There are so many blog posts on the internet where people have shared their experiences as a foreigner in South Korea. Despite many sources delivering balanced views, there seems to be this irrational idea that Koreans are racist towards other races, especially Chinese and any Westerners. This irritates me a little, but I can’t speak for everyone and I haven’t had the same experiences as everyone so I’ll do my best to share my own experience.
I am blonde-haired and blue-eyed, averaging 5ft 9inches (175cm-ish), so nowhere near Asian-looking. I was curious to see how I found it in South Korea, being an ethnic minority there. South Korea has one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, with something like just 300,000 foreigners living in Seoul. That sounds like a lot but with a population of just under 10million people, the foreigners in Seoul are hardly there. I found this to be true when walking around Seoul; I saw maybe 20 other Westerners maximum over 10 days in Seoul (5 days at the start of August and 5 in the middle). Perhaps this is why Koreans seem to stare an awful lot. Though, since they’re somewhat more used to foreigners than in more rural areas, the people in Seoul usually just double-took or looked for just a second or two. I found that the further you are from Seoul, the more you will be stared at if you don’t look East Asian. I can understand why the staring happens though; I admit that by the end of my trip, I struggled not to stare at any Westerners I passed. Because their faces are so rare in the sea of oriental features, your eyes are drawn to anyone who looks different. A strange dilemma was created where whenever I did see a foreigner, I had an urge to make eye contact, nod, even speak to them. But would that not be a bit weird? Probably, I mean, I wouldn’t do that in London at complete strangers. Yet it felt like just because we were both foreigners, that was something to hold onto and bring us together. One of my Chinese friends in Britiain once introduced me to a friend he had recently made, and when I asked how they had met, they told me an amusing story of how they had just been stood in a queue next to each other and both noticed the other was also Chinese… This was a similar concept.
I could live with people glancing at me or even being quite puzzled by my appearance, but the thing that really grated on me was the way that older people thought I couldn’t see them talking about me. Sure, my Korean is barely conversational so maybe I can’t understand you, but when you’re looking right at me and whispering to each other… Do you think I’m blind? I’m guessing the perfectly-practised accusing frowns of the older women were the result of their conclusions that I was a Russian prostitute (tall, blonde, Western, and travelling with an older man – my dad, actually). If you look remotely foreign, it seems that you’ll be a point of interest. You’re the conversation piece on the subway. The entertainment. There was one other instance when I felt I was being stereotyped as a foreigner. I had heard of the popular chain restaurant ‘School Food’ and opted to try it one afternoon when it seemed like the only other option in that area was the convenience store. The waiter seemed keen to practise his English on us, even when he said, “I guess you guys can’t speak Korean,” and I replied in Korean… He continued to speak in English, which I didn’t mind because he was just trying to be helpful, I suppose. What I did take offence to was the way he said, “You guys probably want forks, right..?” and grinned. I might be from England but right now I’m in Korea and I’ll eat like a Korean. Besides, I’d spent so many tireless meals teaching my Dad how to eat with chopsticks that I refused to sit back and let all my hard work come undone. No, we did not need forks. On reflection, I think any incidences like this in South Korea come from a lack of interaction with foreigners and foreign cultures. Perhaps also from the bluntness of Korean culture – you might have heard experiences of Koreans pointing out your bad skin or your messy hair; they mean well, it just sounds blunt to us because it’s not the way we do things over here. However, as Korea gains more global recognition and more foreign tourists flock there, this is bound to even out a little. And of course, I’m not claiming that every Korean has never met a foreigner and that they’ll treat you strangely because they’re not sure how to ‘handle’ you.
In contrast, of course I did have some lovely experiences with Koreans. The couple who owned the hotel in Seoul we stayed in were nothing less than accommodating. Yes they were nice because we were paying them money… but they went to extra lengths. They took us to botanical gardens in Gyeonggi-do and treated us to Korean BBQ. They cooked for us one night and we sat on the roof of the hotel. They offered to drive us to the airport after checking out, and then drove us to the SMTown Concert instead since we would be going to the airport straight from there (…yep) – and we even stopped for Patbingsoo on the way because they remembered we had wanted to try it!
I saw a lot of Japanese and Chinese tourists in Myeongdong in particular. I can’t say why. Seoul is definitely geared to English, Japanese and Mandarin-speaking tourists; signs everywhere are in Korean and English. Most places also have Japanese and Chinese signage. On public transport there will be Korean and English announcements, and 70% of the time also Japanese and Chinese. It’s obvious that the majority of tourists are from within Asia. Having said that, you’re lucky if you can find multi-lingual speakers in Seoul, let alone the rest of the country. If you’re buying a ticket from a counter, its unlikely they will speak English to you. Sometimes they will try with limited words but contrary to popular belief, not everyone can speak English. Yes, students learn it at school often but do you remember those scraps of high-school French? It’s about meeting the people in the middle. You can do universal gestures for asking about times and price, and people will write the numbers down for you. In taxis, you can show the driver an address. In restaurants you can point. It might just be me but I find all this very frustrating and I prefer to use the language. I’m aware as well as anybody that it’s not always so simple though! The best experiences I had with English speakers was firstly, in Incheon Airport – my bag did not arrive but I was helped by a member of staff who spoke English fluently and went out of his way to get me back on track – and in a branch of KEB Bank in Jeonju when exchanging currency. Strangely enough, the one thing I found most difficult in Korea was ordering in coffee shops. In the UK, we don’t even think about all those little questions they ask like, “Hot or cold?” or “Which size do you want?” but suddenly they are the barrier to you getting your coffee fix! Ordering coffee actually became a chore until I consulted a Korean friend for a bit of vocabulary and had another few goes in the shops. You get the hang of it. Until they throw in another question you’ve never been asked before but, hey ho.
In summary to this ramble, of course you can experience culture shock and have difficulties functioning properly in Korea, even when you do know some of the language! Not everyone will be able to help you, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try. In my experiences, Koreans are humbled when foreigners are interested in their culture and country. Korea is safe for citizens and tourists alike, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone violently showing their distaste for foreigners. Being a foreigner in Korea might be difficult sometimes but it can also be an advantage! Travelling can be tricky, but never impossible.
((P.S. I avoided Itaewon completely – partly for fear of being judged by the Koreans (just kidding..! I think…) but more so because I hadn’t gone to Korea to meet other Westerners. I wanted to interact with Koreans. However, I can see how it might be nice to interact with foreigners too, especially if you are in Korea for a prolonged period of time.))