Before coming to study abroad in Korea, I did a lot of research about the culture and how the citizens view foreigners. Much of my research came to the same conclusion, that Koreans are generally curious and wary of foreigners, a sentiment that stems from their past. In the Joseon dynasty, there was a period of time when trading with foreign countries was illegal and foreigners who set foot on Korean land would be arrested and executed. Luckily, that is NOT the case today! However, many Koreans do still harbor feelings of curiosity and sometimes resentment towards foreigners. I’ve heard many justifications for why this might be so: the largely homogeneous society, the rush of city life…Whatever the reason, I will be brutally honest. If you want to come to South Korea/Seoul and you are not Korean, you WILL be treated differently than the native Seoul-ites. For foreigners of Asian descent your biggest obstacle will be the language barrier as you will often be mistaken for a native Korean. For foreigners of non-Asian descent your biggest obstacle will be your appearance.
After I arrived in Seoul, I didn’t really experience what I would call the general “culture shock” that most travelers experience. I had done so much research on the culture and had already fallen so deeply in love with Korea that I barely noticed a lot of the differences between Seoul and the States (In fact, even though I am not looking forward to going home because I love Seoul so much, I AM looking forward to being able to directly compare American culture with Korean culture through reverse culture shock. –Look forward to my next blog where I’ll talk about some “Korean” things that my friends and I joke we will do when we return home!). The biggest difference that I noticed and that I consider my culture shock was the fact that as a foreigner in Seoul, you get stared at, quite a lot actually…
It is rare to walk down the street without getting stares and you’ll find that some Koreans simply want to brush into you to see if you’re real –I’ve had an ahjumma nearly run me over just to touch my butt and make sure that I was real person (haha)! There are days when I don’t feel bothered by being a minority here at all, but then there are days when I’m extremely conscious of my being a foreigner. On these days, I find that as I am walking down the streets by myself and I see people staring at me, I mutter under my breath “I’m sorry… I’m sorry I’m here. I’m so sorry!” I don’t mean to do it, but I find that I apologize to the Koreans in my head for being a foreigner in their beautiful country, for invading a place that isn’t mine, for being different.
I’m not saying that I know exactly how it feels to be a minority now, but I will say that I have a better understanding for how people might feel in minority situations. I know that you constantly feel a pressure to fit in, but that in your heart you know that you never will, no matter how hard you try. But the beauty of not fitting in and of being different is the confidence that comes with being different, of being proud of who you are. There are some days when I walk down Chinese kites the street and when I see people staring at me I instead think to myself, “I hope you know that your country is amazing! Do you notice how beautiful it is? Do you know that I spent 17 hours in the air just to get here, to see and appreciate all of THIS? How is any of this real? How can you be SO awesome Korea, HOW?” These days are awesome! They let me feel proud to be an American citizen touring Seoul, seeing how awesome Korea is and all the while reminding me of how lucky I am, how beautiful my own country is, and the importance of building a global community and of sharing the world’s cultures with one another.