Ok, so this is a question that was really difficult for us to answer. We were asked this week if foreigners are treated any differently here in Korea, to which we definitely say yes. As for how differently we’re treated, that really depends on the foreigner you’re talking to.

We personally happen to have good experiences in Korea. Everyone is really nice to us. Nobody’s been terribly rude, and we haven’t experienced any outright racism. People greet us with smiling faces, give us great service everywhere we go, and overall give us a fantastic experience of the country, one that we hopefully convey in our videos and website. However, we do make it a point to try and speak Korean as much as we can, to compliment the meal (in Korean) when we visit new restaurants we like, and make an overall effort to be “Korean”.

But the way we’ve been treated isn’t the same as how others have been treated. Some people do have terrible stories of experiences of racism and discrimination. Since we have never experienced this directly, and have only heard it from a friend of a friend, or via a comment on a blog, we can only comment on people’s anecdotes and the patterns that we’ve noticed.

Without meaning to sound arrogant, we believe that our experience in Korea is great not just because of our personalities, but also because of how we look. No, we’re not supermodels, but we fit a very nice archetype of what a “foreigner” should look like according to what Korea has been taught. Martina is a blonde haired and blue eyed girl. Simon is a tall guy. We’re both white. We’re not noticeably overweight. We’re married and smiley. We are, more or less, what Korea wants in English teachers.

A lot of our friends can’t say the same thing. We have good friends, good teachers who are good people, who have been denied teaching jobs because they’re too Asian looking, too overweight, too not-white. We have good friends here who are black who have had some Korean people walk up to them and try to touch their hair or skin. Not all the time, mind you, but occasionally. We’ve have overweight friends who have been told outright by co-workers that they’re fat, too fat, that they should go on a diet (and they intend it to be a matter-of-fact “I’m helping you” kind of way).

But, again, we can’t comment on this accurately, or make a video about it, because it’s not our experience. We’re lucky here, we know, and our experiences here have been fantastic. As foreigners, we aren’t treated poorly here at all.

There is one thing, though, that makes us cringe occasionally, and that’s being pointed out as foreigners. Many, many times, when we’re walking outside, we’ll hear people (especially kids) say in Korea say “Oh! Weigookin!” which you might have seen from our Korean Like a Pro videos. We weren’t making something up there. We’re often pointed at and called foreigners. It’s not insulting, but it’s kindof saddening at times. Yes, we know that we’re not Korean, but being reminded so often that we’re outsiders who are not part of your culture, is quite sad. We think this must be especially upsetting for those “foreigners” that have settled in Korea with a Korean husband or wife and are now, for the most part, Korean. It feels at times like we’ll always just be floating on the surface, no matter how long we stay here, no matter how many videos we make about how much we love this place. We’ll always just be outsiders looking in, and we’ll always be reminded of this fact.

We know that being called a foreigner in public isn’t necessarily malicious. It’s a genuine expression of shock. After all, a lot of Korean people do have dark hair and eyes, and so when they see Martina’s blue eyes and blonde hair, it’s surprising, not something they’re used to. When they see Simon in his giant form (there aren’t many Korean people as tall as Simon) and his big red mohawk, it’s not surprising to us that they’re surprised by us, and naturally they express their surprise. This surprise is amplified in small towns who perhaps have never met someone from another country.

We think it just feels especially weird for us because we’re from Toronto, which is exceptionally multicultural. Never in Toronto did we look at someone and call them a foreigner. The thought never crossed our minds. Everyone in Toronto is just from Toronto. No one’s an outsider even though we all look different and are perhaps from different countries before we came to Canada.

The only sense of outright racism that we sensed was from the senior citizens, who occasionally, barely ever really, might give us stink face and mumble something about foreigners while looking at us. Or maybe it’s not stink face: maybe that’s just their faces from being so old. But, you know, we don’t really hold it against old people for being racist in Korea. Old people seem to be racist everywhere. Hands up if you got a racist grandma or grandpa! Don’t lie! You know you’ve cringed and/or almost got beat up from your grandparents outrightly insensitive comment made in public! Guys? Anyone? No?…oh…

Anyhow, overall, we love it here in Korea. TL;DR – We have had a fantastic, fantastic experience, as have many of our friends. Are foreigners treated differently here? Yes, but not so terribly that it would in any way negate our experience.

