English Safari


Hunting occidentals--how's that for a nice sport? It's great for practicing your English, but even better for learning about those who live together with you on the same planet Earth (this knowledge will, in turn, make your English language ability much more substantive).

Try it. It may be difficult and embarrassing the first few times. But what really good experience comes without some discomfort? If you survive the first few times, it will become much easier. The most important principle in successful Occidental hunting is the same principle you should use every time you establish a human relationship: put yourself in the other's shoes. You must be perceptive enough to "read" (nunch'i) a person in order to determine what pleases him and what displeases him, and you must be smart enough to adapt your approach and follow-up to what you have read.

Here are some suggestions. There are many here, but do not let the large number overwhelm you. Just get the general spirit underlying all these suggestions (i.e., put yourself in the other's shoes) and you will do fine.

Good hunting!

Do's and don't's



The attack

The universal basic principle in starting up a conversation with a stranger is a pleasant countenance and demeanor. This includes facial expression, tone of voice, and what you say. Try to be the kind of person you would enjoy meeting as a stranger.

The universal basic principle in continuing a conversation is to be perceptive and sensitive--to be able to see yourself as the other sees you and to be able to feel what pleases and what displeases the other.

Start off with "Excuse me..." If your target is a female around your age, and unmarried, add "...Miss;" for a female older than your generation, "...Ma'am;" and for a male older than you, "...Sir." (But after your approach is accomplished, use these titles sparingly--if you use them too often, the other will think you are being obsequious.)

When your target acknowledges you, ask, "Do you speak English?" This is important, because Germans or people from France are sometimes offended when someone assumes that they are an American.

After your target answers that question, ask a question that will stimulate the other's interest, such as one related to where you are (on the bus, at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change, etc.). Preface this question with "Could I ask you a question?" or "I wonder if you could tell me something."

The follow-up

When you have asked your question, the other will reply in a way that will indicate whether he wants to continue the conversation or not. Whether or not he wants to continue, try once more--sometimes you can change a person's negative attitude into a positive one if you are flexible and adaptable.

The other will answer your approach question in one of two ways. He may say something which makes you think of some interesting fact or anecdote from your own experience, or maybe something which stimulates a further question in your mind. Whichever way, try to go along the way you think he will enjoy.

When it seems that one conversation topic is exhausted, and if you can't think of another one to follow up with, try a simple question on English grammar or vocabulary, such as the English word for sonjabi (on the bus). Then try to make this lead to something else.

After you become better acquainted with the person, you can ask some personal questions--but don't ask in a way that seems you are interrogating him.


THE RIGHT APPROACH: ON THE BUS (Refer to * in the ANALYSIS after this dialog.)

You are standing towards the front of the bus, and a young lady (around 25) is sitting towards the back. She's gorgeous, and every other man on the bus is studying her out of the corner of his eye.*1 You walk back to where she's sitting, as if it's just a coincidence you ended up there.*2 After a few minutes your heart stops beating wildly and you have worked up the courage to pounce...

YOU: Excuse me, Miss. *3


YOU: Do you speak English?


YOU: Then I wonder if I might ask you a question?

YOUNG LADY: Certainly.

YOU: Well, where you come from (*4) do you pay the fare when you get on the bus, or when you get off?

YOUNG LADY: We pay when we get on.

YOU: Do they do it that way in most western countries? *5

YOUNG LADY: I think so. They do it this way in Europe, anyway.

YOU: Oh! Are you from Europe? *6

YOUNG LADY: Yes, I am.

YOU: May I ask where in Europe? *7

YOUNG LADY: Germany.

YOU: Germany? But you sound like a native speaker of English. *8

YOUNG LADY: Thank you, but I still have an accent.

YOU: Do you? I couldn't hear it. I guess I'm not familiar enough with the language yet. *9

YOUNG LADY: Your English sounds very good.

YOU: It's very nice of you to say that. Thank you. *10 But how did you learn it so well? *11


1. Good--when you first saw her, you didn't keep staring at her. Staring-- even when you think your target doesn't notice it--makes a person very uncomfortable, and is therefore rude.

2. That's right, try not to seem like you're attacking, even though you actually are.

3. You didn't know her age, but she looked young, so you called her "Miss." Even if you were wrong (and would have called her "Ma'am" if you had known correctly), your mistake has flattered her. (But use flattery very subtly--it should never be obvious, because then it becomes offensive.)

4. It's too soon, at this point, to bluntly ask "Where do you come from?" Because you asked this more indirect question, later you will be able to find out where she came from because you "planted" the question here.

5. At #4 you planted the question; now you're "watering" it. It's much more comfortable for the other when you don't begin immediately with a lot of direct questions which make it seem like you're interviewing or interrogating.

6. This is the right place to ask this question--it's a natural place for it. If you had asked it sooner, she would have thought you were too "nosey." Ask these direct personal questions only after you are acquainted, and/or when asking them seems to be the natural follow-up to something said previously.

7. Your question form here is very polite, which indicates to her that you don't intend to pry.

8. This reply accomplished two things. It subtly flattered her (you didn't say, "But you speak English very well!"), and you planted the seed for more topics of conversation.

