People staring at foreigners was one of the first things about living in Korea that I learned about. Let me preface this by saying that some foreigners in Korea don’t mind the attention levels that they get, and it’s not something that they are bothered by. I’m not saying that this is right or wrong, neither am I bashing Koreans. I make it a point to be really honest with my blog, and just like my other blog topics, this one relates to what I personally felt about it.
At the time that I was becoming interested in teaching in Korea, (2013), there really wasn’t much information out there about living in Korea like there is now. Most of the vlogs/blogs that I was able to find often mentioned staring, but downplayed it quite a bit, so I didn’t think much of it. Folks would stare at me because they were curious. I could deal with that, no problem. I’ve had to deal with it in the States my entire life. Being a person of mixed race, people tend to be interested in what my ethnic make up is. Literally strangers ask me where I’m from, or what I’m mixed with often; and this is in America. I personally don’t care for a lot of attention, and just prefer to be a part of the crowd, but since all of the information I had at the time downplayed this, I didn’t think too much of it.
I was OK for the first couple of weeks, but once the realization set in that this would be the way of life for the entire time I was in Korea hit, it was daunting! It wasn’t just that people stared at me, many people literally gawked at me, gasped in surprise at me. It wasn’t just in my neighborhood where I was the sole westerner, it was literally everywhere I went! Understand that many Koreans do not know foreigners, so seeing one is quite different for them. Being a mixed race person, people had difficulty placing my race, (I get that in America too, but definitely not at the levels that I did in Korea). Those who would ask where I was from, often thought that I was Indian, and were shocked to hear I was American. To many older Koreans, being an American is still associated with being white, and since more often than not, the assumption was that I were Indian, it was a bit unbelievable that I was from the west. I was a non-white American, living in South Korea. At the time, it were as if I were a literal unicorn.
There were even plenty of times where I would catch people taking pictures of me with their phones, or even recording me. Parents would sometimes push their very devastated looking children to say something in English to me. Everywhere I went attracted attention, and even more so when I was with friends.
If I happened to be out with Korean friends, there would be more stares. One of these friends and I were walking around Seomyeon, which is a busy area in Busan, and he commented that the amount of stares we were getting was like “being an animal in a zoo. Only they are not feeding you.” Which pretty much sums up how I felt. Over time, I learned to not let it bother me as much, and would read books, or listen to music if I were taking a long subway ride, or working out at the gym. It helped to keep me distracted, and take my mind off of my surroundings. I was never totally comfortable with the attention, and true to my introverted ways, often felt like the only place where I could have some type peace was when I was in my own apartment.
All of these things may not seem like a big deal, and they definitely do not bother everyone, as I’ve said before. For me, it was draining, especially if I were having a bad day, only to catch someone snapping a picture of me. Everyone’s experiences will be different of course. If a foreigner lives in Seoul, things are a bit different there, as the majority of foreigners live there. The positive thing about all of this, is that if I ever do decide to teach in Asia again, I know what to expect, and how to better handle myself. Which is one thing that I can be grateful for!