Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended as a criticism of Korean society, nor am I in any way implying that Koreans are racist in general. It’s merely a compilation of racially biased experiences that I have had while living in Korea.
Having gone from being an ethnic majority in Denmark to definitely being a minority here in Korea has been an eye-opener in so many ways. Before moving to Korea, I had been warned that Koreans could sometimes be racist in their attitude toward foreigners. While racism is certainly a sensitive issue and never something to be taken lightly, the Korean racism I have experienced is different from the hatred that sadly is too often expressed in Europe or the U.S. I find that in Korea, the racism does not necessarily originate from hatred or fear (in fact this is rarely the case) but most often from curiosity and ignorance. Allow me to illustrate with experiences have I had in my interactions with racially biased Koreans.
A classic situation that usually occurs whenever I’m dining out with Korean people is that there is always someone who tells me that it’s extraordinary how well I handle a pair of chopsticks, since I am, after all, a foreigner. This may not seem racist, but try switching the scene and imagine a Western setting where white people are treating an Asian person to dinner and then compliment them on their ability to master eating with a fork and knife. Now that is racist!
A similar case is whenever Koreans are completely dumbfounded at my ability to eat spicy foods. “But you are from Denmark!” “I thought Danish people couldn’t eat spicy food”. Generalizing people just based on their home country and ethnic origin is actually textbook racism. Most Europeans have grown up eating a plethora of foreign (including spicy) foods and generally have a pretty experienced palate.
I also feel that I too often have to “represent” my entire country in the eyes of Koreans. I understand that Koreans have a very collective mindset, but constantly getting questions like “Do all Danish people like this food?”, “Are all Danish people this tall?” or “Do all Danish people feel this way about…” No…, but I do. I cannot speak for my country, so please allow me to just speak for myself.
Many older Koreans also seem to be absolutely taken aback when they see or hear foreigners (by that I mean non-Asians) speak Korean. More often than not I get a squeal from older people who tell me that “you speak our language so well” after I’ve said something as mundane as just “hello” and they have no way of telling whether that is, in fact, my entire Korean vocabulary or whether I’m truly fluent. It’s the whole concept of a white person saying something in Korean that they often cannot seem to wrap their mind around. I realize that Korea is not a multiethnic society like what I’m coming from, but there are more than 200,000 foreigners living in Seoul. And I’m sure a great deal of them master at least some of the local language. While this may not be direct racism, it’s still a racial bias, which may wear you out in the long run.
The worst is probably whenever my well-educated colleagues continuously point out my “otherness”. An office lunch appointment is usually an ordeal where I have to endure witty comments like “You look like you’re in one of the tv programs with foreigners trying Korean food”, “you should apply to become one of the foreigners on tv” or “it’s just so interesting to watch you eat Korean food”.
I also recently had an experience with a taxi driver who kept staring at me in the rear-view mirror to a point where I had to ask him to stop. This didn’t help though, so I bit my lip, turned my head and stared out the side window. Then he told me in a strong rural dialect that I was really pretty… despite being a white woman.
I realize that if you live two years in a very foreign country, there is no way that it’s all going to be rainbows and unicorns all the time. But sometimes the feeling of not fitting in no matter how hard you try can be very overwhelming and at times a bit discouraging. While I’m very happy in Seoul, April has been challenging (the heavy pollution is not helping) and I find myself having increasingly many days where I’m looking forward to returning to Denmark and being able to blend in again.
When I feel like this, there is no one better to express my mood than Michael Bublé: