Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Boundaries, Man, Boundaries

Dear Korean,

I am an American woman but have been living in Korea for almost five years now. There has been something irking me lately. Even though I'm fluent enough to have general conversations in Korean, many people in my social circle seem to regard me as an English tool. My Korean boyfriend, who is currently changing jobs, has lately asked me endless English questions and wants me to help him with English essays. Of course, as his girlfriend, I want to help. But he also has asked me to help another friend with his essays, and another of his friends, upon finding out I am a native English speaker, also requested help--- a 16 page essay!!!! >.< This was way too much, and although my boyfriend admitted it, he still said "please help my friend." Meanwhile, another friend has been wondering if I could tutor her younger cousin in English. And another previously asked me to help her with English reading.

I love the Korean friends I've met and I certainly enjoy the company of my Korean boyfriend. But am I doomed to be considered an English tool who should cough up her English knowledge whenever and wherever it is requested? Do all Koreans see my white face as an English skill? Is there any way to have a relationship with a Korean and not to be considered useful this way at the same time? How do I establish boundaries within my Korean relationships that show them I want to be accepted as a person, not as a potential language tool!? 

I'm an English speaker, not a walking dictionary

Here is a problem that the Korean rarely encounters, if only because he is living in the U.S. So once again, here is a guest post from I'm No Picasso. As an English teacher in Korea, she would be in a better position to answer the question.


As my boyfriend and I sat down to dinner at a galbi restaurant one night, he abruptly launched into a tale about how his friend, a college-aged woman, had recently broken up with her Western boyfriend. As those of us who live here and who are surrounded by these kinds of intercultural, interracial relationships know, there are a few go-to reasons for why the break up may have happened. I asked him which one it was.

"He was really grumpy. He always got mad at her about small things."

Fairly normal breakup fare, intercultural relationship or not. But my boyfriend is not prone to dishing out gossip about other people just to have something to talk about. I had a feeling he had something on his mind, something he maybe wanted to run past me.

"Why was he grumpy? Or is that what you're trying to ask me?"

It was. It turned out the small thing his friend's boyfriend was continuously being grumpy about was her requesting his help with her English assignments. Before my boyfriend had gotten halfway through his explanation, I was already visibly cringing. 

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

I explained to my boyfriend that, yes, she was his girlfriend, and yes, a good boyfriend should be willing to help his girlfriend with whatever he can, but that asking foreigners in Korea for help with English is always going to be a sore point. I don't think there is even one among us who has never experienced the disappointment that comes along with starting to form a real relationship with a Korean (as a person and not specifically as a Korean) just because we like them and we want to be around them, only to have it become clear that their intentions are not the same. I would wager that most of us have probably had it happen even more than once.

The line starts to get blurry, and it's not difficult to become a little paranoid, after feeling duped the first few times.

But he's a native English speaker, and helping her with these things is so easy for him. She really did like him, and would have been dating him even if he didn't speak English.

Yeah, but how are we supposed to know that?

At that point, I think my boyfriend had caught on to the shift to the pronoun "we", and he decided to let it go.

At this point in my life as a native English speaker in Korea, I think I've constructed a pretty good answer to that question for myself. English help shouldn't be different from any other kind of favor. The emotions tied to it when you are an "outsider" in a society obviously are. But if you try to keep it confined to the realm of any other skill or help you may be able to offer, it gets a lot easier to untangle.

Like any other kind of favor, first of all, no one who hasn't built that kind of relationship with you should be asking you for help with English. If it's the first or second thing out of a person's mouth, it means one of two things: 1. They are the kind of person who feels no shame asking favors of people who have absolutely no reason to give them anything, seeing the possibility for an advantage, and taking it regardless of how it makes the other person feel. They probably act this way toward other Koreans as well. 2. They aren't showing you the same respect they would show another Korean, and they’re making a social mistake based on the fact that they don’t realize that asking you to teach or help them with English is the equivalent of asking someone they barely know for a time-consuming favor at best, and free work at worst.

Basically, they’re being rude. And it’s not a great first impression, or a fantastic indication of things to come. It’s usually best to steer away, in these cases.

But after you have formed those relationships, it becomes more complicated. What are you supposed to do when someone you are already attached to starts making you uncomfortable with how much they are asking of you?

Exactly what you would do in exactly the same case involving anything other than English.

Everyone has different lines for how much they are willing to give to others. Some people, for example, will lend endless money to friends, no matter how many times they ask and no matter how little they are repaid. Other people will bristle the very first time the hint of it comes up, even within a ten year relationship. There is really no "should" involved. It's about your personal comfort level. But if you can try to see your English skill as any other kind of favor, and feel neither more obligated nor more emotional about being asked for it, I think you'll find the answer.

But, as with any other thing, the concept of, "Well you have it to give, therefore you should give it to me and all of my friends whenever I want," doesn't really fly with me.

Sometimes Koreans don't realize that asking for English help is the same as asking for any other favor, and whether we speak the language fluently or not, it's still work for us to pore over 20 page papers, tutor children for an hour a week, and be asked to "dinners" where we spend the majority of the time being asked to correct spoken sentences and critique pronunciation. It's not a super fun thing that we are all doing together and are really lucky to be involved in -- it's a favor. It's something that we are ordinarily paid to do. It involves an investment of our time and effort, which we get nothing out of in return. And it should be respected and approached as such.

And that’s the approach I usually take, when dealing with the requests for what essentially amount to free private lessons. I explain that my visa doesn’t allow me to do any work outside of my school. They usually look confused for a moment, before they realize what I’m saying. Yes. You are my friend. But teaching your child for two hours a week is private tutoring. It’s a job.

