Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Are Our Responsibilities as Travelers or Residents of Foreign Countries?

When we travel to or live in another country, what are our responsibilities in that country? What should we do so as to not be seen as “just another tourist” or a “disgruntled resident”? This is a topic that comes up more often than you might think, amongst tourists, expats, and homebodies alike. I actually had a short discussion about this in a taxi in Sydney, of all places. Unlike most of my taxi rides in Korea which consist of broken English mixed with the Korean I know for conversations, this one was all in English. My taxi driver asked me where I was from, and I explained that in a roundabout kind of way, I was on vacation from teaching English in Korea but was an American. He himself wasn't a native-born Australian, so he could relate to being from another country.

I told him I was happy to have a conversation in English considering I had very little English conversation in taxis in Korea. He asked about my Korean skills, which I was a little embarrassed to admit that after all my study, wasn't as fluent as I'd like. I explained that as an English teacher I didn't get to use much Korean except for when I interacted with Koreans outside of school. Even then, they were more than eager to try and use what little English they knew, which then made speaking Korean a moot point. My English-speaking Korean friends love to chat with me in English, because it gives them more practice. But when I ask them to practice Korean with me, a few of them hesitate because they think it will cause them to lose what English they know. It's an honest hesitation, but in the end there doesn't seem to be any progress.

What came out of the discussion I had with the taxi driver was this: it's okay for someone to not be fluent in the language of the country they are visiting/living in as long as they know enough of the language not to be linguistically ignorant. What that boils down to is, that a person should take it upon himself/herself to learn basic words in the language of that country, enough to get by for the duration of the visit or stay. Greetings/farewells, numbers/money, questions, directions, locations/transportation, food/drinks should be a good start when traveling. If you're planning on a longer stay, then you can adjust your language learning to include more in-depth conversation topics such as your age, nationality, family life, schooling, weather, sports, news, interests, or whatever you find appropriate.

I can agree that knowing at least a few words in your chosen destination's language goes a long way to impressing and winning over the locals. If you go into a country demanding (whether verbally or physically) that that country's people should speak in your own language, then you won't win a lot of friends or fans. Additionally, you will probably contribute to the mindset held by some that outsiders are ignorant, rude, and shouldn't be helped in any circumstance due to attitude. It's sad but it happens. I've met a few people in my time in Korea who thought that every conflict could be resolved by shouting in English at Koreans, hoping that the louder they got, the easier it would be to be understood. The only response that invokes is Koreans either ignoring them altogether or yelling angrily back in Korean. Nobody wins here.

If you're not sure about how to say something in a language, don't hesitate to ask questions or consult a guidebook (first rule of traveling, have some kind of guidebook either in paper or electronic form to refer back to!). Sometimes even the most seasoned travelers might have to resort to charades to insinuate what they'd like. I've definitely had to pantomime a few times when my Korean vocabulary failed me, and despite the strange looks it garners, it usually works. I also keep a dictionary handy on my phone to consult if all else fails.

Being a good traveler or resident of a foreign country isn't just limited to knowing the language. It also extends to knowing about the culture of the place you're going to, especially when the culture is vastly different than your own. The last thing you want to do is commit a cultural faux pas, right?

Many people may know a big difference between Western and Asian culture is social hierarchy, and how each person plays a part in it. In Korea, for example, males were traditionally seen as more important than women, and that belief is still present today. Time and other cultures' influences have weakened some practices of Asian culture, but many still hold steadfast. Age plays a big part of Asian culture, with elders regarded in the highest for their wisdom and experience. This behavior is changing in today's society, as well, with many younger generations growing out of old traditions. Where it was once commonplace to give up one's seat to an older Korean, I've noticed many younger Koreans denying (or ignoring) this behavior.

For some foreigners, these behaviors might be difficult to understand, or seem outdated given social rules in their own countries. This mindset leads these foreigners to ignore Korean social rules, or think that they don't apply to them since they're not Korean. I will admit that sometimes I have not been a very gracious resident of Korea and let these ideas pass me by, just because I had a lazy attitude at that moment. As I spend more time in Korea, I try hard to be more conscious of what happens around me, and practice better social behavior.

Why do I do this? The main reason is I want to show Koreans that I am knowledgeable of their culture and that I respect traditions that were in place long before I was even in existence. In the same token, there are traditions I keep from my upbringing that I would hope others would respect and not trample on. In my opinion, mutual respect of culture can go a long way.

By and large foreigners are not expected to participate in Asian cultural behaviors, but it sure helps when they do. In Korea, foreigners are often painted in a bad light for their “rowdy” behavior, and depicted unpleasantly in the media by Koreans who have vindictive attitudes towards them. But not all foreigners in Korea are like the ones that you read/hear about in the news.

In the broader scheme of things, the majority of foreigners just want to live their lives in another country without being singled out. Similarly, foreigners who choose to embrace all or part of the lifestyle of their host country would like to be able to do so without spectacle. It all goes back to a mutual respect of culture.

Finally, if you are going to travel or live in another country, bring an open mind. Learn a little about where you're going so you're not diving into something sight unseen. I've met a few people in Korea who didn't research anything before they arrived. Let's just say they were quite surprised by what they found when they got here—and not all pleasantly so. These folks that I met expected Korea to be either similar to what they were used to back home, or a third-world country that had no modern conveniences to speak of. It is really quite the contrary, but without research (even a simple search on Google), how are you going to know? With the Internet at our fingertips, we can find a wealth of information online about almost anything we want to know. And with technology becoming more and more portable, we can take this information with us on the road for easier access. There are even applications for our smartphones that can condense this information into a convenient little package.

Don't be afraid to try new things, even if they seem a little weird or strange. Oftentimes, these are the best experiences; ones you can't replicate the same ever again but will never forget. Having an open mind goes a long way in learning more about the country you're in, as well as its people. I bet more people will be happy to help if shown this bit of courtesy.

A new country might not have all the creature comforts of home, but how important are they? Could you live without, or find a possible substitute? Part of the exciting feeling of traveling is trying new foods, seeing new sights, participating in new activities—what you can't do back home. After all, if you need all those familiar things to be happy, why leave home in the first place?

What do you think are the responsibilities of being a traveler or resident in a foreign country? What would you add? I welcome your feedback!

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