So one of the many bits of culture shock I’ve endured since arriving is that Koreans will stare at you and will not consider it rude at all. Now before anyone starts making judgments, hear me out. I think there are a lot of interesting things to talk about when you consider the concept of “staring” and how it relates to the perception of what is considered “rude”.
In Italy, for example, we were similarly told that Italians would stare a lot and I basically gathered that what we call “staring” is actually just more of a natural, observational tactic. Although there were times I would get annoyed at the constant gawking- I never thought that it stemmed out of malice or an inherent judgmental attitude as much as out of innocent curiosity. I really think Americans do the same thing they are just perhaps less obvious about it and perhaps are more judgmental about it which gives staring a really negative connotation. Since culturally we have been taught not to stare from a young age, we assume that all staring is extremely rude and judgmental. (This is not to excuse the predatory staring that I do not deny happens the world around).
Anyhow, I guess I’ll just come out and say that I feel as though I’ve never felt this many stares in my whole life as I have these past few days in Korea. The staring in Italy is minor league compared to here! This is probably painfully obvious and overly simplistic but the thing is I just do not look Asian one bit. Never in my life have I physically stood out as a minority as much as I do here. In America, I am about average height and weight and can blend in very easily- I’m one of a hundred million brown-haired middle class white girls. In the past, this afforded me some really convenient anonymity and I guess I didn’t realize how much I really like it that way. I don’t really like being the center of attention in new, big crowds and I don’t like to be someone who draws unnecessary attention to myself- it’s not that people who are like that are bad, again, we are just different.
That comfortable anonymity wasn’t really shaken up too much even while studying abroad in Europe. I could usually get by with a pseudo-European looking face and by avoiding the stereotypical obnoxious-American demeanors. In Italy, I convinced myself that if I kept my mouth shut long enough or only spoke in grammatically flawless and speedily delivered sentences, no one would be the wiser that I was actually an American. Ha! American accent. Just writing that out in admission now is hilarious to me and pretty embarrassing. Who did I think I was kidding? And why did I care to try and be someone I’m not?
Anyway, the difference here is that 98% of the people here are Korean and speak Korean, look Korean, and act Korean and there is NO WAY to blend in. Wherever I go, it is like being on the inside of the fishbowl feeling like my every move is watched, every quotidian activity, judged. I think in time this will probably either cease to be something I notice or my American ego will wear off and I’ll finally realize that all along they were just looking at the Gochujang (red pepper paste) stain on my shirt or that my hair was exceptionally frizzy that day. Either way, I am convinced that the looks we, the new foreign teachers, are getting from the Koreans are not all overly judgmental or malicious. I think the major factor here is that most Koreans see only Koreans all day every day so my curly light brown hair and green eyes are just new and different! I also have a theory that for the most part, they equate a ‘foreign image’ to be that of those celebrities they see in American movies and so an average looking American is probably a hideous and fascinating sight in their eyes 😉
I may be wrong about all of this and I may yet still be ignorant- I can’t explain away all the people of the world or speak for anything except my own experiences. I’m just trying to figure out this slice of the world I’m currently living in through reflection and writing. Do you think staring is inherently rude? Why do you think people stare? Have you ever felt like you completely stood out from the crowd and how did that make you feel?