For 10 years of my life, I worked in the service industry. There were many things I liked about working in restaurants, but there were also many things that I didn’t like. In particular, one thing that annoyed me from time to time was serving foreigners.
I know that may seem like a pretty discriminatory statement, but here’s my reasoning: Foreigners never seemed to know how to tip; most of the time, they would leave 10% tips, a few bucks, or sometimes, nothing at all. Because of this reputation that foreigners had, my fellow servers and I would sometimes fight over who would get stuck waiting on the “foreigner table.” It wasn’t until I went to Europe for the first time in January and again in August when I realized that in most European countries, restaurant customers aren’t required to tip. If they do tip, it’s usually around two euro. Here in Korea, it’s also not customary to tip.
Something else I didn’t have patience for when serving foreigners was their poor English-speaking abilities; I remember one day at my cafe job, a foreigner came in who wanted to order some food, but didn’t know exactly what the menu said or how to order much in English. Because we were having trouble communicating with each other, this caused the line at the register to grow longer and longer with very hungry and impatient customers who just wanted to pay for their food and be on their way. Seeing the annoyed customers in line behind this man caused me to become annoyed with him myself and think, “Why are you here if you can’t speak English?”
Now that I have been living as a foreigner for the past eight months, the tables have turned: Now I’m the one who is struggling to communicate in restaurants, grocery stores, and hair salons; now I’m the one who is trying to find my way around in a country I’m not familiar with. But you know what? Every Korean person I have encountered while trying to survive day-to-day life has been helpful, accommodating, and most of all, patient. When I go out to eat at restaurants with my friends, the staff is super friendly and they use the little English that they know to help get us fed. This past Sunday when I went into Seoul, I asked a random Korean man on the street if he knew English so I could ask him if he knew where H&M was. Turns out he knew a little bit of English, but he didn’t know where H&M was. However, even though he didn’t know what direction to point me to, he offered to look up the store on his smart phone for me! He could have easily said, “Nope, sorry” and been on his way, but he didn’t; instead, he decided to help a lost foreigner out.
They say to “never judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” I used to judge foreigners and think that they didn’t “know anything” about being in America. But in actuality, I was just being ignorant; I had never traveled internationally before, so I didn’t know the obstacles of trying to get around in another country. But now that I’ve walked way more than a mile in a foreigner’s shoes, my mentality has changed: Being a foreigner is not easy, and when we encounter foreigners in our home countries who need help, we should do our best to make them feel welcome. This is something I’ve learned specifically from living in Korea: Like I previously mentioned, all of the Koreans I’ve encountered during my time here have been so patient with me and my poor Korean-speaking skills. And I couldn’t be more grateful for that, because their help and patience has really helped me along the way as I figure out how to not just visit another country, but to live in another country. So the next time I encounter a foreigner in America who seems a little lost, confused, and in need of navigation, I intend to be more understanding of where they’re coming from, because now I’ve been there, too.