When I got to Korea, I got really excited when we would see another foreigner, which, in Jeonju, means another English teacher for the most part, usually Anglo. So I would smile and nod at every foreigner I saw, and they returned the gesture. I soon found out that the ex-pat community here is an interesting organism in itself. There are two categories of expats in Jeonju-- the (mostly) young crowd who goes out at night, to varying degrees, and socializes with other expats. Then there's the (mostly) older crowd. They stick to themselves, don't really go out to bars and we don't really ever see them, we just know they're here. As for the 'social circle,' they all know each other, even though usually not very well. But we all greet each other on the street, and make small-talk. We are acquaintances based solely on the fact that we see each other often and are expats. People are much more friendly than they would be at home, I guess because there are less people to socialize with, and we all have this experience in common. So although we might do the customary "where are you from? how long have you been here? where do you work?" thing, it's not for the purpose of putting each other into categories, or finding out if you'll be friends or if you're part of a different group. It's all one group.
Then, you encounter the occasional case that doesn't fit this generalization. The most frequent are the people of the less-social group I mentioned. It's not that there's an agism here-- there are many older people who I know and hang out with here. But there is a divide, naturally, between those who seek to socialize with other expats and those who keep to themselves. So you can once in a while, at the grocery store maybe, run into a foreigner you've never seen before. Usually they have families here, and they're almost always at least a couple.
Then there are the missionaries. They're hard to spot, and since everyone is more friendly than usual, it's not strange for someone to come up to you in the street to introduce themselves if they're new in the neighborhood, or to ask a question, etc. So when someone approaches you and starts a conversation, there's no warning and all of a sudden you're stuck in the ramen section of E-Mart with someone trying to save your soul. It's happened to be more than a few times. Instead of politely excusing myself from the conversation early on, as I might in the States where it's not as normal for strangers to strike up a conversation on the street, I make small talk, about life in Korea, where I'm from, etc; then once they're started talking about 'spreading the word' and I feel that I've led them on to believe I'm more interested than I am, and that I'm wasting their time. So I listen, and take their fliers, then continue my shopping, walking, etc.
The part that fascinates me, though, is when there is this feeling of something automatically in common with people you would never feel that with. A shared look of understanding with someone you would feel worlds removed from at home.
For example, I went to the spa the other day, and walked up to the counter of a food booth to order a beer. The young man working behind the counter was not Korean. He was, I later found out, from Nepal. Either way, I could tell he was South Asian, I thought maybe from Bangladesh. Not that I think I have nothing in common with a Nepalese cook, but it's not someone I would usually feel nicely surprised to run into. Someone I could feel more comfortable dealing with than the person I was expecting to find. I'm sure our life experiences are very different.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact the Korean society is very homogenous, and creates a strong line between 'Korean' and 'foreign.' Even children who have one Korean parent and one 'foreign' parent are not seen as Korean. Even if they live in Korea, were born here, and speak Korean. Korea can be very racist in this and other ways. So maybe since we've all been lumped into one category, foreigners feel like a member of one group.
Whatever it was, I was pleasantly surprised to find a foreigner behind the counter. But, when I came to order, I felt unsure. What language do I speak? I asked myself. Clearly, since he worked in Korea, he spoke Korean. But my Korean's not great, and though I am confident in my beer-ordering abilities, it's always more comfortable in my native language. Plus, who would think that the common language between me and a young man from Nepal would ever be Korean? I chose to order in Korean, and it wasn't really much of a difficult choice, but it felt a little strange. Then, he answered in English. So clearly, he speaks both. So I finished the transaction in English. Later on, Jon told me he had talked to this man the last time we were at the spa, that he was living here with his family and was a university student. He also told me that his name was Raj. Raj later turned out to be a great help, translating between Tara and I and the Korean women cooking at the next booth when we tried to get Tara something vegetarian and not spicy.
This was the first time I had met a foreigner in Jeonju who was not an English teacher or here living with one. But in Seoul, it happens much more often, especially in the area around the US military base. This neighborhood is called Itaewon, and it's a multicultural-food heaven, but other than that, mostly a very dirty, sketchy place with a reputation for a vibrant if disreputable nightlife.
We go to Itaewon to eat. A lot. There is essentially any ethnic food you could ever want-- Morroccan, Indian, Iranian, Thai, Japanese, German, Austrian, Irish, Mexican...the list goes on. Plus, there's an American-style diner with great brunch food. This past weekend, after dropping Joe, Tara and Nate off at the airport, Jon and I went to an Indian buffet we had been to before. Besides the usual slight awkwardness of talking to the waiter in a mix of Korean and English (he'd speak English to us, but I still felt I should order in Korean...but then I'd order something else in English...), I witness a scene that really made the think about this language thing. And allowed me to witness Korean actually trying ethnic food.
An Indian family came in with a Korean family, and the Indian man, who was obviously the one who had organized this meal, spoke to the waiter in English, but seemed a little unsure about how to interact with the staff. In Korea, there are certain hierarchies and ways to interact with waiters at restaurants, and many social customs of politeness. But it seemed that with these men, the Korean customs mixed with the Indian customs they would have followed in India had they met in the same situation. The Indian customer was a doctor (I know because someone addressed him as such), and he played the host to his party-- generous, helpful, but in charge. Even in that situation, I'm sure, the mix of Indian and Korean custom was present.
At one point in the afternoon, as Jon and I were finishing our meals, the Indian customer called the waiter over to order drinks, but stumbled noticably, trying to decide which language to speak. He had been in conversation with his guests in a mix of English and Korean, but also with his family in their native language. When he went to order a drink, he started with a word in one language, stopped himself, started in another, stopped himself, was flustered for a second, then said the universal "Coke."
I've been thinking about languages a lot, and about feeling a part of a community with people from all over the world, with completely different life experiences. About having completely random languages in common. For example, on New Years Eve in Seoul, some friends of ours had met a woman from Hong Kong in the hostel. She spoke very little English, but she agreed to come out with us that night after she learned a few others and I spoke Spanish. It turns out, she went to college in Paraguay and was now living there, working as a school nurse. So, I spent the evening in Seoul, South Korea speaking Spanish to a woman from Hong Kong about our respective travels in South America. Oh, and we ate Thai food. :)
But then again, I guess we foreigners in Korea don't have completely different life experiences. We all live in Korea, experience the same stares on the street, the same inability to get familiar foods and cultural goods, and the same need to form a community based on shared experience. The other day I shared perspectives on the Korean education system with a former English teacher from Vietnam. In the process, I learned a little about teaching English in Vietnam. She was very glad to talk to us- -said she didn't like working with Koreans, made us coffee from her personal stash. So maybe we all feel relieved to be interacting with someone who has gone through a similar experience.
Meanwhile, I'll keep on wondering what language to speak when I run into foreigners, but whatever language I speak, hopefully I'll have an interesting conversation. At least I'll feel a little more connected to the world.