  1. I just want to note here that there are different types of foreigners

    Generally if you are white/American-looking, you won’t run into too much flak

    BUT say you are black, Southeast Asian, etc. you will be treated as sort of second-class. Probably not in an overt way (but possibly), but I’d say there are different “tiers” to being foreign

  2. How do you get around in Korea without being able to speak or write Hangul? Because I want to go to korea soon but I don’t know if I would be able to order food, ask for directions, etc. I want to be able to go to a lot of places and explore but how would I get around?

  3. Hi there, new to EYK here! Just finished watching Lee Michelle’s
    “Without You” mv and wanted to know how biracial people are treated in
    South Korea? I’m biracial myself and it’s not that troublesome in the
    U.S. anymore, but when I travel to other countries, I’m always asked
    “What are you?” and get weird stares. Is being biracial treated as a type of stigma in South Korea or is it being more accepted in a homogenous culture?

  4. Exactly. I remember watching a video on a small city that didn’t have many tourists (because it was right in the middle of the country area) in Vietnam. There was this one black guy who was going around just touring/visiting/sight-seeing/whatever-he-was-doing-there. There were many people who were VERY intrigued and curious of his very very very curly and short hair and of his skin. He even out right pointed to his hair and bended down so they can touch his hair and feel how curly it is, and he was laughing and they were laughing and that was that.

  5. Our own parents are judgmental towards their children .___. Sucks butt.

  6. Oh my uncle is racist! D: Though I wouldn’t call him old…just 50. :P
    I’m worried about being treated badly if I go to Korea, since I’m tan…

  7. I worry about going to visit there. I have Korean friends and they are lovely but in any country, there is always someone to point out the obvious. I am very open-minded when meeting people and my friends wonder how I  have so many international friends. I attend University and my goal is to learn and that means being open-minded. I am adopted and I am like the only black person but I love them for their personalities. You have to see beyond you physical features. We were all created differently but that is what makes the world unique. We can’t always be Black, White, Yellow or Blue. We can’t always have the same culture because someone will rebel and want something NEW ^_^! But keep in mind, Korea, like many Asian culture haven’t had the pleasure of meeting new cultures so it is so much more strict and enclosed.

  8. From what I’ve heard, the surprise of foreigners is the same over in Japan. It’s becoming less so, because japan seems to be rocketing into the western culture, but it’s still something of a novel thing for them, as you said – out in the boonies or with the elderly.

  9. ahh thanks so much for sharing! I’m Indian-American as well and I was planning on visiting Korea next summer for vacation, and I wasn’t at all sure how Koreans perceive Indian people. this makes me feel a little less insecure haha (because honestly, that sort of “they’re-an-outsider” mentality that exists in some people in asian countries is a bit scary to me). thank youu!

  10. now i wish i had green hair and purple eyes…*cries*

  11. they tell foreigners to lose weight, but what about shindong??? LOOOL

  12. As a noticeably overweight American living in Seoul I have been very blessed to not have experienced any major discrimination in my short time here. I’ve actually lost a lot of weight from all of the walking you do everyday, because no foreigner really owns a car here, and the major change in diet. I do get stares all day long, but I think it’s mainly because I have very blue eyes. I also have tattoos in hard to cover up places like my forearm and the inside of my ankle. (but I’ve seen more tattoos as of late because of the summer on Koreans.) As for the weight thing I have students tell me I’m fat. I have patience with them and say “English speakers don’t really like that.” Then they kind of understand.
    The only real discrimination I’ve experienced was (on my birthday) some ajjushi telling me to go away because he didn’t want to move for me to walk by him while getting out of a taxi. But I think he was just being a d-bag. There have been times when even ajjumas will help me out by telling me that everyone is getting off the subway, or the countless times people give their seats on subways and buses for me. The best story is when an ajjushi tapped me on the shoulder and asked me how to spell “steak”. That’s all he wanted. I’ve also had a couple of people tell me they are very happy I’m here and they have been very helpful and nice. 
    This video seems really well timed for me as I was thinking about this more in depth last night. I actually felt really bad about being a foreigner living here for most of the day today and then I saw the topic of this video. It made me feel more at ease knowing I’m not the only foreigner that it bothers at times. Thanks for that!

