Tourists behaving badly: Lost in translation in South Korea (video)




This terribly embarrassing video making the rounds shows how learning just a little bit of the local language can help prevent a massive misunderstanding.

Robert J. Koehler of The Marmot’s Hole informs us that the incident occurred between a 24-year-old African-American English teacher and a 61-year-old man on a crowded bus in South Korea. According to Koehler, “The elderly man reportedly said “니가 여기 앉아” (a sign of consideration) but not knowing Korean, the man in question interpreted “니가” [pronounced "nigga" and meaning "you"] as the N-word which led to his violent outburst.”

Of course, the only accounts we have of this incident come from the Korean media. But, insult or not, this ugly American – an English teacher, no less – sets the perfect example of how not to act in a foreign country – or even in your own home town. Really dude, turn it down a notch, will ya?

Useful foreign phrases, Part 2: how to say, “Can you write this down for me?” in 10 languages

useful foreign phrasesA post written by Chris on Tuesday reminded me of this little language series I started in March. In “Ten things Ugly Americans need to know before visiting a foreign land,” Chris recommended brushing up on the local language. He joked about dashing around Venice clutching his concierge’s handwritten note, “Do you have 220/110 plug converters for this stupid American who left his at home?”

Thanks, Chris, because I’ve had this post sitting in my queue for awhile, as I debated whether or not my phrase of choice would appear useful to readers. It’s saved my butt many a time, when a generous concierge or empathetic English-speaker would jot down crucial directions to provide to a cab driver. It’s also helped me out when I’ve embarked on long-distance journeys that require me to get off at an unscheduled stop.

I have a recurring nightmare in which I board the wrong bus or train in a developing nation, and end up in some godforsaken, f—ed up place in the wee hours. Actually, that’s happened to me more than once, except I was actually in my intended destination. So the other piece of advice I’d like to impart is: do some research ahead of time on accommodations and how to reach them as safely as possible if you’re arriving anywhere in the wee hours–especially if you’re alone, regardless of your gender.

I digress. Before your next trip to a foreign land, take the time to scribble the words, “Can you (please) write this down for me?” in your guidebook or dog-ear it in your phrasebook (you’re bringing one, right? Right?). It will serve you well, I promise you. Below, how to make this useful request in ten languages.

P.S. It bears repeating that I’m far from a polylinguist; I’m relying on phrases based on past experience or research. If I inadvertently offend anyone’s native tongue, please provide a correction in the “Comments” section.

1. Spanish (Catalan): ?Puedes escribirlo, por favor?

2. Italian: Può ripeterlo, per favore?

useful foreign phrases3. French: Pourriez-vous, l’écrire, s’il vous plait?

4. German: Könnten Sie das bitte aufschreiben?

5. Czech: Můžete prosím napsat to pro mě?

6. Portuguese: Escreva, se faz favor.

As I noted in my Part 1, many languages, including those spoken throughout Asia and the Middle East, use written characters. For that reason, transliteration will vary, which is why the spelling or phonetics may differ. These languages are also tonal in nature, which makes them notoriously intimidating to Westerner travelers. Just smile, do your best, and have your pen and paper handy.

7. Chinese (Cantonese): Ng goi nei bong ngo se dai.

8. Japanese: Anata ga shite kudasai watashi no tame ni sore o kakikomu koto ga dekimasu ka?

9. Vietnamese: Có thể bạn hãy viết ra cho tôi?

10. Moroccan Arabic: Ktebha līya.

What useful phrases have helped you on your travels? Please tell us!

[Photo credits: pencil, Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography; tourist, Flickr user Esteban Manchado]

Ask Gadling: How not to act like a tourist in a foreign country

Merriam-Webster defines a tourist as, “one who makes a tour for pleasure or culture.” I would stretch that definition to include business travelers, assuming they have a bit of leisure time.

Here at Gadling, our goal is to encourage travel and exploration, even if it’s in your hometown. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m referring to non-domestic travel. And no matter how hard you try, even if you live in a foreign country and speak the language fluently, natives always know you’re a tourist or not one of them.

I believe that being a tourist generally entails asking a lot of questions out of curiousity or general inquiry, and making the occasional cultural gaffe. But there are many compelling reasons why you should squelch the urge to behave like the stereotypical tourist: the Ugly American, say, or a culturally clueless wanderer. Without getting into semantics or the murky, pretentious waters of “traveler” versus “tourist.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always the ideal traveler. There are times when I’m frustrated, pissed off, or discombobulated. But one of the reasons I travel is that I like to challenge myself, and get out of my comfort zone. Once I remind myself of that, I’m able to relax, and usually, find the humor in a situation.

Advantages to not acting like a tourist

Safety. Just like at home, if you look like you know where you’re going–even if you don’t–you’re less likely to become a target for crime or harassment. We’ve all had to whip out a map or guidebook, no matter how surreptitiously. There’s nothing wrong with that: just don’t flaunt it. Most people are genuinely helpful, but if I need assistance, I prefer to choose my source if the circumstances are remotely sketchy.

A more rewarding cultural experience. This isn’t to say an incredible trip is impossible for aloha-wear-clad package tourists who never leave the confines of their hotel property, or independent travelers who consult Generic Guidebook at every step. But straying from the beaten path, being culturally aware, and allowing things to happen serendipitously are a lot easier when you have low-key dress and demeanor, and an open mind.

