choice. So the idea of anyone getting pissy with them really bugs me. It's their homework.

I personally don't mind it. I like to have the chance to have a bit of a chat with students who aren't my own, but I did give my co-teacher this bit of advice: Please tell the students to remember that most of the foreigners they meet will not be tourists. Most of them will probably be living in Korea. I also said, tell the kids to remember that there are other kinds of foreigners in Korea besides Westerners. I told her to try to steer the students away from any questions that center around only Korea or what foreigners think of Korea, or to try to make them more interesting and personal than the usual. I said, every single time I'm stopped by a kid doing one of these assignments (as well as a lot of the times anyone out in public decides to strike up a random conversation), I'm always asked these questions:

  1. How long have you been in Korea? 
  2. What do you think of Korea? 
  3. Do you like Korean food? 
  4. When are you leaving Korea? 
  5. What do you think of Korean culture?
  6. Do you miss your family?
  7. What do you like about Korea? 
  8. Can you say something in Korean? 
  9. Why did you come to Korea? 
  10. What's the best thing about Korea? 
Fine enough questions, I guess. But repetitive as shit after you've been here for a while. By now, I can answer them all on auto-pilot, not only in English but also in Korean. It's not even that every single question centers around Korea, so much as that we've all been asked them so many times that it's hard not to start to disengage as soon as the first predictable question comes out. I said, if they want to know about being a foreigner in Korea, that's fine, but why not make some more interesting questions? For example, have you ever driven a car in Korea? How is it different from driving in your hometown? What are some hobbies you had before Korea that you can't do in Korea? What are some new hobbies you've started doing since you came to Korea? What's the most important thing you've learned from your time in Korea? What's a food you never expected to like, that you've started to love since coming to Korea? What do you think about K-pop? What's your favorite Korean drama and why?

These are the kinds of questions that I think will really help the students learn more about how foreigners relate to Korea, that will help them to engage in a real conversation, however slow, nervous and stunted, with foreigners.

My kids are so low level that I know this is asking a lot, but I know how creative they are and how they can make it work when they really want to. They have a lot of interesting things to say, if they are just given that little extra push to go outside of the box.

I also told her that the students should try to be as polite as possible when approaching foreigners. I've already warned them all numerous times about how, "Hey!" can come across as extremely rude, and that, "Excuse me," or, in the case that they are addressing me, simply, "Teacher!" is much better. But on Monday I'll make out a list of phrases that could help them in navigating the conversation in a polite way. She's more worried about foreigners being upset about the students wanting to record them (part of the assignment) and so I told her they just need to be sure to ask permission before everything: "Excuse me, may I speak to you for a moment? Would you mind if I record you? Thank you so much for your time."

Shit like that.

But the real point of making this post is to say this: If you happen to be approached by a teenage raggamuffin in Seoul this summer vacation, please be kind. Speak slowly and help them as much as you can. Most of them are fine with me, but they haven't had much experience at all with foreigners or speaking English outside of that. For most of them, just going to Seoul will be a big event. A lot of them are really going to be dreading having to do this. A lot. So please be kind, not only to mine, but to all of the students who are put in this position. Remember that they are someone's students, just like your own, and try not to get annoyed, and to be forgiving of their mistakes. The idea of one of my boys getting reamed out by some grumpy foreigner really makes my heart ache. So let's all agree not to ever do that to someone else's kids, hey?

Do you have any other advice I should pass along to my kids? Let me know in the comments. 


AmandaKnits said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel said...

I think your advice was great! We got stopped quite often while shopping in Seoul. We were happy to help students but didn't want go get into anything that would take too long. Maybe the students could say upfront what they were doing and how many questions they were going to ask? I don't know. We tried to be patient but sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between eager students and eager Jehovah's Whitnesses.

S said...

I suggest telling the kids to approach foreigners who are already sitting down - maybe at a cafe or something - instead of stopping people in a subway station who might be in a hurry and would brush them off. And probably avoiding approaching women who are walking alone. I used to get harrassed by the teens who went to school around my apartment all the time and at this point I just ignore teenagers even if they sound like they are trying to be friendly.

Good luck to your students! I would be terrified of doing an assignment like this. They're very brave.

JLR said...

While we was in Seoul this past May, we got stopped four times by students wanting to ask us questions for a class, and we were only there for 8 days. We were happy to do it because we could only imagine how much we'd hate it if we had to do something like that for an assignment. But we did have concerns about some of the questions.

For example, we got asked by one group "who is your favorite Korean singer" and "who is your favorite Korean actor." Fortunately, we are interested enough in Korean culture to have answers to these questions, but I can imagine quite a few tourists not being able to name anyone. That could be awkward for everyone.

Those poor students. It will be good practice for them, but oh so painful.