  13. I’m from Houston as well but I’m a foreigner living in Seoul. When they say it’s hot they actually aren’t joking or exaggerating. I thought that Houston was the most humid place on the planet but honestly, it’s nothing compared to here. It may be only 83, but it’s so much more humid which makes it seem hotter. I’ve never sweat so much in my life. Even at 10am it’s hotter than the heat of the day in Houston. It seriously sucks.

  14. I really don’t want you to be discouraged by your friends’ experience because we have tons of friends (all colours and sizes of the rainbow) and they haven’t had any problems. It really does depend on the person and their outlook. Also, many times people have a bad experience with one person they work with and they’ll translate that one person as “all of Korea is racist”. But I think you should at least visit on vacation to experience Korea through your eyes.

  15. LOL, the dark skinned ppl reminds me of  The Karate Kid movie…
    She’s like, oo! Can I touch your hair?

  16. Too Asian? That’s funny. And true. Even my cousins English teachers in China are usually Caucasian because for some reason.. if you look Asian (despite being American/Canadian/Australian), you don’t know as much English or are as ‘legit’ as someone Caucasian? Haha. I don’t know. The whole thing is hilarious to me.

  17. These days it’s a whole lot better then when I was a kid.  I used to spend the summer in Korea growing up and since I am half and half, I used to get a lot of stares, but nothing compared to my friends who were half black and Korean.   Thankfully as time goes by and Korea has become a international society, most Koreans are more open and welcoming of people of all races.  But I do wish random people would stop telling me I am fat.   Its bad enough it’s a hot topic at family gatherings, that and my “old miss” status. HA HA

  18. Simon and Martina, as both former public school teachers, tell me you can’t relate to this video? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZ31pdj7AjU

    So hilarious and dead on.

  19. I’m a ginger…
    I really wonder how they would look at me… xD

  20. Martina! Where did you get your glasses? They are awesome!

  21. I’m living in Japan with my Japanese husband, and most people are really nice about me being a foreigner (since I’m European and all), but sometimes it bothers me how much it’s coming up in conversations with people I barely know. They don’t mean it in a bad way, but having people stare at you because you’re sitting down in the train is kind of uncomfortable and I haven’t gotten quite used to it yet.Then again, when people hear me speak Japanese they’re very surprised and happy.There aren’t that many foreigners in Japan and Korea, so most people don’t even have a foreigner in their school class when they grow up, and it’s just very … foreign and interesting to them. Plus, I don’t know about Korea, but in Japan people barely speak English, so they’re always afraid of having to speak English to you.

  22. Hahahaha! Once i was out at IHop with my mom, sister, and stepdad. We sat at a table that had some Chinese people behind us, and their grandma sat and stared at us the whole time because my stepdad is white xD

  23. okay, it’s not the only thing I noted from this video but I have to point it out! This time, I’m sure: it is from Princess Bride!! Am I the only who noticed that? Inconceivable!!

    (apart from that, I really enjoyed your video! Your videos are in the same time really funny and really instructive about korean culture…you’re doing really great)

    ps: obviously I’m not a native english speaker, so forgive my mistakes! ^^

  24. Heh, I too follow up “waygookin!” comments with “hangook saram!” The message doesn’t seem to get across, but most people laugh.

  25. This past Spring Break I went to Korea, and I am a green-eyed/blonde haired Canadian, and I literally got mobbed everywhere I went; it was bizarre! Groups of people would just run up to me and put their arm around me while their friends took pictures, and this happened like every 3 minutes. I have never experienced such a thing. I thought maybe all these people had mistaken me for some sort of celebrity, but our tourguide explained that most Koreans are not exactly accustomed to seeing younger white people in Korea (I’m 18, by the way). Everyone was very friendly though, perhaps a little too friendly. Another ongoing thing that happened was people touching my arms because I have hair on my arms (because I’m of European descent), and they were fascinated with my eyelashes and eyebrows. I will never forget visiting S Korea and being mobbed… such a funny experience!

  26. Really? I’m india-american too but I seem to be on more of a dark side, so not to be rude or anything but would you consider yourself dark or fair for an indian person?

  27. Oh yes, I have heard the racist-grandparent-comments….and every so often the racist-father-comments…..I think it is a lot more prominent in smaller towns where there aren’t a lot of different ethnicities present.

  28. my hand is up, some day my parents are even bad i just ninja off into a corner and pretend i dont know them some days  but i still love em.

