Being a foreigner in Korea means I encounter a broad range of reactions. Living in a racially and culturally homogeneous society, I am quite obviously different. Sometimes I am met with great kindness, while other times I am treated like a child or an outsider. These are a few of the encounters I have had, related to my foreignness.
On being a child
The woman behind the counter clicked her tongue in disapproval. I looked down at my bowl of bibimbap. Was something wrong with it?
The woman hurried from the counter and walked over to the table where my friends and I were eating. She took the spoon out of my hand and started to mix the rice and vegetables in my bowl. It turns out she wasn’t satisfied with how I mixed my dinner! Despite our polite protestations, the woman did the same for three of my friends. As the woman went back to her post, I realized this was the Korean equivalent of someone cutting my meat for me.
It was, simultaneously, the kindest and most patronizing gesture I had seen yet.
In America, I blend in. I can do simple tasks like going to the store or taking a bus without thinking about it. I have never been catcalled or harassed on the street. No one has looked at me and said, “Good GOD, what IS that thing?!”
None of that has happened in Korea, either. At least not verbally.
The most common reaction I have encountered in Korea is staring, lots of staring. Stares of curiosity, stares of interest, stares of displeasure, stares of interrogation. A look that questions, “What are you doing here?!” A look that communicates, “You look different than me – and I like/dislike it!” A welcoming look. A look that is resigned to yet another encroaching foreigner.
Usually I ignore the staring, or if the person I pass seems receptive, I smile and wave or offer a small bow. Once or twice I’ve had limited Korean conversations about where I’m from (New York) and why I’m in Korea (I’m an English teacher), but there is a mutual shyness and a language barrier that prevents in-depth conversation.
Even though it seems innocuous, the staring still has an effect on me. Whether I am walking in town or around my school, I am hyper-aware of my actions and my appearance. I often miss the days when I wasn’t “on display.”
On being an ally
“America is our friend,” Mr. Hong said as he drove me home from school one day after midterms. “That’s why we learn English.”
“Students don’t always want to learn English,” I observed. “They don’t think it will help them.”
“But without English, they can’t get a good job,” insisted Mr. Hong. “We need English because we need America. We are surrounded by China and Japan, and North Korea is a communist country. We need a superpower or we can’t survive. So we are friends with America and we learn English.”
That’s a tall order to fill, I thought.
It’s easy, living in America, to forget how other countries perceive us. But now I feel like an outsider looking into America and understanding its international reputation and prominence. I find myself cringing when I read both Korean and American news every day. While not all Korean news is reported in America, most American news is reported in Korea–the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like all countries, America has so many of its own problems; but unlike other countries, American news is broadcast everywhere. With the media portrayal of America’s current problems and a scrutinizing international lens, how can we live up to this reputation of an ally, a superpower, and a friend?
On being an outsider
I’ve only been told once (by one of my co-workers, no less!), “I don’t like foreigners.” But occasionally, I encounter subtle reminders that I am not always welcome here.
Several months ago, during Sokcho weekend, my friends and I were walking along the beach when we saw the following sign:
Sokcho is a beach town that welcomes many tourists from nearby countries, but the sign was in English, rather than Chinese, Japanese, or Russian. And what an interesting, ugly, and distancing word–foreigner. Why would Sokcho provide an area just for foreigners? Was it considered a “service” for international visitors? Was it a means of keeping non-Koreans separate from Koreans? It was hard to tell based on a sign and an empty tent. But it did cause me to reflect on what it means to be foreign.
On well-meaning ajummas
The ajumma bent in front of me, her wrinkled face inches from mine and her small hand waving slowly.
“America,” I answered, then added hastily, “New York.”
“Ooooooooooh. Why…why in Korea?”
“Yeongeo seonsaengnim imnida.” I am an English teacher.
The ajumma’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped at my simple Korean. “Oh…oh…oh!” she said excitedly. Then she grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. “Nice…to…meet…you.”
“Nice to meet you, too. Mannaseo bangapseumnida.”
After asking where I taught and if I liked her country, her iron grip gradually loosened and she released my hand. She began walking away, bowing every few steps. “God…bless…you.”