Please sit in the foreigner section.

Sometimes, when you’re living in a very, very foreign country, you get a little bit paranoid that the locals are out to get you.

Koreans are a strange bunch as far as this goes. They can be some of the most hospitable, generous, and kind people you could meet… or they can be incredibly unwilling to accept you, The Stranger, into their midst. I suppose these problems exist all over the world to some extent. I’ve been shocked in recent years to hear comments on the news from back home such as “all these Eastern Europeans coming over and living in our country” and “you can’t walk down the street without hearing 2 or 3 different languages being spoken”. Something that I see as a positive thing, giving people the chance to mix with those from different countries and learn about other cultures, is seen as a threat and/or an annoyance by others.

Korea’s similar. For every group of friendly locals who are almost intense and creepy in their desire to be instant best friends with you, there’s a group of sullen-faced passers-by wondering why their people are talking to the foreigner. For every individual who wants to talk to you and learn about your country, there’s another one sticking napkins in her ears because she can’t bear the sound of you talking in your native language.

Yesterday, I spent a lovely afternoon in my favourite restaurant, where the Italian menu and Western ambiance means that foreigners are not only welcome, but encouraged. We have spent many happy days and evenings lingering over pasta and a few bottles of wine, never feeling that we’re going to be kicked out for staying too long after our meal, sometimes even ordering more food when we start to feel peckish again! It is one of my Happy Places.

Anyway, eventually we left in search of Korean food, ending up in a very traditional and rustic-looking place where we were the only foreigners in a crowd of maybe a hundred diners. And in stark contrast to the lovely waiting staff at bonbon, they were not at all happy to see us. Reluctantly, our scowling waiter took us to a free table, where we sat down and did our best to read the menu. Then we gave up and simply asked him to bring us a beef dish, indicating that we didn’t know what any of the items on the menu were, and were happy to try whatever he recommended. He didn’t crack a smile once, and actually rolled his eyes as he walked away. In the meantime, I saw three separate groups of newcomers shake their heads when their waiter started to lead them to the table next to ours – no one wanted to sit near the foreigners. We’d obviously stumbled into a place with a strict Korean-only policy, and the change in attitude was perceptible. We simply weren’t welcome here.

Mind you, the food was delicious. However, a few bites into it, we all eyed each other dubiously. Do you think, suggested South African Friend Four as she paused to wipe her streaming eyes, he’s brought us the spiciest dish on the entire menu? Everyone nodded in agreement as tears flowed down faces and cold water was gulped down. All of us love spicy food. We have gotten used to the firey heat of many Korean dishes. But this was absurdly hot, and from the smirk playing on the lips of the waiter, I don’t think it was a mistake on his part. He was getting us back for not being born Korean, and clearly didn’t know the whole deal with revenge being a dish best served cold.

Still, the day anyone manages to teach me a lesson by punishing me with food is probably still quite a long way off…

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6 thoughts on “Please sit in the foreigner section.

  1. Bravo for staying on.
    So far I haven’t gone many places more xenophobic than the US, but instead I’m often made to feel responsible for American foreign policy and culture. It’s not always easy, but living abroad is wonderfully enriching.
    I love your stories of Korea!

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