  29. I’m in Korea since 2 weeks. I’m staying at hanyang university for International Summer School Program … and I experienced the same XDD~  when i was walking at e-markt ..  a little kid went: OH!  foreigner, and another went like: american !! ..  while im from europe the netherlands xD  so was like omgg nooozz  they think im american  ã… ã… ~~~~ at first i was a bit uncomfortable with people pointing at me but that faded pretty fast  ^^~ The korean people I met untill now are so nice ;D!!  im so happy im here ^^~~

  30. Ok so we know that people can be interested in ‘typicaly western’ looks ie pale skin, blonde n blue eyed, and maybee a bit wierd with african descent or other asians, but what about other world types like Indian or southern Europeans? Those of us with darker skin and dark eyes but typicaly western faces and builds?  Do you think that there may be wierd reactions?

  31. While my grandparents usually do not make racist remarks in public (grandpa, sometimes, but he has Alzheimer’s, so… yeah) I do remember my mother being very upset once when I was a kid.  We had gone to visit family in another state, where my mom grew up, and she wanted to take me and my sister to a park she went to when she was our age.  My grandma was very firm that we should go because “the wrong kind of people go there, now.”  She meant black people, and my mother was so upset, I don’t think she talked to my grandmother for the rest of the day. Even mentioning it years later annoyed her.  Good news is, grandma doesn’t say those type of things anymore, but, yeah.  I know the feeling, there.

  32. LoL i love how spudgy suddenly pop out in each of your videos… xD

  33. Ah yes…fat people and Asians. I think this is a cultural thing among all Asian countries and not just Korea. When I was dating a Chinese guy he told me everyday that I was too fat and needed to lose weight but said he was only making a big deal about it because he was worried about my health. Later when I’d lost weight he attributed it to his nagging that helped me out the most (but we’d broken up by then). -_-;;

  34. this is super true. well im korean but i dont live in korea so everytime i come to korea and i speak with my brother in english everyone looks at us and says “look at them there
    talking in english.” once me and my brother were fighting in english and one girl said to her friends “look there fighting in english” im at korea now and some people look at some people dont. i think it’s funny when they look at me and are all surprised because i’m fluent in english.

  35. Haha! I had a great grandma like that! On her 96st birthday or so we ate in a chinese restaurant and then when the waiter walked away she was like ‘Ok! Where’s my purse?!?!’ :P

  36. When I was living in Korea (in Seoul, mind you, not out in the boonies somewhere), I generally didn’t get any overt racism…. except for this one time that a middle aged dude on the metro HIT me.  The train was not crowded, I was standing by the doors minding my own business, and as this guy left the subway car he went out of his way to punch me on the arm as he left.  He shouted something too, but I don’t speak a lot of Korean so I have no idea what.  Out of all my time there, that experience is the one that I remember most clearly.  I still don’t know why… I’m a small, non-threatening girl!  Come on!

  37. I’ve been to Toronto. Pretty awesome. I wouldn’t mind spending some more time up there one day.

    Anyway, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always wanted to spend some time abroad, specifically in an Asian country, for quite some time now, and the thought often crosses my mind that no matter how much time I decide to spend there, I’ll always be seen as an outsider. How much does this feeling of being an outsider affect you guys, and do you have any way of dealing with it? Or is it that your experience in Korea is so positive that it’s not really that prominent?

  38. And I like in Singapore….

    And Singapore is a multiracial country, we don’t really point at the ‘foreigners’ cos’ I can’t tell whether they are Foreigners or People living ing Singapore unless I hear them speak a foreign language.
    no racist grandmothers or grandpops in my country ^_^

    • we got something against china nationals but nothing against the other foreigners.they called us disgusting on a survey for no apparent reason! yup and there are no racist grannies and grandpas in sg but i can’t speak my own language which is chinese and chinese grannies and grandpas speak chinese and i can’t understand anything 

  39. I’m multiracial, but I was brought up to pretty much judge people for who they are and not what color they are. It’s like the, “I thought I was white for years” sort of thing. I saw “white” as a person thing and not as a color thing. Then I realized I had a racist grandma *hand up* and it kind of changed everything. Not for the worse, I just learned something different. 

    I also wanted to mention that I visited Toronto a few years ago and felt so comfortable because we met some nice and genuine people. It was almost a culture shock to find not a multicultural city, but a generally NICE city. TO has got a lot of good people. :)

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