You’ll enjoy yourself more. Intense cultural experiences aren’t always pleasant (the time I was the only butt-naked Westerner in a very local’s-only Moroccan hammam was, shall we say, awkward). But as a rule, being open to such experiences allows you to feel less like an outsider, and provides a window into how other people live, eat, socialize, fall in love, celebrate, and mourn. There’s a fine line between being a participant and a cultural voyeur, however, and doing a bit of pre-trip research will go far in helping you avoid crossing it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Todd Mecklem]

Things you can do to lessen your “touristiness”

Learn a few key phrases. No one expects you to speak the local language, but it’s helpful to learn basics like “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” and “where’s the bathroom?” It also endears you to most natives (save the French, who generally–and stereotypically– aren’t charmed when you butcher their mother tongue). Many of the wonderful invitations and experiences I’ve had came from my willingness to respect the local culture, no matter how idiotic I sounded at the time. Even pointing to sentences in a phrasebook is more polite than Speaking.English.Loudly.and.Slowly. to someone who obviously doesn’t understand you. I never head to a non-English-speaking country without a Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Learn a bit about your destination. You don’t need to memorize the entire history of, say, Portugal, but it’s helpful to read up on the country, its people, and customs. It will help you to understand certain quirks, the cuisine, religious practices, etc. It also helps prevent you from committing irritating, inadvertently offensive acts like insistently speaking Spanish to a Portuguese bus driver (I’m talking to you, Mr. Clueless Backpacker on the Faro-to-Seville route). That’s a relatively innocuous crime, but things like touching a person on the head or pointing your foot at them (Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia), making the “OK” symbol (Brazil), or exposing bare shoulders if you’re a female visiting a mosque are decidedly not cool, and can have unpleasant repercussions. Don’t be that person. Behave Yourself: The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is a great–and funny–crash course on global customs.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Use your indoor voice. As Americans, we’re known for our friendliness, enthusiasm, and eagerness to express our opinions. Not bad traits. But in a foreign country, these things, combined with our notoriously high decibel level, can be misconstrued or just plain obnoxious. Along the same lines, curb the American tendency to boast, and know when to let certain comments or behaviors slide–sometimes, you need to bite your lip, and remember that you’re the visitor. It’s never worth compromising your personal safety (or that of another) to voice an opinion, but by all means, do stand up for yourself if you’re at risk.

Dress appropriately. This generally applies more to women than men, but in general, why would you want to draw unwanted attention to yourself? Leave the frat shirts, booty shorts, and low-cut tank tops at home. While this is a basic personal safety issue, it’s also about cultural respect. It’s tacky and offensive for a Western woman to sunbathe topless in Southern Thailand (which has a sizeable Muslim population), but it can be seriously problematic for her to show too much skin or not wear a headscarf in certain rural areas of the Middle East.

Lend a hand. While some might see this as uber-touristy (if not outright patronizing), I often bring useful items with me to certain countries. Whether it’s colored pencils or clothing for kids, basic medical necessities, or fresh produce, the fact is, isolated and impoverished people are often grateful for assistance. I won’t bring or distribute items without doing a bit of research to see if it’s acceptable/what communities are in need of.

Eat as the locals do, or at least pretend. For me, street food and dining in a private home are the greatest joys of travel. But not everyone feels that way, and sometimes, even I find myself confronted by a glass or plate of something so repulsive/high-risk, I can’t bring myself to partake. To refuse an offering can often cause disgrace or mortal offense to your host, so if at all possible, fake it. That banana chicha, fermented by a heaping dose of my (likely tubercular) host’s saliva? Yeah, I didn’t really drink that.

Wear your poker face. I’ve often been told I have an expressive face (usually not as a compliment). When I’m traveling abroad, I have to work overtime to not show emotions when confronted with a cultural foible or other situation that amuses or offends my American sensibilities. And while losing your temper can occasionally work in your favor, remember that in many parts of the world–most notably, Asia–it’s seen as a major character flaw. Take a deep breath, simmer down, and please don’t unleash the “But I’m an American!” card.

Rules to follow as a tourist

Be humble and gracious. You may find the local diet, standard of living, and treatment of women appalling, but you needn’t need show it.

Be respectful. You’re the foreigner speaking a crazy language.

Don’t be a victim. Use common sense, and don’t go looking for trouble. If it finds you anyway, try resolve the situation in a non-confrontational way, or do what you need to do to protect yourself. In a worst case scenario, call your nearest embassy or consulate.

Be prepared. Always have a Plan B, whether it’s money, copies of your passport and medical insurance, or taking out travel insurance. Email yourself and family or a friend copies of all important documents, including lists of emergency contacts, doctors, and collect numbers for banks and credit card companies.

Be grateful. No matter what kind of amazing adventures I have, and no matter how much my nationality/government/deeply ingrained personal and cultural shortcomings may embarrass me, I’m profoundly appreciative that being an American grants me the quality of life and civil liberties I possess.

[Photo credits: NY, Flickr user Baptiste Pons; Las Vegas, Flickr user geoperdis; Mona Lisa, Flickr user Gregory Bastien]