DISCLAIMER: this post could offend. I want to clarify, I do not hate Korea or Koreans and the events described are meant to be seen for their comical side and not to further stereotypes or ethnocentrism. These events are isolated and are only my personal descriptions of my experiences, they do not classify all Koreans or all of Korea in the slightest. I admit that for the sake of humor, at times my language is colored in a way that polarizes me against Koreans and I know that can seem childish and ignorant, but my true hope is that you read with a smile, as I have written with one.
Over the past few weeks, several isolated incidents have occurred that until recently, I considered ordinary and dismissible. However, I feel like I can now confidently infer that a pattern has developed.
CELEBRITY STATUS…..From the moment we get on the elevator to leave our apartment building to go to school until exiting the subway on the way home and the walk back to the building at night, we are daily, unabashedly and constantly stared at by Koreans. I’m not just talking infants or toddlers or even young kids who arguably don’t have manners yet anyways. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Koreans of ALL ages will and do stare for seemingly absurd amounts of time. The staring is now a regular and familiar part of every day. Once when I was on my way to take the subway to go to physical therapy, I passed maybe 10 Koreans before I got a stare and I had a mildly narcissistic moment and actually wondered why people weren’t staring. I am now so used to being stared at for my entire public life that I think subconsciously I’m convinced that I have some sort of celebrity status in Incheon and that’s why I get the stares. ABSURD. Don’t worry, I grounded that idea nearly immediately and about 30 seconds after I was wondering why people weren’t staring, I realized that they really were and that all was normal again and as it should be….or should it?
SHOPPING PROTOCOL……Although much less frequent, it is another common occurrence in Korea to be followed around stores like you’re convicted larcenists who’ve just narrowly escaped prison and are scouting out their store for an easy steal. I mean, I would describe myself as a friendly and non-threatening individual. I don’t shop like I own the place and I’m always careful to never give any illusion of stealing or slipping something in my purse or anything weird like that. I am a normal shopper. But, because I am a foreigner, I have an automatic status of belonging to a stereotypically dangerous subversive group that could greedily steal everything! I don’t actually know if this is what people are thinking, admittedly, I’m making that up—the point is that it doesn’t encourage me to buy anything in your store if you follow me around with obvious distrust! Yes, I’m talking about you, lady in the Chinese chotchkies shop in Chinatown!
RESTAURANT ETIQUETTE…….There have been many moments in Korea so far that I would describe as disorienting. Few could rival the magnitude of how I felt one night out at an Italian restaurant celebrating a new friend’s birthday. Funny enough, this “Italian” restaurant’s menu was written only in Italian and Korean with no English translation. Being able to read Italian, this was fun for me since I knew exactly what we were ordering for a change instead of looking at the Korean and just picking arbitrarily. Anyhow, the group of us were all laughing and talking and enjoying the food, the wine, and the general atmosphere when all of a sudden our waitress calmly came over to our table and told us in these exact words (as if she had google translated the necessary phrase): “Excuse me, but could you please calm down.” What?! I can’t laugh and talk with friends over wine and pasta? Don’t you want us to ENJOY your restaurant?? But, this is Korea after all, and as soon as we shut up we noticed we were being the loudest people in the entire restaurant by a long shot. Regardless of the wait staff, we continued to have a good time, although I’m still really very bitter about that experience, honestly.
SUBWAY THRONES…….This last story is from one of the many subway adventures to and from various parts of Seoul. I was sitting on a long ride back to Incheon and at this point, we literally only had one more stop to go before making our last transfer when an old man sits down next to me and although spoken in Korean, he very plainly told me to move and give up my seat. See, I know there are these 6 magical subway thrones designated for the elderly and disabled but, in my defense, had there been an older woman or man who needed my seat, I would not have hesitated for one second to give it up. It actually gives me joy to give up seats on public transit for the elderly and anyone who knows me knows how much I love, LOVE old people. However, not only was it a nearly empty train, there were 4 more magical thrones left to claim for any other person who would want them. I wasn’t stealing anyone’s seat! I can only conclude that he basically just did not want me sitting there.
As I continue to settle in, in whatever way that is possible here, I seem to keep forgetting that culture shock is real and ubiquitous. This is someone’s home and beloved country; this is the land my students will grow up in and are proud to defend. I am here for this: not to experience Korea only as it is convenient or comfortable to me, but to take it in for what it is, and to be changed by it.