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.