As for the closer personal relationships, I’ve found it’s usually best to just explain it, exactly the way I did to my boyfriend. Sometimes people don’t have the first clue how being asked for English help all the time can make us feel – my boyfriend didn’t. And when I explained it, he said, “Well, why didn’t he just tell her that? If she knew that’s what he was thinking, she would’ve never asked him again!” Sometimes just laying it out can save you a lot of trouble, and I see nothing wrong with having to explain it. But it sounds to me like you have already explained it to your boyfriend, maybe even multiple times.

Should you be willing to help your boyfriend whenever possible? Of course. However, he should be willing to stop doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable, even if it means telling his friends 'no'. And that goes with every other person we have a personal relationship with as well, Korean or otherwise.

I try not to get my hackles up as soon as someone asks me for help with English, these days. But my very favorite people, it has to be said, are the ones who do so with an offer of a meal or a cup of coffee in return. The ones who say, "I'm really sorry to ask this, but...." The ones who clarify that it's absolutely okay for me to say 'no'. After all, I have to ask for favors, too. I can’t order this thing online because I don’t have a Korean identification number, and do you know what this note I got in my mailbox means? And more and more these days, I annoy my boyfriend (who has zero interest in improving his English) with my inane Korean questions, or to look over essays or assignments I’ve written.

I need help, too. And I’ve even asked my boyfriend to help my friends before. And he’s always happy to help, and I love him for that. But I respect it when he and other people tell me ‘no’. And I’m always aware that what I’m asking for is a favor. I expect the same in return, and if anyone in my personal life continues to push after I've made it obvious that I'm uncomfortable with the requests, I start to reevaluate that relationship.

We're not going to stop being native English speakers, and the occasional Korean is never going to stop seeing us as having been put on this earth to help people with their English. It's impossible to stop encountering it. It is possible, however, to move away from people who don’t care about making you uncomfortable. Always explain first – you don’t want to cut people out because they simply didn’t have a chance to understand where you are coming from. But after that? Think about the kind of people you want to have in your life, and take it from there.

I'm No Picasso blogs at

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I'm quick to catch on to those people who see me as an English tool or as a token foreigner for their group, and regardless of their intentions or value as a contact, I break away when I can. Luckily for me, my closest friends and most valuable contacts don't use me for English, but I'm willing to help when they do ask.

  2. Great answer. We particularly like I'm No Picasso's turn-about is also not fair-play aspect, which is a very, very common problem not often recognized. We thank the Korean for his delegation of this task.

  3. Hey, you never know when somebody you help out will end up helping you out, as well. You got to know how to maximize these potential relationships. Westerners have difficulty doing this, but East Asians seem to be better in looking at the long-term.

    1. There is a solution for that too. If you have time, do the favour, if you don't, then don't do it, that's it.

  4. Personally I try to avoid this problem by 1) avoiding friendships with my students (who are adults) because it feels a bit like getting free extra English convo outside of class and 2) by speaking Korean with nearly every Korean I meet when I'm not at my Hagwon with the exception of my bf. A lot of my Korean friends are more than happy to chat with me in Korean rather than English, so I don't feel like I'm being used and they don't have to feel stressed out speaking in English all the time. When the random strangers start talking to me on the subway I always respond in Korean, I don't feel like teaching English when I'm not at work.

    But, sometimes I think I cause problems with my bf because whenever I have a problem with korean, he's the first person I call. I've been trying to get better about it, but every once and a while when there is a communication break down or some website that I can't do without the 주민번호 I bug him about it.

  5. Just say you're from Latvia and your English is even worse than theirs.

    1. As far as europeans go, Latvians speak pretty good English. O_O Well at least they did when I was in Riga.

  6. But all white people speak English perfectly, don't they?

    1. Not neccessarily. I was having a hard time finding a part time because I'm not a native speaker.

  7. I was going to go along the same lines as Sam and suggest that you say you are not a native English speaker but if someone an English teacher I am sure it wont work.I am in the awesome position that no one asks me for help anywhere. I speak English perfectly but it is not my native language so no one wants my English help, I speak Finnish much less perfectly but it is my native language so I can honestly say: No I can't help you, English is not my native language. / Sorry my Finnish is not that good.

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  9. Same goes for people with IT skills. All their friends and family hit them up for free tech support, and then want to start to farm them out to a second tier of friends and co-workers. So it's probably not so much just the language thing, but really any skill one might possess that friends and family have a large demand for. Maybe it's speaking English, maybe it's setting up someone's wireless network or maybe it's hanging drywall. Heaven forbid you should own a truck! "Can you help me move?"

    1. That's right about the IT skills. Always happens to my father, who is a computer science teacher.

  10. Unless the person you're asking is particularly enthusiastic about said skill, constantly asking them for help in that skill is a quick way to be annoying

  11. It's like when you're the only one good at computers and everyone asks you to fix their stuff. You should start charging money. If your friends ask for help, charge them tutoring money. It's only fair.

  12. Well written piece. Any native who has been living here for a few years will know that this is common amongst Koreans on a social level - I'm not quite sure why it's such a big issue for you (and others in your situation) though. Either say no, or charge them for your time? I have been asked countless times... most of the time it's easy to realise their intentions of getting to know you. Personally I find it amusing most of the time but if it is someone you actually have time for and want to to help... I'd expect to take no less than 60,000KRW p/h.

    Everyone has a use, if not... you're useless and so there are times when I know someone is using me for info/help but we all do it. The only difference is that in Korea, education is so important and expensive, parents (and students alike) will often try to get as much assistance from native speakers in regards to learning English - which we all know is becoming evermore important for Koreans.

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  14. That's why, after a few months in Japan, I decided better not to date guys who study German.

  15. it is the common problem that many foreigner who has been living in Korea have
    but it is also the problem that anyone who is in the world have. nobody wants to be a means not a purpose.


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