9. It's fortunate that you didn't say, "I'm very poor in English." Saying this would indicate to her that you are "fishing" (asking indirectly) for a compliment on your English fluency.

10. When someone pays you a compliment, don't reject it or deny the fact. If you do, the other will think you are fishing again. Accept it gracefully.

11. This is a personal question, but it is natural in this case. It also introduces a topic of conversation in which both of you have a mutual interest.
There is one problem here, though. It is better not to ask one question after another, even if the questions are good questions. For example, after the young lady said, "They do it this way in Europe, anyway," you could have said something like, "We changed our system only a couple years ago," and then you could tell her an interesting anecdote about the "bus girls" of those days. Then the young lady might get really interested in the conversation, and she might even start asking you questions.

THE WRONG APPROACH: IN A TEA ROOM. (Refer to the parenthesized numbers in the ANALYSIS after this dialog.)

You are waiting for your friend. A 40-year-old male is sitting alone at another table. You keep on looking at him for about five minutes straight.(1) Then you go over to him.

YOU: (You offer your hand for a handshake. He hesitatingly accepts it.(2)) Hello! I saw you sitting by yourself. You must be lonely.(3)

HIM: Why should I be lonely?

YOU: Who are you waiting for?(4) (You sit down at his table.(5))

HIM: A friend. (His face is turning red.)

YOU: How long have you been in Korea?(6)

HIM: A few years.

YOU: Oh, wow! Then you are half Korean already!(7)

HIM: Well, I...

YOU: Do you like Korea?(8)

HIM: It's fine.(9)

YOU: What do you like about Korea?(10)

HIM: (He smiles) Are you from the police, or are you a reporter?(11)

YOU: Oh, ha-ha! Yes.(12) Anyway, don't you think Korean people are very kind?(13)


1. Don't stare.

2. Don't ever offer a handshake to a person whom you have just met, or to someone who is older than you (even if you know him well). The handshake is an offer of familiarity, and even in the West a younger person would be considered presumptuous to initiate this.

3. Westerners often enjoy being by themselves, so don't assume that a Westerner is unhappy if he is alone; sometimes he will be annoyed if someone interrupts his solitude. (But don't let this stop you from approaching-- if you see he is annoyed, just give up.)

4. The biggest problem here is that, it seems as if the conversation exists only for you. Another problem is that you asked the wrong kind of question, without the polite preface. If you ask a question like this, and without prefacing it, he probably wants to reply, "That's none of your business."

5. You should not sit down until he asks you to sit. The table is his territory, and you are encroaching on it.

6. Another interrogation question!

7. Try to avoid hackneyed jokes. If he has been in Korea for a while, he has heard all of these Min Byong-ch'ol jokes. If the joke is not your own creation, don't try it.

8. You interrupted again, as if you didn't care about what he wanted to say. Also, with this question, the foreigner will think you are fishing for a compliment about Korea.

9. He said this not necessarily because he thinks Korea is fine (he may think it's awful, he may think it's fine, or he may think it's paradise), but because he knows that you are hoping to hear a positive reply. He's too polite to give you a reply that you don't want; or, even in the case that he thinks Korea is paradise, he's too annoyed with you (because of your fishing) to say he thinks it's paradise.

10. You're fishing again.

11. He is implying here that you are prying into his personal affairs.

12. You saw his smile and therefore know he's joking, but you don't understand his joke; you pretend, however, that you do. The other will know very easily that you don't understand, so don't pretend to. Instead, say, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand your joke--could you explain it to me?" If he knows you are only pretending to understand his joke, and if you don't ask him for an explanation, he will think that you regard him as nothing more than a tool to use for English conversation practice, or that this conversation is only for your pleasure and not his.

13. You're fishing again! Don't boast about your country or anything you are associated with. It indicates to the other that you have some sort of inferiority complex or chauvinism, and that your perspective on the world is narrow and distorted.

Let's try this one over, the right way...


The same (in the tea room), but you don't look at him often or directly; you occasionally observe him out of the corner of your eye, unobtrusively. He might know that you are observing him, but he is not too uncomfortable because he knows you are trying to be polite about your interest in him.

YOU: Excuse me, Sir.

HIM: Yes?

YOU: May I ask if you speak English?

HIM: I do. (He's not happy with your intrusion.)

YOU: Then I wondered if I might ask you a question.

HIM: Certainly.

YOU: Well you see, I study English literature in college. But in all the English literature I have read, I have never seen anything about tea rooms. Could you explain why?

HIM: We just don't have tea rooms.

YOU: But then where do people meet?

HIM: Well, we meet in a coffee shop, or in our office, maybe in a park, or a restaurant...

YOU: Isn't a coffee shop the same as a tea room? Excuse me, but would you mind if I sat down for just a second?

HIM: No, go ahead. (Ah! He's becoming a little friendlier!)

YOU: Thanks. (You sit down.) So, is a coffee shop different from a tea room?

HIM: Well, a coffee shop is different because...
(His friend comes up--too bad!)

YOU: Oh, your friend is here! Well, I'll get going now. Thank you very much, and it was very nice to meet you.


You did everything right--you had a polite and friendly demeanor, you didn't ask the wrong questions, you had something concrete to talk about...but this one got away.

Better luck next time!