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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Korean Inquisition

The GREAT majority of Koreans I meet go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. 

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to respond to a text and an old man came over and, in perfect English, asked if I needed directions somewhere. 

Sitting on the subway last weekend, a woman came over and asked where I was from. This 60-something woman told me that she had started teaching herself English over the past few years and pulled out a battered notebook full of vocabulary words. I was impressed by her initiative in learning English but she insisted that it was just something that interested her. 

Running up the stairs from the subway, I tripped and fell. Everyone walked around me and I wasn't hurt. But as I stood in line for the bus, an old woman who had seen me fall walked over and just put her hand on my arm and smiled, gesturing to my knee before walking away.

I had another fantastic people experience yesterday. I sitting on a bench at the park when a woman (she later told me she was 51) sat down opposite me. She asked, "American?" and when I said yes, she started asking questions.

Anna didn't speak fluent English, far from it. The conversation was mostly Korean with just enough key English words so that I could respond to questions and have a vague idea what she was talking about. I even used my extremely limited Korean skills to tell her where I worked and how old I was

Yes, how old I was. After establishing the basics like where I'm from and what I'm doing in Korea, Anna began finding out my life story. How old are you? How old are your parents? Do you have any siblings? What do your parents do? What does your sister do? How much money do you make? Are you married? 

It was like being on trial! Anna was trying to be friendly and I appreciated that, but it's so different from a typical first conversation in America. Americans are often reproached for being too forward upon first meeting someone -- Watching the English mentioned how horrified Brits are when Americans strike up a conversation by stating their name and job -- but this went beyond anything I'd ever experienced. 

However, I appreciated Anna's interest. Even though we certainly didn't always understand each other, how many Americans would approach a stranger in the park to try out their fledging language skills? I'm guessing not a lot. I also realized how much Korean I've picked up living here, even though I can't say much beyond, "Hello, how are you?" Using English context words, we were actually able to communicate.

An ajumma with a coffee cart walked by. You see these old people a lot in Korea, pulling a wagon with a few large thermoses of coffee. For 100 won (about 10 cents) you get a Dixie cup of weak coffee. 

Anna insisted on buying me a cup. At first I demurred -- who really wants a cup of steaming coffee on a hot afternoon? -- but after she literally said "please," I gave in. 

The torrential downpour cut our conversation short but not before Anna got my email address (although she confessed to not having an English keyboard) and mentioned that her son is also 23. He doesn't speak much English, she said, but since that didn't stop Anna, I can't imagine it's holding Antonio back either. 

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