It’s always confused me, this occasional predilection Asia has for greeting non-Asians with an English hello—I was once helloed as faraway as the Balinese countryside, while riding on the back of a speeding motorbike, by a uniformed schoolchild—and though I can’t speak for the tone used in China, Japan, or other countries, my impression is that in Korea the speaker is generally attempting to alienate you from his culture, to establish that you are a member of a different tribe, to amuse his friends, or to sate a Pavlovian reflex implanted within his consciousness by his television or his elders: when you see a person who looks slightly different, you must say hello in English.
While living in Australia my Korean wife complained that people addressed her in Chinese or Japanese—never Korean—and though I know that Asians are subject to all sorts of racism back in America (do you know kung-fu? do you eat a lot of rice? / being passed over for promotion / getting good grades because of your tiger mom / rarely appearing in films that take place outside of ancient China / no, where are you from?), the least you can say is that they can usually walk the streets without being concerned about people regularly greeting them in languages other than English, though now that I think about it I bet that happens all the time.
In Korea I can remember the first time a stranger said hello to me. I was getting off a bus in Busan when a young man did it, and I, not knowing that he was trying to throw an insult my way, said hello back in a friendly tone. I even smiled and waved a little, like a perfect bumpkin used to the country life back in Maine, where people say hello to one another even if they’re strangers just to be nice, but here the man didn’t respond—he just laughed as his girlfriend yelped and hit him with her bag. Then they walked away.
This first hello fit into a general pattern. Young male, always in the company of friends, never alone, says hello, and then laughs snidely regardless of your response. If you are with a Korean, however, they will probably hold back from attacking you.
There are plenty of exceptions. Children sometimes say hello out of genuine curiosity, and will shift into Korean if you speak with them—“Are you a foreigner?” “I’m a human, like you.”—and a man once came up out of nowhere and shook my hand with genuine warmth; young women occasionally get in on the action for reasons beyond my comprehension.
For four years I endured the hellos without any retaliation. They always bothered me. I’m so sensitive that they would ruin my mood for hours. A hello would remind me that I am not welcome here, that I am not a part of this culture, that I am not expected to understand anything the people do here in the slightest, that I can never hope to be fully comfortable in this place.
My Korean wife finally demanded that I fight back. The first phrase she suggested was 한국말로 해라, hangook mal-lo hela, say it in Korean. In the case of laughing packs of high school boys, she said I should say: 임마, 왜 웃어? eem-ma, way u-saw, hey asshole, why are you laughing?, with the caveat that in their company one should probably just let it go, as there have been a number of crimes associated with high school kids beating the shit out of old people for perceived slights. So far as I know, foreigners have escaped their wroth, though I usually have to hold back from tearing off my clothes and charging into their ranks, kicking, screaming, spitting, and biting, whenever I see them prowling around the sidewalkless roads.
Another whining complaint is related to the egregious use of the term waygookin or waygook salam, foreigner, which drives me out of my mind. If you happen to feel the urge to comment on this post to remind me that other people don’t care about this shit, don’t bother, because I’m already way ahead of you—I don’t care. But, on the other hand, if you happen to be bothered by this somewhat inappropriate word used virtually whenever a non-Korean person appears on television or really anywhere at all, my indomitable wife, whose skeleton, Wolverine-like, was cast from liquid titanium (or whatever), has a few suggestions for you: when people start talking about you as if you can’t understand them, using the Korean word for foreigner, simply say: 외국인 왜요? 외국인 좋아요? 외국인 나빠요? Way-gook-een way-yo? Way-gook-een jo-ah-yo? Way-gook-een na-pa-yo? Why foreigners? Foreigners are good? Foreigners are bad? That should shut them up, and hopefully get them to think twice about using the term so shamelessly again.
I do think I discovered the source of the hellos. Although daycare is free, ubiquitous, and seemingly relatively decent in Korea—a friend’s awlineecheep even comes with a video camera he can access on the internet any time, to make sure no one is soiling his son’s virtue—most Korean families still insist on having their older and, usually, uneducated relatives take care of their young children every day. I’ve seen multiple old women shouting, swearing, and beating kids in public here, while a couple of weeks ago I had a remarkable encounter with an elderly halmoni who was walking around with a four-year old in a nearby apartment complex, where I was waiting for a special-session-that-must-not-be-named to start.
This crazy woman pointed at me and shouted, to her grandchild, in Korean: “Foreigner! Foreigner! Look! It’s a foreigner! Foreignerrrrrrr!” “Ajumma,” I said, after looking up, looking down, getting angry, and deciding to fight, “That’s rude. How would you feel if you went to a different country, and people started shouting that you were an Asian?”
Although my Korean is shaky at best, I think I got the point across, as she simply nodded and walked away with a frozen smile that said she utterly despised me—how dare you express the fact that you have a soul?!? I had a similar encounter at a nearby Starbucks, said something more or less the same, and actually got an apology from the inane mother who was mouthing off this bullshit in an attempt to entertain her infant spawn.
A lot of the time people aren’t aware that they’re acting like barbarians, or objectifying you; they do so with the warmest smiles, thinking that you enjoy playing the role of the bumbling idiot who stepped off the airplane five minutes ago—even after living here for four years. An ajumma at a decent restaurant I frequent asked me if it was okay for her daughter to say hello to me in English—asked me in Korean—and I told her that Korean was better. She said something like how that was ridiculous, her daughter (young, terrified, cowering behind her legs) was great at English, and then I tried and failed to add that Korean was more welcoming. I still don’t know exactly how to say that, but I think it may be close to 더 환영것같다. This woman has always been nice to me, but I could have added, if this were not the case, that I am not her daughter’s toy—just as my son is not the toy of the legions of young women who ask to get his picture taken almost whenever we venture outside.
A lot of you are going to say that I’m whining about nothing, but I don’t care. This is a big deal to me. When you say hello in Korean, that’s great, I love it, I’m happy to talk with you, regardless of who you are. When you say hello in English, you make me into an Other, you associate me with things that in reality I am only very loosely associated with, you objectify me, you exclude me, you turn me into a tool of your amusement, and in all likelihood you really need to shut the hell up.