Sunday, December 12, 2010

oh, those crazy foreigners...

Living in a city of 350 000 people or so, and being one of the few foreigners living here (I think there's around 100 of us, I'm not sure), you quickly become aware of the fact that you are, indeed, a novelty.  There are a few ways that Koreans will generally react to you:

A) They will treat you just like how they would treat any other person, including other Koreans:
This is how my co-teachers and most Koreans have treated me.  You get on the bus, and most people don't care, you can carry on your day to day life like you would in any other country where you are not the minority.  Sometimes, I even forget that I'm in Korea... until, you know, I look at a sign or go grocery shopping or start paying attention to what the people around me are saying.

B) They will automatically be afraid of you or hate you for no reason (luckily, these people are the minority):
This happened earlier this week.  I went to the grocery store after school to buy something to make for dinner.  After paying and leaving, I walked to the street corner to wait for the light to turn green.  There was a small group of people on the corner, and I ended up standing by an ajoshie (older Korean man) who took one look at me, then did a double take, and proceeded to shuffle away from me towards the other Koreans standing on the other side of him.  All I did was stand on the street corner with my groceries and wait for the light to change, yet he STILL shuffled away from me.  This actually happens a lot, and it is REALLY irritating.

This also goes for children.  Some kids will love you because you're different, but I cannot even count the number of times that I have been doing something completely normal (like sitting on the bus or shopping), and kids have started crying, or pointing and yelling, or freaked out because OH EM GEE WAYGUKIN (foreigner).

C) They will be completely fascinated by you, because you are different:
This usually results in staring.  At the coffee shop, on the bus, at the bus stop, in the grocery store... anywhere.  ALWAYS with the staring.

This will also result in people being overly nice to you in the strangest ways.

Shortly after arriving in Korea, I went to the grocery store down the street from my house.  As I was leaving the store, an ajoshie starting shouting HEY!  HEY! at me, and I turned and looked towards where the sound was coming from, which ended up being a table set up outside of the store.  The ajoshie waved me over and started offering me soju... AT TWO IN THE AFTERNOON!  He basically wanted me to sit with him outside of the grocery store at two in the afternoon and drink soju with him while he asked me question in broken English and Korean that I didn't understand... because I was DIFFERENT.

There was a bus stop that I used to wait at in the old downtown during the summer on the way home from my summer camp.  Within the span of a week, I had two of the strangest halmonie (grandmother) incidents.
The first involved a baby.  I was waiting for the bus home after my first day of summer camp, and there was a halmonie at the bus stop with the CUTEST baby.  For once the baby was not terrified of me (see point B).  So, I was wiggling my fingers at the baby and saying annyong (hello), and the baby was giggling and being the entire definition of the word ADORABLE, when all of a sudden the halmonie stands up and WHUMPH there's a Korean baby being thrust in my arms.  Thank GOODNESS the baby didn't cry and try and wriggle away, and the halmonie was clapping and all excited.  And then my bus came and I had to give the baby back.  It was odd, but, the halmonie probably proceeded to tell everyone about how she got the foreigner to hold her (great?) granddaughter.

A few days later, I was waiting for my bus home again, and there was another halmonie incident.  On the bus bench there was an ajumma with her shopping, a halmonie in the middle, and a middle school girl on the other end of the bench.  Upon seeing me, the halmonie starting waving me over and patting the TIIIIINY little spot between her and the middle school girl for me to sit down.  I started saying kenchanayo (I'm okay) kamsahamnida (thank you) over and over again, while she kept patting the seat and waving me over.  At this point, she shoves the school girl off the bench (HOLY EFF!!), and starting patting and waving again.  I had NO CHOICE but so sit now.  I said mianhamnida (I'm sorry) to the girl and sat down on the bench with the halmonie, who proceeded to put her arm around me and start cackling away in Korean.  My bus arrived shortly thereafter, so I kamsahamnida-ed her and told her annyong hi kaseyo (goodbye), and got on my bus and went home.

D) They will find you to be a great source of novelty:
Case in point, this weekend.  Friday, I went out for dinner with Alex, and we decided to go out for a few drinks after dinner.  While in the bar, a group of some other foreigners came in and invited us to join them, we started playing some drinking games and talking... and my "I'm just going to have one or two beers and then go home and go to bed early" turned into me getting drunk and all of us going to norae bang (the karaoke rooms).  We were all rather drunk at this point, and this is when we became a great source of novelty to the Koreans around us.  Every time we left the norae room, the young Korean men working in the norae bang would watch us and end up cracking up laughing the entire time.  To some Koreans, everything we do ends up being hilarious, drunk or not.  Our conversations were hilarious, us looking for our friend was hilarious, the fact that we got so excited because the signs for the bathrooms had scissors on them (SERIOUSLY, scissors on the signs for the bathrooms!!)... everything was hilarious.  Maybe because they can't understand what we're saying, our drunken excitedness and pointing and yelling ended up being a great source of hilarity for them?  Who knows, all I know is that when in groups with other foreigners, you can often look around and see at least one Korean who finds everything you do, hilarious.

Another example:  On the bus on the way to dinner, there was a woman with her son standing behind Alex and I, and, I'm not sure if she understood our conversation, but she had one of those "I'm smiling because I'm trying really hard not to laugh right now" expressions on her face the entire time I could see her... and, she wasn't doing anything but looking at and listening to us.

Those are the most common types of reactions that Koreans will have to foreigners that I have noticed.  Some days it makes things really interesting, and some days you just get really sick of it, especially when people are rude towards me just because I'm not Korean.


  1. What a trip! Reading that entry makes me wonder if we, as Canadians, are consciously aware that sometimes... we do the exact same things, if not worse, to foreigners to our country.

    I hear a lot of the same stories from a friend of mine who is teaching in Japan. Maybe people who visit another country are more sensitive to it because they know they're different from the mass majority?

    I really do wonder what the immigrants in Canada feel from Canadians, now...

    I like reading your blog! It's interesting to hear about these experiences... I hope I have my own someday, haha. =)

  2. Wow, talk about culture shock!! I thought that I had a hard time adjusting to living in England for a year, but it doesn't really compare to your experience. Sounds like you're still able to have fun and enjoy it, even if some people are staring a you or pushing little girls off of bus benches!

  3. I think once you realize that you're a minority somewhere, it stings even more when people do stuff like that, because it becomes a matter of your specific ethnicity.
    In Canada, I almost always had brightly or odd colored hair, and I had a lot of piercings, so when people had reactions to me, I didn't care.
    But here, because it's a matter of ethnicity, it seems to actually have an effect on me. It doesn't bother me a lot, you get used to it really fast, but it's still a weird feeling when you're so used to being a part of a majority.
    I've always made an effort to leave discrimination and racism out of my life--life is too short to hate people for ridiculous reasons--and I make an honest effort to call other people out for being racist or discriminatory (an ex once told me that I was going to get shanked one day because I can't keep my big fat mouth shut)... I think this experience has only solidified my stance on racism and discrimination that much more. Because, honestly, when you're having a crappy day, someone pointing and yelling WAYGUKIN and then changing a seat on the bus or shuffling away from you really can hurt, a lot.
    I think everyone should move to a country where they're a minority at some point in time in their lives, it really opens your eyes and makes you see the world in a different light. Not only about matters like this, but also about so many other things that we take for granted... cheese.

  4. Wow. It was like I experienced Korea first hand! This is a great blog you've written here. Thumbs up! :)

  5. Ahh, well thank you, I'm glad you're enjoying it!


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