Being The Other

I’ve just finished work and I’m walking to the bus stop. A five year old Korean girl glides towards me on a scooter. She wears a Taekwondo uniform. White belt. Her eyes are wide and fixed on me. Her mouth loosely held open. It’s probably the closest she’s ever been to a person that doesn’t look Korean, especially without her parents around. She has so many questions she can’t even form in Korean, much less in whatever language I might speak. Eyes still fixed on me, she scoots right off the sidewalk and stumbles onto the grass.

Korea is one of the top twenty economies in the world, but its globalization has only just started. Their technology is used in cell phones that connect people around the world, yet many people in this country live their whole life without ever talking to someone who is not Korean.

I can’t deny this is a fun part of being out here. Little kids from across the street will wave and yell “Hello” before their mothers can shush them.

Every time I go shopping or order food, it’s an event as the server and I struggle to make communication and feel the pride of hard won victory when we both come to an understanding.

There’s a convenience store down the road from me managed by a man in his 50s. He gets excited anytime a foreigner comes to the shop because he gets to practice English, which he speaks surprisingly well. When he speaks English, it feels like he’s only half-way in the present and I see the unmistakable glimmer of nostalgia in his eyes. I’m certain his mind is going back to a time when he was making use of the English he now speaks so well. I wonder when it was and who he was with.

There’s a few bars around my apartment. When I go out at night, there’s groups of drunk middle-aged couples roaming the streets, hopping from bar to bar.  Inevitably, one of these groups will have a mischievous guy who says “Hi” just loud enough so his friends know he’s only being silly. He says it with the same innocent excitement as those kids yelling from across the street. Drunk men are children.

It may sound obnoxious, but it really is fun because there’s such an innocent feel in Korean culture. They’re not warm like Americans. They don’t open easily to strangers. But they are extremely kind and cheerful. I never feel threatened for my foreignness. I feel like a curiosity. And damn it, it’s fun.

If I’m a curiosity, I can’t imagine how it is for black people here. I had a few black friends when I lived in Busan. One of them caused a car accident as he was walking down the street because the driver was looking at him and not the road.

That same friend also noticed that it’s common for new foreign teachers to hit a phase of culture shock where they start complaining about everything. It usually takes a month or two, once the wonder of being in a new place wears off. They start complaining about having to stay at school when class is finished and old ladies not wanting to sit next to them on the bus and kids staring at them on scooters and so on. My friend pointed out that it’s mostly white foreign teachers who complained. He said that as a black man in the U.S., he was already used to these experiences.

Being different out here is fun for me because it’s temporary. But if this was permanent? Hm.

So if you’re reading this, Marcus, thanks for that perspective.

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