When you're an expat in another country, there are moments when you realize that you are, truly, an outsider. No matter how long you've been living there, no matter how much you love the country, no matter how well you speak the language....you'll always be an outsider.
A lot of the time, these sudden realizations are sparked by "micro aggressions." Seemingly small, inconsequential comments or events that build up over time or just serve as a little pinprick reminder that you're different. You'll never fit in.
Speaking from the experience of someone who's only been in Korea for six months, I have to say that micro aggressions occur pretty frequently in the ROK.
First, let me state the disclaimer that Korea is, on the whole, an excellent place to live. I do truly love this country and I'm already planning my next several years here. I feel like I've adjusted well and people have been exceedingly nice and accommodating. I rarely struggle to communicate, despite my beginner level Korean. Everyone has gone above and beyond to see to it that I'm happy and comfortable and appreciated.
However, even in a place like Seoul, I'm different. In Korea, foreigners make up only 3% of the population. Korea is largely homogenous and someone who is different is rare. Yes, even in Seoul. Sure, I could go to areas like Itaewon or Hongdae and not be given a second glance. But that's not where I want to spend all of my time. I came to Korea to experience Korea, not to experience a mini New York.
Some of the micro aggressions that I've encountered so far are...
"Oh, it's too spicy." No. It's not. Or, at least, it very rarely is. Even ordering from the Mandu Imo (dumpling auntie) down the hill, every time I order gochu mandu (hot pepper mandu), she comments that it's too spicy for me. I assure her it's not and she smiles knowingly, and then gives it to me anyways. It's not too spicy. It's barely even hot. And it's frustrating that Koreans think that their food is the only spicy food in the world. Indian food? Hotter. Mexican food? Hotter. Certain Southern foods? Yeah, way hotter.
"Oh, you use chopsticks so well!" Maybe back in the day, foreigners didn't know how to use chopsticks. But these days, I grew up using chopsticks with Chinese food in restaurants, for takeout, or just because I think it's a good way to eat food (it makes me slow down when I eat). I know it's strange for Koreans to think that. But the worst part is that some of the foreigners that I know get asked this...even though they speak fluent Korean and have lived in Korea for years.
"Sorry, that banking option is only available in Korean. Oh, and even though the application is in English, the error message is in Korean." Seriously? I've gone to pay bills using the ATM's English option, and it errors out and tells me something in Korean that a translation app can't make heads to tails of. Even my coworkers were confused with how to say it in English. Or, what I'm going through right now. My card is being denied, and no site will tell me why. Because 1) I have a Mac and not a PC, 2) I don't speak fluent Korean, 3) I don't have a Korean resident number, 4) I can't get a digital certificate because the programs it requires are ridiculously outdated, 5) I hate to install bloated "security" malware on my computer just to access their website. Everything is outdated and old and clunky and....just not something you would expect from a first world internet behemoth. None of the Koreans have problems with their side of the site though. All of this is only in English. Even a coworker who speaks Korean struggles with the website.
The stares. Why, yes. I know that I'm a foreigner. I know I'm different. You don't have to stare at me open-mouthed to remind me. Note, this is usually only the older population. And for the most part, they're kind enough to look away when I notice them. But some of them...don't....stop. Ever. I feel so exposed, like a fish in an aquarium. Worse, some of them start talking about me in Korean, not knowing that I speak it decent enough to understand a bit of what they're saying. Most of it is innocuous, but every now and then I'll hear words like "leave" and "thief." It hurts, and I don't know enough Korean to tell them that.
"Wow, you're so _______ for a foreigner." Thanks for that back handed compliment.
There's so many more of these. Luckily, they aren't an everyday occurrence. But they happen often enough that I feel a welling anger sometimes. Like this bubbling in my chest that threatens to roil over and make me strike out at those around me.
And then I realize that the metro system here is in English. And most people smile and thank me for speaking even my mediocre Korean. And then they speak in perfect English. And they give me extra food because they're excited that I like kimchi. And the rolling anger and sadness fades away into a warmth and a comfort that I rarely experienced back home.
In the end, I feel that Korea has a ways to go. It's still backwards sometimes. It's still homogenous and xenophobic and close-minded sometimes. But it's also so welcoming and warm-hearted and inclusive. This country is a dichotomy, and I'm hoping that the old ways of staring and surprise begin to disappear with the rise of the younger generation. That this kindness and sharing that I've experienced isn't just a temporary thing and that as this country changes, it changes to be even more inclusive of those without native Korean heritage.
Writer, Photographer, Dream-Seeker