It has been almost two weeks since I landed at ICN. I feel very similar to how I have often felt when I travel – it feels like I have been here forever and it feels like I just got here. I used to attribute the feeling to the fact that my recent travels abroad have been via immersion programs which consist of days packed with activities, stimuli, conversations, novelty, and introspection. Thus far, I have had plenty of down time in SK to catch up on sleep, emails, reading, working out… and yet, I still feel like I have done so much – and I have SB to thank given that as soon as I landed, I was surprised with a planned trip to Jeju.
I’d like to speak to the experience of being an invisible foreigner. I’m sure there is literature on this but I am not privy to it yet. All my life in the US, when people try to guess my ethnicity, I get Korean over Chinese. I cannot tell you the number of times Korean Americans have approached me speaking in Korean to me. When I was young, and age appropriately self involved (ah, adolescence), I had little understanding of it and grew annoyed quickly (there’s a narrative about this that I need to address at some point), but as an adult, I understand that I am frequently mistaken for Korean simply because to some, my features are similar. So it is no wonder that I am experiencing this dynamic here in SK. Anytime SB and I interact with locals – in the taxi, at restaurants, grocery stores, etc. – he speaks to them since he knows more Korean than I do, and they look at me and respond. It makes sense – they are relating to my phenotype. One of SB’s Chinese colleagues who has been in SK for 2 years now commented to me that one of the things I will learn how to say quickly is “naega hanguk anieyo” which means “I am not Korean” (please feel free to correct me if there is a better way of saying that). What I have had to deal with in Korea which I have not experienced traveling in the past is that the locals have expectations that I am able to communicate with them. When I was in Europe, Mexico, Costa Rica, India – I obviously do not look as though I am from there so if I speak any Italian or Spanish, locals are generally pleased and/or surprised that I can understand or say anything. And often when I was in the Mission district in SF, and attempted to speak with the ladies at the mercados or panaderias in Spanish, they are surprised and curious as to how I learned Spanish. Here, it’s the opposite. People expect me to speak to them and when I respond awkwardly with my piss poor Korean or shake my head and shrug or respond with the classic “uhhhhhhhhhhhh…” I feel frustrated and embarrassed, but what is worse, is that it appears that they feel embarrassed too. Of course, I am making a general statement as I am sure some locals I’ve interacted with could care less, but there is a general sense of discomfort upon discovering that the assumption that I was Korean is incorrect – this realization is often accompanied by smiles and giggles, or wide eyed expressions of surprise followed by a polite chuckle. My experience thus far is that Koreans are very polite which makes the situation much easier to digest.
So. I feel that there is an added layer of responsibility I carry as a foreigner to learn Korean. Naturally, I want to learn the native language of any place to which I travel, but because of this situation, I feel an added sense of urgency. At the very least, I feel it is prudent for me to communicate that I am not Korean but I am trying to learn the language. I have found that the ability to communicate just this much may demonstrate my efforts and thus, show my respect and honor to be here in their country. It is one thing to be a visible foreigner where locals have little to no expectation of your ability to communicate, and quite another when you are an invisible foreigner and the expectations are higher. That’s all for now- thank you for reading.