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)

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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

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