On a Saturday night in Hongdae, the main university neighborhood of Seoul, these two young Korean girls approached me on the street, asking if I knew where to find an English book store. Now let me repeat the strange part, for those unfamiliar with Korea: they approached me. This is simply not done in Korea.
So I’m using today’s post to talk about travel scams in South Korea. For the most part, the taxi and accommodation scams of the 2000’s aren’t pulled now that online banking in Korea is so complex. The same goes for the fake monks, pickpocketing, and hidden cameras (though the damage they’ve done remains). So while there aren’t many scams in Korea these days, there is one that I experienced multiple times while living there.
Travel Scams in Korea
The main travel scam in Korea is still the “cultural experience,” and alternatively the “spiritual experience” or simply the “cult scam” in Korea. This is when two people approach you asking an innocuous questions in order to strike up a conversation. Usually at least one of them speaks good English (and the other doesn’t, presumably so they have an excuse to speak Korean in front of you). Eventually they ask you where you’re headed, if you’re meeting anyone, and would you like to experience some Korean culture with us? I’ve never gone with any of them, because it has always seemed strange to have a Korean stranger approach me. In 3 years, no Korean stranger approached me unless they were trying to sell me something or get me to take their picture.
I’ve actually only really made two or three Korean friends by myself; the rest were introduced to or thrust upon me by the friends who had already taken a liking to me. That is how friendships, and often also relationships, are formed in Korea. Making friends in Korea can be a strange experience. But back to the girls we met and their impending scam. They were both pretty, conservatively dressed and non-threatening. Now, I could have done as Koreans often do and pretend to not speak English and briskly walk away, but instead I stood there with one food planted firmly away from them.
The other foot had yet to be swayed either way, so they engaged me in conversation, saying they were university students and asking what I was doing in Korea, how long I’d been here, stuff like that. It was all very typical first meeting softballs, except for one of their first questions: “Why do you like Korea?” A valid question. When people are at a loss for conversation topics, this is the go-to, and it’s a damn hard one. My epiphany in that moment, cheesy as it is, was that any country you live in is more aptly compared to a person. The people & places we choose to be around mold us into who we are, and Korea is no different.
Why DO I Like Korea?
Most people, myself previously included, would have started listing features of Korea that they appreciate & have come to enjoy. Maybe they’ll just say they moved for work and change the subject; most people feel uncomfortable revealing that money was a motivating factor. But that’s a horribly over-simplified way to describe your home, as a detailed list. You want someone to know how you feel when you’re there, not just to picture some of the tasteful decor in your living room.
I see my life in Korea as hanging out with a good friend, with all the ups and downs, peaceful silences and bright moments that come with a worthwhile friendship. I go days here only interacting with my coworkers, little kids, and store clerks, and it’s only just been a month as of today. I’m definitely isolated in my town, but it’s not lonely, because I have a friend with me. We’ve been getting along well for awhile now, and we appreciate each other’s good and bad qualities alike.
She coerces me eat healthier, force myself to learn every day, and stay out of my comfort zone for long periods of time. I teach her youth the language of my people. Seem like a win-win to me. It’s a symbiotic relationship of respect, and one I hope to maintain for a long time. It appeared that the girls who approached me understood this comparison immediately, surprised by it, but not doubting it. Or hell, maybe they were just confused by my abrupt direction change, because it definitely wasn’t friendship they were after.
Momma Said Not to Talk to Strangers
About fifteen minutes into the conversation, one of them tried to get me to go with them right that minute to go “experience traditional Korean culture,” like wearing a hanbok and whatnot, for an hour. A curiously specific amount of time. I realized right then that they hadn’t actually revealed much about themselves, which itself was not extraordinary considering that I was the foreigner. The content of their offer wasn’t really the strange part, but the timing. It is super weird to want to take a complete stranger somewhere to “experience your culture” at any time of day, but especially at 8pm on a Saturday.
To dinner and a movie, sure, but I’d have turned down that offer, as well. I mean, not that I don’t think I could have fought the pair off if my curiosity had gotten the best of me, but from what people later told me, they might have actually brought me to a Korean fortune teller of sorts, and beyond that, who knows? Over my time in Korea, I have had dozens of people offer to teach me about Korean culture, but none in such a unique and creepy way.
After a year and a half living here, I still get stopped about every other time I’m in Hongdae, always when I’m wearing a backpack. Nobody has been able to last longer than a few minutes when I start babbling in Spanish in response to their queries, though if they ever did respond I’d have to take advantage of the opportunity to practice my Spanish. Either way, it’s a good thing I already had someplace to be that first time, otherwise this might have been a very different blog post!
Have you ever had someone stop you in the street like this, in Korea or elsewhere?