[Writer's Choice] Foreigner’s Experience: Looking Different in Korea
BanSeok Shin, Aug. 13, 2019, 2:31 p.m.
Being a foreigner in another country tends to be an experience that makes you feel out of place, especially when you don’t speak the language. But even if you do speak the language and understand the culture fitting can be difficult simply because you don’t look the same.
South Korea is known as one of the most ethnically homogeneous (of the same kind; alike) countries in the world meaning that there is little ethnic diversity in Korea. While diversity has been slowly growing due to the global spread of Korean culture there are still plenty of Koreans who have never seen a foreigner in their life. Additionally, the many of the foreigners who are in South Korea tend to live nearby one another in large cities like Seoul as well as in and around US military bases. The famous tourist area of Itaewon is an example of a district that is near a US military base and is bustling with foreigners.
Outside of such areas however, and the further away from Seoul you get, the fewer foreigners you see. While Koreans can still see foreigners in Korea on television, in K-Pop, and in sports arenas, running into one on the street or in daily life is uncommon to say the least. A tendency that people have when they see someone or thing uncommon or unusual is that they stare. Yes, staring can be considered rude in many Western cultures. Yes, is can also be considered rude in Korean culture – which most people try not to do…for too long. Ironically, after spending a couple months in Korea I found that, outside of tourist areas, whenever I saw a foreigner I would be more surprised to see them then many of the Koreans around me - and I could tell by the initial reactions of the other foreigners that they felt the same way!
But like I said, seeing a foreigner is uncommon and for many it’s even surprising…especially when that person is a large, tall, African-American looking person – like me. People of East Asian and white ethnic appearance, while uncommon, are generally not too hard to see and simultaneously hard to notice. Many East Asians can pass as Koreans while many of Eurpoean decent who are of smaller stature can go unnoticed on the street if their skin tone is similar to that of a Koreans. So, unless someone is actively trying to distinguish ethnicities, or a person just stands out physically then some ethnicities won’t draw to much attention.
I can personally confirm this as when my Southeast Asian mother came to visit me in Korea, she was mistaken as a Korean! One shop owner was surprised to find out she was also a foreigner and that the only one who knew Korean was me! Why? Because my mother’s genes don’t stand out in my appearance and because I’m over 6 feet tall (the average Korean male is 5 feet 9 inches tall). Furthermore, outside of foreigner heavy areas and sports arenas Africans and African-Americans are rare. I actually don’t remember seeing one outside of the mentioned areas.
If you’ve ever done any research or seen articles and videos on what it’s like being a foreigner in Korea then you probably know that many Koreans have certain stereotypes and preconceptions about people from African descent due to what they see in foreign media (they are also positive sterotypes too). Poor, living in crime ridden areas, aggressive, and stereotypes like that may be held by people who aren’t well educated on the matter. But just like in diverse societies, even the educated may still, unintentionally, hold those preconceptions – especially when they haven’t had the experience to change their views.
I was definitely aware of this as I rode the subway to and from work every day. I could feel and see the eyes of various people pay extra attention to me as I got on and off the subway. There was on instance where I was riding a subway looking out the door. I was just quietly minding my own business – just like everyone else on the train – by one older (elderly maybe?) lady who was standing to my right couldn’t help but stare at me. In a weird, but also funny, manner she would suddenly jerk her head to look at me, and then slowly try to break off her gaze only to suddenly look again. This happened for a couple minutes. As awkward as that was that was probably the worst it got for me. Just as I tried to ignore my standing out, other Korean strangers tried to do the same.
While adults tend to be more mature on these kinds of matters, kids, on the other hand, can be quite oblivious – especially those elementary age kids, who were who I mostly worked with. Have you ever had anyone come up to you, take your hand, look at your skin, and rub it to see if your dark skin color would come off? I had only heard of that happening on tv until it actually happened to me! I’ve learned over the years that kids are adorably and surprisingly unaware how the world around them works. At first it bothered me that Korean kids would ask me if or assume that I’m from Africa, but I came to realize they probably don’t know or learn much or anything about slavery in the US or around the world. Also, some kids had never seen a black person, or even a foreigner in person, let alone actually meet them. Smaller kids seem to get over the idea of race pretty quickly though – or they’re too young to understand.
It was a bizarre and slightly uncomfortable, but enlightening experience living in Korea as a foreigner, but I was fortunate to never have anyone blatantly be racist towards me or to have seen racism in Korea. I’ve heard of some Koreans being nasty racists, but I think that most Koreans are quite friendly to foreigner’s (at least if you show interest in Korean language and culture) and will treat you well so long as you don’t do anything to upset them -like being super loud and obnoxious in public, not being respectful, not following societal customs and etc.