North American society includes a fair degree of anonymity. You walk down a busy street in Canada or the U.S., and you can be fairly confident that most people will not notice you in the slightest. You are another person, sure, in some vague, theoretical sense, but you are not in a stranger’s monkeysphere, and neither are they in yours. They are people academically rather than practically, meat obstacles taking up the seat you wanted on the bus, walking too slowly in front of you on the sidewalk, standing dully before you in line. You don’t really notice them but for the physical space they occupy, and they don’t really notice you. It is thus that moving to Korea and being noticed every second is a very jarring turn.
Korean society seems largely homogeneous in ethnicity, and so it’s natural that when someone entirely different appears, people will take a look. I possess different hair colour and texture, different skin colour and complexion, different features, a different body shape. My voice is deep, and drenched in slangy English phonetics, and I laugh loudly in public. I am an oddity: I look quite different from the vast majority of people on the street.
Though not all. My neighbourhood, Yeonsu Gu, and particularly my street, are riddled with waygooks. There are about a dozen schools nearby, each with their own foreigner extraordinaire, and still dozens more hagwons harbouring their own posses of honkies and other non-Koreans.
But even with those numbers bolstered, the rarity still has not worn off for the Korean denizens of Yeonsu. When I walk out of my building, eyes shoot towards me, showing confusion, curiosity. People quite openly stop and stare at me up and down. My friend Pierre has already had his picture taken twice standing on a street corner. What do these people think of us? I wonder.
Not that the attention is negative. Typically it is open curiosity, displayed without casual North American embarrassment. I am weird, and people want to look, and to talk.
With kids, it is usually gawking, then giggling, and occasionally the odd “Hello!” A schoolbus was letting out in front of a hagwon the other day, and I heard a chorus of schoolchildren shout out “Waygook! Waygook! Hellllllllo!” The kids, though, seem to have not developed the usual Korean humility about their English language skills. Where many adults will shy away from a strange foreigner they want to talk to, the kids have no problem. I went with Pierre into the McDonald’s and didn’t order anything, and a 9 year-old walked right up to me and cracked up a conversation. When he eventually saw me leaving, he bounded over and waved goodbye.
Teenagers are typically as surly as one would expect. Often, I will see them wander past me, and then jokingly spatter the English they know to one another, mocking the language and chuckling that someone who embodies it just passed. I do not work with teenagers, because they generally suck.
The adults and the elderly are a range. Some simply point and stare openly, others will nudge their companions to draw attention to the fact that I or another non-Asian friend is nearby (more on that in a second). Others will approach to talk to you, happy for a chance to polish up on their English, and confident that the interaction will progress smoothly. Still others, less confident, whisper in susurrus English at their tables, practicing their phrases should they wish to meander over and strike up a conversation.
The oddity I and others carry is such that we create a strangeness gravity well. Many of the other Canadians that came along to Korea are Chinese, Japanese, Viet… and while none of them strike me as the slightest bit Korean looking, they are frequently asked as much and usually assumed to be Korean in some way. They may get a few askance looks out in public, but are taken to be local or to have local blood, and are dismissed as unworthy of frantic staring. However, when I or one of the other non-Asian foreigners stands nearby, suddenly attention is drawn to them: why are they hanging out with the waygooks? Are they waygooks too? What a topsy-turvy world!
I don’t quite know how to deal with it. When in doubt, Koreans will generally assault you with pleasantries and compliments: students, staff members, and strangers refer to me as “handsome,” and not to get exaggerated in self-deprecation, but this leaves me bewildered. I think I just have difficulty dealing with such a high degree of attention, to my person, to my clothes, to what I eat and do.
At home, you sink quietly, peacefully into a crowd. The crowd is a mixed bag hodge-podge of difference, but you are one amongst many different, strange people, and so whatever oddness you carry is blasted out by the group. In Korea, I am one of the oddest people around, and thus every facet of my existence takes on fascination and careful consideration.
It is like being a celebrity, but without really having done anything. I walk down the street, and people direct their attention towards me. I exist, and eyes follow me. I sometimes feel as though a Korean celebrity must be feet behind me, that the attention is really directed there. That Rain has started up some sort of Korean gag reality show where he stalks foreigners with a camera crew and the public stares vaguely in the foreigner’s direction. I really haven’t done anything to earn all the turned heads.
I feel like I should acquire a bizarre stagger, some garish clothes, or a large and obvious facial tattoo to justify the uptick in attention. It can’t be me that people are interested in.