Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life as a foreigner

The first couple days I was here, I definitely was in the honeymoon stage. The people at my school are super nice, my apartment is amazing, and being an “obvious” foreigner makes it easy for people to understand that I didn’t know any Korean, so they have been willing to accommodate. Yet, being an obvious foreigner also has its drawbacks, and my first experience of being considered something other than human was when the honeymoon stage began to wear off.

After my Starbucks, internet outing yesterday, I wandered around to explore the area of the city around it, called Samsan-dong. It’s across the river from where I live and is has two huge malls similar to Gum or Tzum (Гум или Цум) in Moscow. Because it is Chuseok, the Korean harvest festival, many of the smaller boutiques I found were closed, which is probably a good thing since I need to wait until I get paid to go shopping. After wandering this part of town with people staring but otherwise being generally polite, I wandered back over to the Lotte Department Store (one of the Gum type places, where they sell Dior, Chanel, etc.) At the main entrance of the building is a large courtyard, and I walked out to the courtyard, found a bench, and sat down. Something interesting had popped into my head that I just needed to write down, and the courtyard seemed inviting enough.

I had not been sitting there for two minutes when a man sat next to me. I didn’t even look up, because in Moscow people do this because there is no other place to sit and looking up may attract unwanted attention. Why shouldn’t he be able to sit on the same bench as me? It’s not MY bench. Anyway, I soon heard the distinct sound of an SLR click, so I looked up and realized this man had sat next to me, not because of a lack of other places to sit, but because he wanted his friend to take a picture of him with this white foreigner. He quickly left the bench after the photograph was taken and headed back over to his group of friends chuckling. It did not take me long to stop making notes, change my tone, and feel a bit violated. Would it have been different if he had asked my permission? Probably not. But in this circumstance I felt as though I were a tourist attraction, not a person. I should have shouted at them about how rude it was – even if they didn’t know English. I should have stood my ground so as to hopefully prevent this from happening to another unsuspecting foreigner, but I didn’t. I just got up a bit flustered and walked away.

Funny how the age of the man made an impression – if he were young, I might have blown it off as some kids having fun. If I were in a social mood, I might even have insisted that I pose with them instead of being bent over writing. But because the man was middle aged, maybe even close to forty, I just thought it was plain rude. I guess I have some tolerance to build and some standing out to get used to. In Moscow, I was usually assumed to be Russian until I opened my mouth, especially after having adjusted my dress and style.

As I thought back through my experience of the day, I realized that maybe I am being a bit strange. Most foreigners I have seen, in fact, most people I have seen are not wandering around alone. They are with someone else. They are protected by the oblivion of social interaction.

– As far as the staring goes, I also stare at foreigners … but my motivation is, I wonder if they are nice? I wonder if we could be friends?


  1. When I visited Seoul, I had several people ask to take pictures with me. It really didn't bother me, although I was baffled that in a city that big, they didn't see more blue-eyed, light brown haired people.

  2. I'm glad that the clicking noise you heard was a camera. As I read, my heart fluttered a bit and I imagined worse!
    Getting used to each country's "personality" can be challenging, I bet.
    Stay safe!
    Love ya! Mom