Travelling back to Daegu from Seoul, we didn't have seats on the train. We were tired and cold and finally some seats in the dining car opened up. We settled in to read and nap. My companion was feeling ill and not in the best mood when an older Korean man sat next to her and began speaking quietly to her in Korean. I was reading my book, and he was speaking softly, so I didn't hear much, but I caught "영어 배우고싶어요. I want to learn English."
My friend didn't understand. She doesn't speak much Korean, but I figured he'd get bored and go away. He wasn't being rude, just speaking to her about his fervent desire to learn English, so I returned my attention to my book.
All of a sudden I heard her say "됐거든! Don't say another word. [This expression is a little rude. It's usually used as a joke among friends. Saying it to an older person in Korea is almost unthinkable.]" I was flabbergasted. He walked away quickly.
She seemed angry and upset. "I know you understood more of that than I did. What was he saying?"
"He was mostly talking about how much he wants to learn English. Why did you say '됐거든' to him? That's pretty rude to an old man."
She looked a little embarrassed. "Oh. I thought I heard him ask, '얼마요? How much?' [White girls in Korea are often mistaken for prostitutes]."
"Oh." I would have just left it at that as she was feeling a little sick and didn't really understand the language, but this has happened to her before, and I felt sad for the man because he had seemed to me like a nice guy. A little lonely (enough to approach random foreigners and speak to them in Korean when very few foreigners in this country bother to learn even the most basic parts of the language), but nice. "You know, hon, he was probably just asking you about private lessons, if he did say that. It makes more sense in the context of the other things he said."
She felt really bad.
I tried to lighten the mood by joking that he'd be unlikely to proposition someone on a train anyhow. Train station--yes. Train--no.
Then the old man returned with a snack he'd purchased from the bar, apologizing profusely. We both felt so bad about the earlier misunderstanding that even though it was an unappetizing Korean-style snack, we each ate some, looking happy and grateful and assured him it was ok.
He stayed on my side this time, so I could hear him better. He said he felt bad because he must have offended her for her to have said, "됐거든." I explained that my friend didn't know Korean very well, so she couldn't understand what he was saying. He continued to apologize to her for about a minute and repeated to me what he'd said to her. As I had inferred, it was mostly about how he doesn't know English well, but he really wants to learn. He knows Chinese (and apparently passed the level 3 exam which is kind of a big deal), so he really likes studying languages. However, his old age makes it really hard to learn new languages. I translated.
His lonely desperation was mildly irritating when we were both so tired from the long weekend, and my pal was a bit sick from the stop-and-go motion on the train, but he was just so happy that we now understood. He talked to me for a good 30-40 minutes.
I learned that the man lives in Busan. He's 59 years old. He told us about his wife. A little later she wondered where he'd wandered off to, so she showed up and gave him a look of exasperation (I'm guessing we're not the first foreigners he's ended up in random conversations with). He offered to buy us beer (we declined--my friend even explained, in Korean, that her tummy hurt). He offered to help me learn Korean and gave me his handphone number to send questions. He offered to help if we had problems in Korea. Or if we needed a guide in Busan.
He then repeatedly explained what a happy day it was.
This incident reminded me of a few things.
First, I'm so used to comparing my Korean level with Leah and William, that I've forgotten I'm actually pretty good at it. I can communicate effectively in controlled situations, (like one-on-one with both of us making an effort to understand each other) and I understand a hell of a lot more than I used to. My speaking is still babyish and slow, but improving rapidly.
Second, we should try to reserve judgment because people usually mean well. We've all had some bad experiences in our lives, but sometimes those of us living in foreign countries where we don't understand the language and culture are apt to make more mistakes of understanding than others. Don't let the 1% of sucky people out there cloud your expectations for the 99% of really sweet, awesome people in the world.
Finally, learning the local language (and learning it beyond the basics) is extremely helpful. I refer you to my list I made a little over a year ago. I believe it still holds true.
Everything worked out well here in the end, but situations like this sometimes contribute to hostile foreigner-Korean relations. I don't like to embarrass my friend (really the poor girl was sick and tired and grouchy... she wasn't entirely herself and her contrition was sincere), so I didn't include her name here, but I think she would agree with me that this incident is a good example for us all.
Go in peace...