Every time I entered Bupyeong Station in downtown Incheon that spring, pretty young women would bound up to speak to me. Not just to speak to me, but to speak to me in English, and to invite me to various events and ask for my phone number. They would smile, and dutifully compliment my Korean, which was then (and still is) a widely known key to my heart. I was unaccustomed to positive attention from strangers while abroad, and was terrified by people willingly approaching me to speak English–an action so unfathomable I have had Korean strangers literally flee from me when confronted with the possibility. Their positivity and pleasantness was unexpected–rejuvenating, even. But it was also a little bit suspicious. After me, they approached any vaguely non-Korean looking people around and talked to them, too. What was this? Had Korean society changed overnight? Were we finally being embraced? One world? Could we all hug, and throw down our stupid racial differences, and maybe have a drum circle?
Well, no. Actually, all of the pretty young women were cultists.
Which was fine, because I did not expect any better. As a foreign worker electively choosing to move far to other countries for probably overpaid jobs, as a traveller tramping through distant, exotic climes, it is not on other people to be nice to me all of the time. Other people have jobs and families and appointments to make, and don’t have the time to cater to my many and various whims, or to spend their spare minutes showing the depths of kindness of the local people.
Local people are busy. They are not a diorama of foreign culture, they are not moving museum pieces meant to educate and improve awareness. While being nice is nice, not everyone has the time to stop and chat. Not everyone wants to slow their language down laboriously in order to explain how to get to the 7-11, or when the temple closes, or to hear your pedestrian theories on labyrinthine and complicated foreign politics. Sometimes, local people have local lives to get back to, and while they don’t want to leave you with a bad impression of the people, they also really do need to show up for that colonoscopy. I have come to a sense of peace with this knowledge, with the expectation that everyone while I travel or live abroad is too busy for me: I am no special, gleaming jewel that they must stop and wonder. I am just another blobby obstacle to overcome, possibly encumbered with a huge backpack, a look of desperation, and a terrifyingly poor command of Lao or Vietnamese.
But at the same time, this peace has made me suspicious. It has made me wily. It has made me mistrusting and scornful and avaricious. Most people, realistically, don’t have the time to stop and be nice to me, so when someone finally does, I assume it must be for ulterior motives. Kindness comes with a pricetag, and most human interactions are transactional in nature. If someone out in the world stops to speak to me, it is almost certain they want something.
These people want my wallet. They want filthy lucre, or they want my credit card, or they want the gold doubloons they assume I carry. They want my clothes, and they certainly want my overpriced shoes. They want my fine, healthy organs. They want my quality eyeballs. They want what I could probably fetch on the kidnapping market.
It is not a terribly bad heuristic to have, at least while travelling. Those people who are tasked with separating tourists from their money are skilled artisans of their craft, and know to look out for people who are new to the landscape. They know how to schmooze, they know how to flatter, and they know how to charm. The craftiest grifters are so smooth and delicate with their art that the marks never know they are being greased and fleeced, but even the most plodding and ineffective scammers know at least a little of the ways of feigned kindness. And feigned kindness, when you are lost or tired or confused or can’t speak the language or are spilling money out of every pocket, seems like a blessing. Developing a healthy mistrust of people who are overly kind to you when the situation seems to call for blasé apathy is a base-level defense for keeping your wallet and everything inside of it.
And on the flipside, genuine human kindness is nearly incomprehensible. A pleasant Thai receptionist, days after we had left the hotel and were simply passing through town, jovially helped us to charter a bus. A group of Indian men attempt to get us taxis, and then after noting how close our destination is, pull out a map and direct us down the road. We were inundated regularly with underhanded acts of simulated pleasantness, iron sticky fingers under velvet gloves, but so to were we occasionally graced with basic human kindness, and we had almost no coping skills to deal with it.
The locals in Kovalam were unsettlingly nice – cordial, polite, and never exerting the kind of pressure we had come to expect in any particularly slick and efficient tourist gluttony centre. While elsewhere in Kerala we smiled through long stories about many ailing children and accusations on our character for every tossed off “Maybe tomorrow!” we gave, local shopowners and restaurateurs happily chatted with us every day as we passed by. Some continued to wave us down to waste time even as it became clear that we were unlikely to patronize their business.
Our impulse was, of course, to assume that they were all part of an overarching conspiracy, that everyone in town was colluding towards pleasantness and sincerity to lull us into a trusting stupor. Their friendliness would surpass our defences, and we would be prime for the picking, and in seconds our torsos would be cleaned out of all the good stuff. But days passed, our time in Kovalam ended, and the people remained nice as we went on our way. We still had our wallets and our deeply held understanding of human nature as brutal and cunning, but we also had the niggling suspicion that some people out there, maybe just a few, were actually, genuinely nice.