Foreigners of Seoul

Being a foreigner in Seoul is something like being both a celebrity and a freak, that’s how it was described to me by a fellow expat. Even in Seoul where there are tens of thousands of foreigners, you might get stares in the subway. You get whispered about. You make shop assistants either excited or nervous.

Most of my experiences have been really positive. I’ve made good friends with many locals and many people are very welcoming and hospitable. I won’t go so far as to say I’ve experienced blatant racism in Korea, but I’m never just a person. I’m a white person, I’m a foreigner. People don’t think I can eat spicy food or use chopsticks. They are shocked if I can say anything other than “hello” or “thank you in Korean. Sometimes they openly stare or hesitate about sitting next to me in the subway.

In some ways I can understand it. Korea has had a rather sudden influx of travelers, businessmen, and teachers from abroad. Mainly teachers recently. It’s still fairly new to the country. And foreign teachers don’t have the best of reputations in Korea. Some of this is unfair, some of this has some justification. There is a popular myth that it is foreign teachers who bring STDs into the country. That one seems unfair. I think it is more likely to be the illegal, but still flourishing sex trade in Korea.

The reputation that may be deserved is that foreign teachers are underprepared, not really interested in teaching, or too interested in partying. I have met foreign teachers who prove this reputation. For many, they came to have a good time and make “easy” money to pay off their college loans before settling down in their home countries with a “real” job. Most of them are hired simply because they are native speakers, not because they have studied a relevant subject or have any experience. And hagwons experience so much turn over (and really are places of business more than education) that these teachers don’t get trained here either.

A number of teachers I’ve met didn’t know a thing about Korea before arriving. A handful I’ve spoken to have had experience in other countries (often Japan it seems) and were hoping Korea would be “just as good.” Ultimately each country has to be taken on its own, not as a substitute for somewhere else. This variety of teacher is generally disinterested in learning about Korea or spending time with any actual Koreans (although some make exceptions for cute ones at clubs). They often bum around in western style bars with other foreigners on the weekend.

On the flip side, there are some foreign teachers who have been here a couple years and consider themselves to be Korean. They give you “judgey face” if you can’t speak fluent Korean after you’ve only been here a few months. They may scoff if you go to a western style restaurant. Sometimes you’ll hear this variety of  foreigner walk into a restaurant and say, “Oh… Maybe not this place. It’s full of foreigners.”

There are plenty of foreigners who don’t fall into either category, of course. But it’s always the extremes that catch the most attention, isn’t it? The western community in Seoul is a bit polarized, in fact, it is a stretch to call it a community. I think balance is important in all things. I think it is important to learn about a new culture (especially if you’re living in it), to embrace new experiences, foods, and new types of people. But I think it’s a bit silly to completely reject the culture you come from as well. You aren’t Korean. The locals certainly won’t forget that. It’s okay to have spaghetti and watch British comedies some nights. Your Korean friends probably like to do that sometimes too. (The head Korean teacher at my hagwon is a huge “Sherlock” fan, I was pleased to discover– haha.)

Being a part of a foreign population– being a minority group in an area, casts a different light on things. It makes you aware that how you behave will go into the public consciousness as either something confirming or challenging these stereotypes. It also makes me personally, more aware of people who live as minorities in their home country and have to deal with this their entire lives.


What I learned in Fukuoka, Japan


Back in late October, I made a visa run to Japan to set my work visa for Korea. As many ex-pats who make this run know, the closest point in Japan to Korea is Fukuoka. It’s a small, pleasant city full of food, shopping, and arcades. It is also home to a pleasant beach.It wasn’t my first time traveling by myself, but it was the first time I was going to a new country with no on the ground connections. I had a list of instructions and directions, a pocket with enough cash in it to get me to the consulate and get me some lunch, as well as a hotel booking print-out entirely in Korean. I was feeling very miserable, sick with a bad cold. The weather was also chilly and rainy there, so going to the beach was out of the question (but that’s probably not a great idea anyway, radiation, you know?).

It was my first time in Japan and my stay was brief, but I still learned a lot. I took some notes on the plane ride home about my new found wisdom, which I’ll share with you here.

–The people I met here seemed to have less “white people” shock than they do in Korea. Perhaps because in Japan, there has been more cultural exchange from the West for a longer time. Foreigners popping up on their shores is nothing new. It’s a more recent thing in Korea.

–There aren’t as many children on the streets and in public areas. Apparently there is a good reason for this. Fewer and fewer people are marrying and having children in Japan. A statistic quoted to me was that in 2013 Japan will have sold more adult diapers than baby diapers.

–Because of this, when I put on the tv in my hotel room, half the commercials were for those adult diapers, denture glue, and toupees.

–And unlike Korea, where cafes and shopping areas are full of couples being cute and couple-y, there were very few couples. Mainly it was groups of friends and flocks of business people in black suits hanging out after work.

–My experiences with the people of Fukuoka certainly endeared the place to me. On the whole, they were extremely helpful, kind, and patient with me.

–Japanese taxis are sinfully expensive.

–Many of the ATMs I found didn’t take my US card. When they do, they seem give money mainly in 10,000 yen (about $100) increments which is very confusing when you just came from a place where 10,000 won is about $10. Also, some subway ticket machines don’t take cards or 10,000 yen notes. This was a huge headache. In a bigger city or a different subway station, this may not be the case, but what a horrible morning it caused me.

–I think Korean kim (seaweed paper) is more flavorful than Japanese nori.

–I also feel that on the whole, structurally, Korean men are a bit handsomer than Japanese men. However, Japanese guys seem to rock facial hair and highlights better. A broad generalization of course.

–It is also incredibly easy to pick up with other travelers, especially when they’re there for a visa run as well. Arriving with no one to sped my time with wasn’t a problem. “Want to grab dinner?” was an easy thing to say to other people at the visa office. As was, “Let’s check out that arcade,” “Castle ruins? Let’s go there!” and, “Want to try and find a traditional tea house?” The third point we failed on unfortunately. But I didn’t have to tour Fukuoka alone. I had 3 other 20-something English teachers working in Korea to go along with. Though I collected a few email addresses, none of us seemed to feel very interested in staying in touch. I know I’m not. We shared an adventure because of convenience, not because of any compatibility that will lead to us being lifelong friends. I think that’s fine. I think that’s the nature of truly solo travel, picking up people, but putting them down again when the time comes.

I have plans for a longer trip to Tokyo and possibly Kyoto/Osaka this summer.  I can’t wait to see more of Japan and come back with more life lessons. Sorry it’s taken me so long to blog this. Things have been crazy and I’ve been neglecting this record of my travels. I must be more disciplined from now on.