I’m Sorry, and Who Are You Again?

Apologies for any typos you see: I’m still adjusting to the itty bitty keyboard on my Asus Eee and, well, you know…

Someone I know recently told me how she has learned to take pleasure in refusing requests that make no sense. There will always be some people who will ask you to do something — often some work for them often unpaid. It’s all in how they ask, though. Sometimes I’m willing to do a favour for a friend, sometimes I’m glad to pitch in on a project for a good cause.

When someone who is neither a friend nor a representative of a good cause, though, I’m likely to just say no, or to attempt to do so. Like this afternoon, when some random professor called me. I have no idea how he got my cell phone number — I should have asked, so I could reprimand whoever gave it to him — but I do remember meeting him, once. It was at lunch. I was eating with a another foreign professor, and this older Korean guy sort of sauntered up and plonked himself into a seat at our table, uninvited and very obviously unconcerned by the fact he was interrupting a spirited conversation.

Then he sat there for a few minutes, making boring small talk in such a way that made it totally clear why he was really there: he knew that his one foreigner contact on campus was leaving soon, and was looking to make another. When someone who is liable to try use you turns up, well, if you’re at all experienced in meeting such people, you can sense it. I sensed it, and it was with relief and annoyance that I asked “Who is that guy?” when he scurried off again a few minutes later.

Well, you knew he would call me eventually, and that day was today. “Hi, I’m [unrecognizable name] from [department I’m not connected with].”

“Sorry, who are you?” I say, glancing at the number on my cell phone. Campus number, but blocked line, so I can’t know who it is. It’s always a random number.)

“I’m [still-unrecognizable name] from [department I’m definitely not connected with]. We met last semester with your friend [foreign prof who is now gone].”

“Uh, okay. I don’t remember, sorry.” (Actually, I do remember, and I don’t wanna talk to you anymore, pal.) “Anyway, what’s up?”

“I want to see you.”

Just like that. I’m supposed to believe that this guy has suddenly, on a Tuesday afternoon six months after an awkward 2-minute long introduction-and-conversation, felt a deep hankering to see me again.


“I’m sorry? What for?”

“I would like to have lunch with you.”

“I see. Well, you see, these days, I’m so busy I don’t even have time to spend with my friends, actually. I barely leave my home except for class, because I’m working so much.” He’s making awkward sounds, but it’s basically true. One outing in the last two months, I think it was. One outing. And this guy wants my time? “So, anyway, I’m very busy. But what did you want to talk to me about?”

“Oh, well… actually, I want you to edit my course syllabus.”

“I’m sorry, your… syllabus?”

The University is having professors teach courses in English next semester. A great number of them are nervous about this, from what I’ve heard, and I can understand their anxiety. I can’t quite understand the need to have someone proofread a syllabus, though.

“Yes, I’m, teaching

in English, and I would like you to edit my syllabus.”

Now, this is not my job. This is so not my job. My job is teaching 12 hours of class a week, prepping said classes, grading their work, holding office hours, co-editing a student magazine, maintaining a website for my students and courses, working on some website stuff for our department, doing some part-time proofreading for the Department of International Academic Affairs, and more. Those things are my job, plus, come March, academic research as well. After that, my free time goes into my relationship with Lime, my fiction writing and occasional columns, and my health. In that order, unfortunately — the health and writing need to even out.

This guy has no claim on my precious time, but he sure seems to think he does. “Oh, but… uh, it’s only two, er, two-and-a-half pages. It’s short. I need it edited…”

“Well, if you email it to me, I might be able to look at it two or three weeks from now. Or maybe after final exams. Right now, I’m just loaded down to the limit, and I honestly won’t have time to look at it. Feel free to email it, as long as you can wait for a reply.”

I say this because it’s easier than saying no, but gets the point across. Which is not, “It’s personal” but rather, “I have a job. I don’t exist here simply for your disposal.” What I really felt like saying was, “So, if I need some random document translated, or, say, I can’t deal with some shopping website because I don’t have a Korean national ID number, I can pop by your office? You’ll take care of things I need done for free? I can make demands on your time, as you are on mine?”

I’m pretty confident, though, that this guy would be taken aback at the idea of stopping to translating a document for me, or ordering something from Gmarket on my behalf. I’m pretty sure the expectation of free help goes only one way in this guy’s mind. And faced with that attitude — the attitude of a person who is basically out to use you, it’s very hard to be cordial.

