Before my trip to South Korea, I read numerous stories about foreigners being stopped by strangers, usually for three reasons: people wanting to practice their English, money, and recruiting for a religious cult (just let the last one sink in for at least two seconds)…
At home, I’m very good at brushing off strangers, and never worry much about being caught in conversations I don’t want to have. It’s very easy to ignore people asking for money, to sign their petition, talk about their cause, or fill out surveys. When I travel, my mindset changes. If I’m stopped, I expect people to ask me where I’m from, to take their picture, or even for directions (which happens way more often than it should considering my own challenges with finding things).
Which is how I was caught three times in South Korea.
The first time I was stopped was my first day in Gwangju. I just finished walking through 5.18 memorial park, my headphones in, on my way to Chungjang-ro to explore and find dinner. A guy somewhere in his early 40s, jogged up from behind me and caught my attention. Having already read what I did about foreigners in South Korea, I was willing to at least hear what this guy wanted, which was my first mistake.
After telling me he actually did have to run to catch up to me, he told me he was an English teacher at a nearby high school and wanted to practice his English with a native speaker. Which led to my second mistake…
After agreeing exchange Kakaotalk IDs (a Korean messaging platform) so he could have a native speaker to “practice English” with, we parted ways. Since I rarely use Kakao and didn’t think he would message me much, I put it out of my mind.
The moment I connected to the guesthouse Wi-Fi later that night, I had messages waiting for me. They were normal at first, asking me about why I came to Gwangju and how I became interested in it. Then it started down a road that was uncomfortable – he dodged many of my questions about him, changed his story from earlier, telling me he quit his teaching job and spent his days studying English so he could open his own academy (South Korea has cram schools/academies which many students attend after their regular school has let out), and started asking me increasingly personal questions, all of which I provided fake answers for. Finally, after being asked for a second time to meet up for coffee, I blocked him at my friend’s encouragement.
Never give out any kind of online ID no matter how infrequently you use it if you’re not actually willing to have continued contact with someone, and block them if you become uncomfortable.
The second time wasn’t until I made it to Seoul. It was pouring rain and not a great day for sightseeing, so I spent it in cafes and wandering around different shopping areas. I was just finishing up my time in Myeongdong, ready to head back to the guesthouse to drop off my (rather sad) shopping haul, when a couple stopped me and asked if I knew English. Thinking they might need directions (knowing I wouldn’t be able to give them), I stopped, and ended up trapped in a conversation I couldn’t get out of. When they finally got to the real reason they stopped me – money for an “orphanage” – I had wasted nearly 10 minutes.
The very next day – my last in South Korea – I was caught again.
I was already in a bad mood because my guesthouse had decided to make renovations to my room without telling me, leaving me to wander around for another several hours when all I wanted to do was rest. It had been another chilly, rainy day, and I was exhausted. Another couple, this time around college age, stopped me. Knowing Hongdae was a college town, it wasn’t too surprising. They started by asking where a certain shop was that I had just happened to pass a few minutes before. When I tried telling them, they pretended to not understand what street I was talking about or what direction I was telling them to go.
The girl did all the talking, while her partner stood by silently (a similar thing happened with the couple in Myeongdong). She managed to steer the conversation towards small talk about what they studied at University, and then finally got to the real reason they stopped me – it was some club supposedly made of foreigners and Koreans, who exchanged and learned about each other’s cultures. While this could have been a very legitimate thing, I was tired, grouchy, and had basically been tricked into another 10 minute conversation.
Finally fed up, I did the only thing I could think of – I offered to walk them to the place they had originally asked directions to. The girl became noticeably flustered and hurriedly tried to switch the subject back to their club, but I had had enough, and just as quickly ended it.
It’s not all bad. One of the greatest things about travel is meeting new people. I met a girl from Hong Kong, who was just as lost as I was trying to find Gamcheon Culture Village. We ended up exploring and having dinner together at Jagalchi fish market, where I tried sannakji, a dish I never would have had if I never met her.
The next day in Jinhae, I met an older couple while standing in line for the tram up to the observation tower at Jehwangsang Park. I don’t remember how our conversation started, but I remember being shocked a couple their age was fluent in English. When the husband asked where I was from, I said “Washington D.C.” – my default answer, since no one knows where Maryland is. To my surprise, he told me he worked in Maryland for nearly 30 years before he and his wife returned to Korea for retirement.
We continued to chat in line, and he even gravely told me it was dangerous to travel alone and that I should be careful. I smiled and promised I would. We met again on the bus back to Busan. He kindly asked me to sit in the seats across the aisle from him and his wife, but, wanting to spend the ride with my headphones in, I politely told him I would be sitting a little further back. A decision I sort of regret – part of the fun of travel is meeting people and talking to them, and I turned it down.
The most important lesson I learned from this trip is to be friendly but also exercise reasonable caution. If something makes you uncomfortable or doesn’t feel right, you can walk away. Don’t worry about being rude – your safety and your time are more important.