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TLDR – Being a Foreigner in Korea

July 8, 2011


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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.



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