Part 1: different systems
My friend Emily was here this last month, visiting Asia for the first time. She got to experience, for a time, what it is to live here -- staying with us, going to Aiden’s school to help me teach, sightseeing, eating Korean food, throwing away food garbage, paying outrageous prices for fruit, and being the only white person in the vicinity.
She was at the gym on her last day here, running the treadmill and lifting weights, and an older man approached her. “You’re exercising too fast,” he chastized her. “Slow down!”
I had warned her about this. One of the hardest things to learn in another culture is what is OK to say and what is rude. In Korea, it is completely fine and normal to comment on other people’s appearance: “You have gained weight,” “Do you know you have a pimple on your forehead?” or sometimes women will just come over and brush lint or dandruff off my shirt. It is also OK for an older person to give constructive advice based on his or her wealth of knowledge derived from age: “Your baby should be wearing more clothes.” “Don’t use your MP3 player near your belly when you are pregnant.” “Eating kimchee prevents cancer.” Or: “Don’t exercise so fast.”
Even though I warned her, she was unable to follow through with the standard response: a “yes” followed by a bow of the head as acknowledgment, promptly followed by incident amnesia. Instead, she gave him that kind of smile/grimace which is technically a smile but communicates, “Fuck off.” As she said later, still filled with anger, “It took all my control not to scream, ‘I was a varsity athlete in college and am the only one in this gym breaking a sweat you #W$%#$%^%’!”
That’s the hard part of this whole cultural intermingling: if they receive you, its on their own terms, and if you respond, it is on your own terms. It is hard to break out of these, even when you know what’s happening. I’m sure that man was trying to break the ice, trying to be friendly and welcoming. And Emily wanted to me civil and kind and friendly as well, but her upbringing and personality made it almost impossible to provide the kind of response that he would have expected.
I run into this almost everyday. I’m pretty good now at feigning the smile and nod, except when it comes to my own father-in-law. I remember a conversation with my friend Nicole, who has been living here for 2 years, complaining about how people comment on appearance. “How is that not rude??” she asked. The only way I could think to explain it is that in the U.S., if you were talking with your boss, exchanging ideas about something, and your boss said something that you thought was ridiculous, you could say, strongly, “I completely disagree and think your approach is wrong,” though depending on your work and your boss your response could range from “That’s complete bullshit” to a more placating, “Perhaps we should consider different options.”
But in Korea, disagreeing with someone of higher status is trickier, and a strong response would most likely be taken as impolite. But here, commenting on some factual part of a person’s appearance -- “you look tired,” “you’ve gained weight” “you’re breaking out” -- is not considered rude. Whereas in the U.S., even if someone gained 100 pounds, you most likely wouldn’t comment. Different systems.
Part 2: living in a fishbowl
When we first moved here, I always felt that I stuck out, that people were watching me, remarking on my foreignness. I don’t know if that was the case or if my psychological paranoia was just a manifestation of the social awkwardness I felt (as my friend Ezra used to say, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”). On the one hand, being an American (because other nationalities don’t have the same power) here can give you a sense of privilege, of power, of uniqueness that you don’t have when you’re just another person at the mall California. You’ve become exotic. It is my impression that many Americans, especially English teachers (I’m sorry in advance if I piss people off) come here to escape something in the U.S., and sometimes that something is just a feeling of mediocrity. Here, you are Someone. Often an Enviable Someone.
But there are a bunch of other power issues. Being a foreigner gives me power because Koreans are very sensitive to how other nations see them. One day I came upon some middle school boys writing graffiti on the side of our building and I scolded them, first in Korean, and then in English, partly because I was upset and fumbling for words and therefore not being my most articulate self in Korean, but also because I knew if I made clear that I was a foreigner my words (and the experience as a whole) would probably have more weight. I even told them that a foreigner seeing what they were doing would consider them ignorant and this country as an ignorant one (though inside myself I was thinking of all the graffiti in places like New York, and how the US is home to the art of graffiti and knowing I was grossly exaggerating....) Bad person. But hopefully they won't do it again.
