Hi Captain Awkward and Army,
I am currently teaching English at a public school in South Korea. I also identify as culturally Jewish, religiously agnostic/humanist/spiritual/existentialist/questioning/whothehellknows and believe that people can and should believe in whatever they want or have to believe in, whatever makes them comfortable and happy, as long as that belief doesn’t negatively impact others, so live and let live, to each their own, etc etc etc. Now, for many Koreans, I have been told, I am their “first Jew.” So there are a lot of questions. And, for personal reasons, I keep “kosher style” – no pig products, no milk/meat mixes in the same meal, no shellfish. This is because it makes me feel connected to my family, history, and ancestors, not because I am afraid of being smited or smoten. I have always eaten this way, and am not looking to change. So, I have asked the staff to please let me know if the school lunch for each day contains any pig (just to keep it simple – I can sort out the rest of this stuff on my own), and when they ask why, I simplified by saying it was for religious reasons. Despite the language barrier, this worked just fine at my old school (…just had a flashback to The Magic School Bus there, sorry), and led to some nice conversations about Judaism, and sharing of religious customs and ideas.
It’s gone a bit differently at my new school. Most teachers are Christian, and (at least) one of them is deeply religious. I have also discovered that the English teacher before me was a religious Christian too, so I think there was some bonding between them on that subject. Last week, this teacher gave me a beautiful calligraphy painting he had made from a quote from the bible. At first, I thought he was just being friendly and welcoming (I have had an amazing time here because of how open and generous colleagues and students have been), but during the last few days, he has also taken to quoting scriptures at me in between classes, and giving me his bible to read, and asking questions about how Christianity and Judaism compare.
So I have a few questions.
1. Is he just being friendly, or is this a divine mission to convert me?
2. If it’s the latter, how can I politely put a stop to it without being rude, especially given the cultural and language barriers? (There are also a lot of random people in my city who approach me on the street to try to get me to convert to Christianity or Mormonism, so a handy script for this surprisingly common situation would be amazing…)
3. What can I do when he asks about how the religions compare? I am not particularly knowledgeable about the ins and outs of orthodox Judaism, and am certainly ignorant about many details of Christianity, so I have no clue what to say. Which he doesn’t understand, because to his mind, if I’m religious enough to adjust my diet accordingly, how on earth do I not have the Torah memorized?
I tend to be completely disorganized in my thoughts, so I hope this is clear enough. Thank you for your time, patience, and amazing work you do. This is one of my favourite places to hang out on the web, and I can’t imagine how busy you are, so I understand if you can’t answer, but I do want to nip this in the bud, in case it starts getting out of hand, so any help would be hugely appreciated.
Emphasis on the -ish.
P.S. (An email immediately following)
Update: I can get rid of the “think”! Work ended about an hour and a half ago, and on my way out of the office, I was given a lovely watercolour with this written on it:
“25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
…and then endured a 15-20 minute conversation about how he became Christian, how he was saved, and how he has watched many youtube videos of Jews who have realised that Christ is the saviour and Easter is coming and oh my god, how am I going to deal with this for another 6 months?
I do not want to insult or belittle this man’s religion, but I have to work with him for the next 6 months, and I have come to my religious affiliation after years of questioning and thinking and raging and being depressed and more than I want to go into here. I am not going to change. So how how how can I put a stop to these conversion conversations without making every future interaction awkward? Please help!
Dear Emphasis On the -Ish,
People evangelize about all sorts of things, whether the subject is kink or essential oils or Dawkins/Hitchens/Maher-Straight-Angry-White-Dude-Atheism or the food-free diet or the Sweet Lord Above (or how *everyone* should read Captain Awkward Dot Com and watch The Wire). Enthusiasm is cool, recommendations are cool, but blowing past all “huh how about that” signals to single-mindedly sell someone on something that changed your life is irritating. The hardest layer to punch through is that a person in evangelist mode is sharing the most important and wonderful decision of their life (whether it’s the decision to embrace a Lord & Savior or dispatch gluten from their diet) and aren’t they doing you the most WONDERFUL KINDNESS in service of your Immortal Soul/more pleasant poops? “I JUST WANT TO HELP YOU, HEY WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” The diet evangelists are honestly easier to take, because at some point you can say “I literally don’t care about anything you have to say,” where religion is supposed to be respected, at least nominally.
Evangelists will also pepper you with questions about your practices and beliefs, which wears the mask of being a kind and polite thing to do, but it’s often just an attempt to draw you into a discussion where they can represent their views; i.e. “I asked you about your stuff, now politeness demands that you listen to all of mine.” Their enthusiasm and conviction that this is helping forces you into the role of feeling like an asshole when you just want to be left alone, or having to acknowledge their kind intent even when there really isn’t one. When people are being aggressively nice and enthusiastic and friendly and curious, it’s really hard to swat them down for the same reason it’s hard to swat away any sales pitch: They are designed to be sticky.
One thing you could try, when peppered with questions about Judaism, is to embrace the role of Faulty & Reluctant Ambassador For Your Faith. Script: “I can’t answer that. Jews are as diverse in their beliefs and practices as different Christian denominations and religion is very much a private matter for me. If you are interested in learning more, here are some websites that give a nice overview.” These were recommended by Jewish readers and friends:
- See also the write-up that some kind soul(s) did at TVTropes.org.
There are more in response to this Tweet, and I’m sure other recommendations will show up in the comments, though the point is not to find this dude all of the Chosen People’s Chosen Information, the point is to get him to fuck off about this topic with the least amount of friction possible. It’s so tempting, especially with the YouTube conversion propaganda videos, to try to go with facts and logic and dispassion, like,”Those are happy stories for you, but for me a happy version of that story is: A Jew is born! And then he/she happily stayed Jewish until he/she died! We just don’t have that same ‘born again’ concept or drive to convert others.” But the more you engage the more you will make it seem like something is debate-able or negotiable here. To that end, when he brings it up again (and he will bring it up again), I suggest the following script, though I’d love someone who has spent substantial time in Korea to double-check it for me:
“Friend-name, I am so touched by your gift. It’s clear that religion is very close to your heart, and I am glad that you have something that makes you so happy. My religious practices are a more private affair, and except for when necessary (like dietary concerns), I don’t like talking about religion. Can we discuss other subjects? I’d love to know about how you learned to watercolor/do calligraphy/what was that wonderful food you were eating at lunch/where the best cinema is nearby/(other topic you know he is interested in).”
I realize that’s a mouthful, so put it in your own words/stages/whatever works for you. Try to find three or four safe topics that you can change the subject to. Asking questions about secular Korean customs or the local culture and geography and history can be an especially good/safe thing to do when his Explainer Mode is already engaged – try redirecting that energy into less fraught channels.
If/when it comes up again, “Thank you, but we talked about this. Religion is a private topic for me.” + change the subject.
If/when it comes up AGAIN, be emphatic: “Please, this is very uncomfortable for me. I want to be respectful of your beliefs, but I need you to also respect mine, which are private and not up for discussion at work.”
Try two subject changes and then end the conversation as gracefully as you can and try again another day (excusing yourself to the restroom counts – physically absent yourself whenever possible). It is going to be awkward, but it is already awkward, because he has decided that you are his conversion project. You don’t have to hear him out or submit to that role just to be nice. Reward him with attention when he talks about non-religious things, remove your attention and presence if he won’t get off it.