What being nice means to foreignersI come from quite a homogenous country, and I once read a page-long spread in the New York Times where my country was criticized for its maltreatment of Southeast Asian workers. More personally, I have had opportunities to live abroad both when I was young and old, as well as travel to several countries, and I witnessed and experienced the best and worst from some places. Based on my experiences in Korea and overseas, I can tell you that one person - just one local person - being nice to a foreigner can change what that foreigner and their peers think about a nation. In fact, one gentle gesture can be one of the greatest campaigns to advertise a country.
When we travel we do not have a high expectation of people being nice or ill-mannered; we think about what we will do and see. But memories are interpreted and distorted by the people one meets. I have a French friend who told me about all his good experiences in Korea, and his future in Korea with his internship and new flat in Apgujeong. He said he made so many nice Korean friends and had the best time in Korea when he came back to France on the first day of school.
In fact, he was not the only one who had a good experience in Korea. Many positive reviews of Korea really brought changes in France. More and more students now want to go to Korea as an exchange student, and the competition is getting stronger.
Living overseas really lets you see things that you cannot as a traveler. One gets used to exotic cuisines and amazing architecture, but not inconveniences and being treated with coldness. We constantly compare our experiences. I believe that delicious food and beautiful buildings are worthwhile to see, but how I feel about a country really depends on who I meet there. Imagine living in a country where people try to take advantage of you for being a foreigner, make fun of you because you look different, or care less because you do not even know you are being maltreated.
Would eating wonderful cuisine mean so much if you were ill-served? Would seeing a monument matter so much if people point at you for being different? Once, during my stay overseas, I ran into a car that was parking. It received a small hit on my back, nothing big. However, I was more than just startled, so I looked at the driver, and there I saw hatred in his eyes and his lips swearing.
That was the moment I felt unwelcome and wanted to escape, forgetting the amazing things I had experienced till then. I visited that country with a big heart, but that heart was gnawed at with indifference and coldness. The feeling “I wouldn’t be treated like this at home” started to arise, and I started to believe that the notorious remarks about people being mean in that country were not so wrong after all, and another “cliche” about it was added (though, provisionally).
I am not praising my hometown and downgrading another country, nor do I mean that we should be utterly nice and tolerant to ill-mannered visitors who disregard and disrespect our values and beliefs. I simply want to bring an example of what local people can do in terms of a country’s image. Regardless of where we come from, we want to be proud of our country, and we are happy to hear that foreigners love our country for the same reasons we do. Glancing rather than glaring and smiling instead of being indifferent is the greatest way to show the love of our country to foreigners. After all, why be mean when we can be nice?
* Park Seohyeon Student at Hanyang University