I managed it, but only just.

As for why I’ve slotted this in Korea — well, I don’t know whether it’s just because of my experience, but it seems much more a common experience for me here that random peoople seem to be happy to try extract free work from me. I’ve also been offered lots of paid work, but regardless, it sometimes feels like every seventh or thirteenth person looks at you and seems to see the words “MY TIME MEANS NOTHING TO ME: ASK ME TO PROVIDE SOME FREE LABOUR” tattooed on your forehead. I know I was never asked to do any work for free in Canada, though I did end up doing some. But after a few years in Korea, I discovered that failing to say no would mean having  tons more of the same unpaid work dumped on me, and at the same time, finding my time in extremely short supply.

And it’s just not worth it. The people who respect your time and energies will understand when you decline, and they will almost always offer to pay when they can; the people who don’t respect you don’t deserve anything from you anyway. (They also don’t respect their own work, since they almost never bother to find out if you’re qualified as a proofreader or editor!)

So anyway, if you want to live in Korea, and want to have any spare time on your hands, you need to know how to say no, whether it’s directly or indirectly. No is your friend. Sometimes, No is the only thing keeping you sane, healthy, and in possession of your weekends.

I’m practicing the word in the mirror, once again.

6 thoughts on “I’m Sorry, and Who Are You Again?

  1. empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy empathy (없음).

    I’m starting to sound like a broken record.

  2. Saying ‘NO’ diplomatically has proven helpful in many a situation – both here in Korea and back in the states. It seems your response of ‘I’ll take a look at it’ saved your face by not turning him down, and hopefully he inferred that his project would not be the highest of priorities.

    Perhaps option B might be to ask for what you think is a fair price for your efforts to increase the priority of the task – the guy’s probably not broke. Option C? Knowing a Korean that *could* order you something from GMarket or translate a document later on might be nice to have handy, with a favor owed you :)

  3. Thanks all,

    Joe: Yup. The weird thing is, if his empathy deficit is basically taken for granted, how come my self-imposed one (saying no) isn’t? How come I’m supposed to be all compassionate and volunteer my time? The best description I can come up with is that it was like dealing with an inept sociopath. He tries manipulate me with a social invitation; I refuse and ask what he wants; he tells me, and I blockade the request. He is weirded out that his attempt at manipulation failed.)

    One wonders if maybe there’s been a trickle-down effect making empathy deficit an adaptation to living under a certain kind of militarized dictatorship? Haven’t been to Burma, but in Laos people didn’t seem to lack empathy, despite living under a ridiculous government.


    Yeah, he wasn’t quite offended, and I didn’t come off as I was exactly refusing. (Though unfortunately this led to him saying he’d ask me for help “next time” instead.) I thought for a moment about suggesting a very high pay rate, but frankly, that would suggest I was interested in doing the editing, and I wasn’t. Looking at someone else’s syllabus might interest me if I were jobless. I’m busy enough that my free time should be reserved for what I want to do, and not editing tasks that I feel are, frankly, beneath me.

    (Beneath me simply because I have MUCH better things to edit and proofread, like my own writing which has been languishing on my hard drive, waiting to get sent out!)

    As for GMarket, my fianceé (referred to on this site as Lime) usually is happy to order things for me. Translation is a little harder, but I know this guy wouldn’t do it anyway. (And I know there are some people I could probably ask, if there were a good chance of the translation getting published in the long run. Or, hell, if I can get some research funds…)

  4. It’s funny. After a few years in Korea, if someone approaches me, I can tell in less than ten seconds whether they actually want to meet me, or just saw “Free English Lesson” tattooed on my forehead in invisible ink.

    Ever had someone ask you a grammar question on the subway? and then argue with your answers?

  5. Ha, in Iksan one guy I knew from France simply told people I was French and spoke only French. Some people STILL insisted on speaking to me in English.

    These days, I rarely get approached for Free English Lessons… I think I sort of exude a kind of “Don’t Try It!” air or something. When it happens, I sometimes just say in Korean, “I’m busy, and I don’t WANT to talk to you.” And people get it and wander off.

    I tend not to get asked grammaer questions on the subway because I wear earphones most of the time. When I do get asked, I tend to ask, “What do you think?” or explain that my work time is finished and I don’t want to spend my free time teaching people I don’t know, because I teach all day long.

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