Let’s start with the sunny side of life, shall we?
Before I begin, consider this a disclaimer that this ‘report’ is in no way intended to be definitive of the overseas experience, or even of the Korean experience. It’s specific to me, and to what I’ve observed from my very particular and limited perspective. SO when your experience is the opposite of mine DON’T SAY YOU WEREN’T WARNED. You totally were. Just now.
(I interrupt myself to tell you this: a good many of these items will repeat in the Bad and the Ugly lists. Because of Perspective!)
Let’s be really frank here just for a moment. I will cover the negative aspects of this THOROUGHLY later (oh yes I will) but it’s so important, immersed in this place, to recognize all the positives that come with the ridiculous amounts of attention you get as a foreigner. That I get as a foreigner. No matter where I go here, I stand out. I am noticeable. For one thing, I am nearly 5’8 in a country where the average female is 5’2 (and we won’t say anything about–ahem–other measurements. WHAT. I’M BIG BONED) (side note: when did I start using italics? UGH) and for another thing, I’m, uh, white. It isn’t the norm here.
And Korea, in some ways, is very much about the norm (I’ll have more to say about this, too, later, but for now I will just offer as indicative that one of the popular cosmetic shops here is called, literally, ‘The Saem.’ As in, the same look for everyone!). So you can’t just be a foreigner in Korea. You can’t blend in. And sometimes? Sometimes that is AWESOME.
In America, if you are out for a run on a lonely road and a car slows down and rolls down the window, you grab the rape whistle and start praying. In Korea? it’s just a passerby who wants to holler ‘Fighting!’ (the Konglish version of ‘You can do it!’) at the sweaty, belching waegukin who is clearly about a kilometer away from a full-blown coronary. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been walking down the street and a group of schoolkids walk by and say something like, ‘hello!’ or ‘where from?’ or ‘do speak Korean?’ or my favorite ‘welcome to Korea!’ Never mind that I’ve been here eight months and they’re still welcoming me. It’s nice. And when you smile at people, they smile back, since they were staring at you anyway.
And now to be more specific about attention: I didn’t anticipate one of the adjustments I’d have to make in Korea being the adjustment to being attractive. This is the part where you roll your eyes and mutter #firstworldproblems at me and yes. okay. it’s true. that’s a ridiculous statement. adjust to being attractive? But it’s TRUE. If I got a bonus every time a student told me I was pretty then I could kiss Sallie Mae goodbye in a month, TOPS. Now. Hang on. I know full well that student flattery is totally empty, and I know this because generally the follow up comment after ‘teacher, so beautiful!’ is ‘teacher, give me stickers.’ NO I WON’T. Beautiful people hoard their stickers. It’s in the rules they give you when you are beautiful.
But the flattery of kids isn’t an issue (it’s just nice to hear, especially on days when I do something special, like blow dry my hair. I’M HIGH MAINTENANCE); it’s the flattery of adults that really throws me. Eight months in Korea and I’ve been serenaded, asked out, and complimented (sticking with the positives here. the negatives, again, will be brought up another time) more than I ever thought possible and you know what? IT’S NICE. Motives or subtext or whatever aside, it is nice to know that you look good and have a random stranger back up your knowledge. It’s flattering to have a cute guy (the longer I’m here, the cuter Korean guys get. and when I went back to the States for my brother’s wedding, I was surprised and amused to note how frumpy and unkempt I found most of the Americans I saw. I adjusted, but it took a couple days) sing you a Korean power ballad at a karaoke night. It’s hilarious when an elderly man interrupts your conversation in the city park to tell you that you look like a movie star, and that you are very breast–breast–brest-taking. That is a real thing that happened to me three weeks ago. Made funnier because it was so potentially horrifying. And because I am thoroughly, thoroughly unused to it. My sisters will rejoice: I have had to acknowledge, living here, that I am an attractive woman! That I got it goin’ on. That I am, to a bunch of people over here, brest-brest-bresttaking.
And maybe that’s the best part of all of this attention: that the line between Good and Bad is often so thin, so hard to distinguish. It’s attitude that makes most of it, I find, and there’s almost ALWAYS something funny to pull out of it, even if it’s otherwise mortifying.
What the good attention boils down to is this: Despite how exclusive Korea is, there’s a whole lot of kindness, hospitality, and affirmation for difference here too. Almost everyone I’ve interacted with has been incredibly patient with my fumbling attempts at communication, and people go out of their way to account for my faux pas (how DO you make that plural) my boo-boos. So all the attention that comes with being a minority here works to my advantage more often than not, I think.