“Are you kidding me?” my voice was getting louder.
“Come on Laura, let’s just go” my friends whispered quietly behind me.
“No!” My breath shaky, my hands curled into fists. “They can’t do this!” I insisted to my friends. I turned back around to the Koreans blocking our way through the door to the restaurant and looked at them with complete disdain. We had just been denied service at a Korean restaurant. Despite there being lots of empty tables and plenty of space.
We had been denied simply because we were foreign.
“Don’t look at me like I’m crazy, you’re the ones that are insane! I can’t believe this!” I was yelling now. I knew they couldn’t understand me. I also didn’t care.
My friend put his hand on my shoulder, “It’s not worth it Laura.” Shame, rage, embarrassment and sadness flooded me all at once. My friend was right. I was fighting a losing battle. The restaurant could have been empty but if they did not want to let foreigners in, they weren’t going to. To make things even worse, this wasn’t the first time this had happened.
Xenophobia is not a huge problem in Korea, but it’s definitely not a small one either. Some Koreans are open to the idea of a global Korea, while others, namely the older generations, are not. Keeping in mind that this is a country that prides itself on being of “one blood,” combined with the rapid speed and entrance into globalized economy after the devastation of the Korean War, foreigners living in Korea is a relatively new thing.
Now some of you reading this might be like, “Wait a minute Laura, I’ve been to Seoul and saw lots of expats in Korea.” Well exactly. In Seoul. But even in Seoul expats are the minority. Even more so when you move out the smaller cities like say, Daegu. If you live on the edge of Daegu like me, there is a LARGE chance you could go a full week or full month or even longer with out seeing another ONE person who is not from Korea.
I am a white girl from the USA. I would be lying if I said I had not been surrounded by sameness for most of my life. Most of the people in my life, directly and indirectly have been white. This isn’t me being racist, this is a a fact. Minorities are in my life, but to say minorities are the overwhelming majority in my life? That would simply not be true. So as a white girl from the USA, NOTHING could prepare me for how isolating it can feel when no one looks like you. I went from a place of extreme conformity to extreme difference. It’s a heavy feeling. Constantly being reminded of your difference.
Korean attitudes towards foreigners tend to range greatly. Younger ones, tend to have a more welcoming attitude, they usually have been exposed to foreigners living in Korea and even more likely they have had a foreign teacher, letting them have a safe (and hopefully positive) experience with someone who is different from them. Sometimes the “welcoming” nature can actually move into “special treatment” territory.
At my local Korean BBQ place, the chef always gives me two or three extra servings of meat for free, despite the restaurant being full of Koreans.
A pizza shop owner gave me an extra pizza and a coupon for a free pizza the next time I come.
An older Korean woman gave my friend a cucumber for sitting next to her on a bench.
At a grocery store in the check-out line, people will frequently encourage me to cut them in line. Or will buy me a candy bar and hand it to me as I am leaving.
But on the other side of the spectrum, xenophobia can rear it’s ugly head in horribly unexpected ways.
People refuse to sit next to me on public transportation. (I actually like this, but its technically a negative thing).
Koreans will stare, openly talk about you, and attempt to sneak a photo of you just doing every day activities.
I will be charged double for the same item that I just watched a Korean pay less for.
In stores I will be closely followed by an employee, who watches my every move.
Constant and continuous staring, any where I go in public I will be openly stared at.
Also in stores me and friends will be barred from trying on clothes because we are perceived as dirty.
Korean women have come up to me and felt my breasts, quite aggressively, without asking to check if they were “real” or not.
Me and my friends are given the smallest table at the very back of the restaurant or we are just refused service outright.
Now this is NOT me saying I know how it feels to be a minority in the United States. Far from it. I could never understand the historical and societal structures that have created a whole system that is designed to inhibit a country’s own natural born citizens. It’s a feeling I can’t begin to imagine, but I can only work to help mitigate by listening to my fellow Americans who live in this reality every day.
I also don’t know how different it is for people who are not white in Korea. I can only speak for myself and my experience. I know for a fact the black experience in Korea or the southeast Asian experience in Korea is different from mine.
But I know what it is like to be white in an conservative area of Korea.
I recognize that feeling of relief when I see another foreign person (of any color) on the subway. I feel the humiliation of being refused simple services simply because I’m not Korean. I feel the frustration at not being able to change attitudes because some people refuse to listen.
The dichotomy of how foreigners are treated here can be head spinning.
As Korea grows into a more international country I only hope their attitudes towards new people continues to change as well.
Most of all it’s truly made me aware of how we treat immigrants in the United States. While some of these examples may be extreme, it’s not too far off from what is happening inside our own country. Next time I am home I will try to give that new expat more patience and understanding, instead of frustration and impatience.