But you are also representative -- not just an American but sometimes The American, somehow standing in for all that is good or bad about the U.S. in general. For the many Koreans who have never been to the U.S. and have had limited access to foreigners, your small habits and idiosyncrasies will fill in the largely absent pieces of a larger picture of what Americans Are Like. (And remember that a large part of the ex-pat community is made up of the military.)
Sometimes, after the excitement of being unique wears off, people get sick of being remarked upon. I am reminded of a story of a woman who was tired of people pointing at her and saying “외국사람" (“foreigner”) so she began pointing back and shouting, “한국사람" (“Korean”).
And the Korean Americans who come have a tough time -- they are not marked much by their appearance (especially now that fashion and facial features have changed so much here), often are just as lost and confused as other foreigners, and yet people expect them to act like Koreans and fit in socially and linguistically.
How does all this affect an ex-pat’s ego? Or my kids’ ego? After a while you get used to being the odd one, but you can also become addicted to that feeling of being special -- the one trusted as an expert on the English language (although you can’t spell worth a damn, and know nothing about grammar), the one given superstar status by virtue of having attended a Name University. After living in a place where you are the Special One, it can be hard to leave. Now, I walk around without much self-consciousness, but I still get more attention by virtue of being different. Shopkeepers remember me, awakening from their dazed reverie to ask me how long I’ve been here and compliment my Korean, and my students’ mothers stop me in the street to talk to me and thank me. After such attention, how can you go back to being an average Jane who has to bag her own groceries and pump her own gas just like everyone else?
Part 3: opting out
But there’s another side to being an American in Seoul: being able to opt out of the perpetual sizing-up that goes on in every social situation.
You know what I mean. You enter a store, and secretly, furtively, you are sizing up everyone around you. Are these people better than I? Are they better looking, cooler, are their children better behaved? We all do it. Maybe women do it more than men?? Even in a place of absolute self-confidence and pride, isn’t there a little part of you that listens to the woman behind you in line, talking loudly about her vacation in Cabo, that thinks, “She’s SO showing off for everyone else. Does she think we care? I’m so glad I don’t feel that insecure.”
Although I stand out, it’s nice to enter a building and check out the Sizing-Up process from a position a bit removed. I can enter a nice cafe in wrinkled clothes and sneakers and not feel too awkwardly underdressed, because, hey, I’m American. I can study the women with their strappy high heels and Bling, preening and fawning over each other and be amused in my private little world. Or just interested, because in some ways the preening and fawning is the same here, and in some ways it isn’t. With women of a certain age and class, there’s a lot of “Oh, I’m so tired, the kids have been so hard, and I should exercise but it’s too hot and my mother-in-law has been working me so hard...” complaining, followed by the requisite, “Wow, you poor thing, you’ve had it really bad, you need to rest...” type sympathy. This type of conversation makes me realize how socially unacceptable it is to complain in the U.S.
Part 4: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar
I went to school here with an Irish guy named Eamon who lived in Korea for 4 years, teaching English. He liked to mess around with people sometimes, especially after he shaved his head -- he’d tell them he was a Buddhist monk or some other concoction. He grew tired of the same questions, over and over again: “Where are you from? Are you an English teacher? Do you like Korea? Do you like kimchee? Do you like Korean girls? Are you married? Are you a Christian?”
One day he was standing around, thinking his own thoughts, waiting for a bus when he caught a Korean guy staring at him, not too far away. Inwardly he sighed and prepared himself for the onslaught of the same questions. But he was annoyed, and wanted to be left alone, to be just an anonymous person waiting for a bus. So he put on his headphones and scowled a bit, and turned away.
Then the guy began to approach, trying to catch Eamon’s eye. Eamon’s scowl deepened, until it was a “fuck off” kind of face, and the guy hesistated, but then kept approaching.
As he neared Eamon, he leaned in close and whispered, “Your fly is open.”
Lest we lose sight of the fact... sometimes a person is just a person. The people are not all out to get you.