One of the slightly stranger aspects of life in Korea is the instant celebrity status you have as a “waygook” (foreigner).
I’ve mentioned this on several occasions before, but still do not feel as if I’ve accurately conveyed the level of looney-tunes that I find myself wading through at times. It is the one part of life here that can still shock me from time to time, particularly when I try to imagine what would happen if the roles were reversed.
Picture, if you will, your own community in Europe or North America or wherever you happen to hail from. In my case, it’s a town populated mostly by white people who only speak English. Now, imagine that a person with a different colour of skin – we’ll call him Hyun Jin – moves into the area. Perhaps, in extreme cases, he might get a curious glance. But it would end there, right? Let’s say it doesn’t. Let’s imagine that person, quietly going about his daily life, while all the local people stop to stare in unconcealed fascination. Children scream “Look at that!!” or “foreigner, foreigner!!”. Old women curiously pinch his cheeks and feel his biceps. Elderly men pause, resting on their canes, to watch as he walks past on his way to work. He enters a shop and everyone inside comes to a standstill, gazing at him and making “wow!” noises. Total strangers approach him in the street, shouting “Annyeonghaseyo!” because the word for hello is the only one they know in his language. Then they run away laughing. Gangs of schoolgirls follow him around, giggling hysterically and even screaming when he looks around. Groups of teenage boys try to engage him in conversation, mostly about how handsome he is. Middle-aged women stick napkins in their ears when dining next to him at a restaurant, because they cannot bear the sound of his foreign language in their country. He cannot have a quiet drink with his friends without at least one merry local approaching on a dare from her friends, either to try to befriend him or use him as a free teacher of his language. People at tourist attractions will angle their photos to make sure that they get him into the shot – he is as noteworthy an attraction as an animal at the zoo, or a spectacular view. Some will even thrust their babies into his arms for a picture, even though he is a total stranger.
What would happen? Would you get away with it? I really doubt it. You’d be accused of racial harassment or something, and news would spread across the world about this terrible town which persecuted a resident simply because he was different. The world would be shocked and disgusted. Even if most of the attention is positive and admiring, it’s still a case of isolating and harassing someone based on the colour of their skin.
So I don’t know why we mostly accept it here. I don’t know why it’s OK that I am often treated like a special exhibition at an art gallery, when if I behaved in the same way to a “foreigner” back home I’d be in serious trouble. I don’t really understand what the cultural difference is that makes them see us as funny animals when we’re taught to see everyone as equal. At first I thought it was that they weren’t used to seeing foreigners, but I no longer believe that – there are lots of us here, and yet still we’re oddities!
In addition to the incidents I’ve reported before (the wow factor at the shop, the staring, the restaurant outcasts), there have been some things lately that have just made me take a step back and think “Hang on – what if I did this to someone at home?!”. Just this weekend, I was chatting quietly to a couple of friends in a bar downtown. We were at our own table, minding our own business, having our own conversation. And this (possibly somewhat crazy) girl at the next table just barged her way right in, interrupting our conversation and going over a lot of gibberish we couldn’t understand. We were polite as always, even though we were keen to get back to our conversation, which had been interesting up until that point. We even asked her to speak in Korean, as we thought we might be able to understand more of that than her unusual take on the English language, but either she didn’t know her own language either or couldn’t understand our request. She fawned over Irish Friend One, and then spent some time stroking my face before eventually kissing me.
I mean, honestly, can you imagine having a quiet pint with your mates and having total strangers barge right into your conversation with inappropriate remarks and body contact, and you just accepting it as normal social behaviour? Because it’s happened to us so many times now that we simply sigh when we see them approaching, rather than looking at them in startled amazement and asking them what the hell they think they’re doing.
But the one thing that perks me up when all the attention gets to be just too much – after a bad day, for example, when you just want to be left alone to talk to your friend instead of pose for pictures with a spellbound stranger or give your life story to someone you’ve never met before – is the knowledge that one day, I am going to get my own back. One day, far from now, when I am living in a city frequented by Korean tourists, I am going to try it out. Not to be racist or rude or nasty – only to satisfy my curiosity about whether they think it’s normal behaviour. I will point them out to my friends, and stare, and shout “Annyeonghaseyo!” and run away shrieking and giggling when they respond. I will take photos of myself posing with them in the background. I will plonk myself down next to them at their table in a restaurant or bar, and force them to stop their conversation and talk to me as I speak in my rusty, broken, incomprehensible Korean.
I will only do it once, I promise. I am not going to become the very thing that drives me insane on such a regular basis. But I want to try, just one time. I want to see if they mind, even just a little bit. And yes, damnit, I want my revenge. Please… just once?