Celebrity Status: The Rare, Wild Cracker

Tasty treats at the meat bar

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.

54 thoughts on “Celebrity Status: The Rare, Wild Cracker

  1. Sounds so familiar 🙂 You will eventually tune it out. I think I stopped noticing about a year into it, although they still occasionally fall off their bikes and I do notice then 🙂

  2. Yes, I have had this experience, but for me, it’s like this: I’m an almost 6 foot tall gal, and anywhere I go where this is noticeable, I get looks.
    My favorite was in Mexico, visiting my aunt and uncle. She is a couple inches over me, and when we walked the streets of Puebla together, there was much gawking to be had. I didn’t spend enough time in Korea to get that, but my husband, who’s over 6 feet, got to vouch for Shaquille O’Neill who was trying to get on my hubby’s base at the time. I do wonder what reaction Shaq gets over in places like Korea. The hubby is also blonde and blue-eyed, and at the time, a marine, so I know he got the kind of attention that U.S. military personnel usually get.
    My only other experience of being in a foreign land and being picked out, because of being American, actually, was during the first week of the first gulf war, when my family travelled to Switzerland. There were already lots of protests, but it wasn’t until we were on the ski train, headed up to then ski down through Wengen, that we found ourselves being heckled and mocked by a load of British uni-students. They were picking out everything from our accents (we’re only New Englanders, really….), to our president (which I could hardly blame them for).

    • I’m of pretty average height in North America, and while there are a number of tall Koreans, I am often one of the tallest people on the subway. It’s weird. I can only imagine being so tall, you must feel like a giant in other countries.

  3. I love this post – very interesting, very entertaining. But I wanted to comment on this: “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.”

    What you’re experiencing must be similar to what it feels like to be an American celebrity. After all, most of our celebrities haven’t really done anything and are admired for simply existing. I think what you’re doing by living on the other side of the planet and experiencing a different culture is far more interesting than anything any celebrity has done. 🙂

    • I had considered comparing myself to common American celebrities. Famous now mostly for simply being. Maybe if I take it like you say, almost like fame for willing to move around the world, it will feel slightly less weird.

  4. I remember visiting villages in Egypt as a young girl… and I felt like Madonna- i was literally mobbed everywhere I went, people wanting to touch my blond hair… It was flattering at first but I have to say it started to make me feel uncomfortable in the end…

  5. Your post had some humorous contents which I like it very much. I could understand why teenagers acted that way, they just curious about something they’d never seen before. But the way they treated foreigners, in my opinion, was a little bit rude.
    I’d heard some of the Koreans spoke in English(I love Kpop), and it was difficult for me to understand what they talking about, did you had the same problem too? It seemed like they spoke in English according to their Hangul pronunciation.
    I wondered why was it weird to hang out with foreigners friends? We could understand and respect each other’s differences, they should stop being closed-minded.
    BTW, that meat looked delicious =)

    • Eh, all teens have a chip on their shoulder. A lot of the teens here have absolutely insane study schedules, and I’m sure some of them resent the work they have to lodge into a second language that a number of them, frankly, do not care about. I just don’t work with teenagers and avoid the whole process!

      Korean pronunciation of English is difficult at times, but you develop an ear for it. Like many people learning ESL, they switch out phonemes with ones from their native language at first. With Korean, there is no z, p, and no v, and the sound lieul is halfway between r and l, so those English sounds default to j, f, and b, and then haphazardly r or l.

  6. An interesting read. But now I’ll have to read more of your blog to learn the reason why you’re in Korea. And I really have more pressing things to do (read: homework, and loads of it!), – damn you curiosity!

  7. Hi!

    I’m new to wordpress, but this entry popped up on the home page and it was really interesting! Having never been somewhere where I look drastically different from the locals (except for maybe distinctly American in clothing and mannerisms or something), this is a really cool perspective! Thanks for sharing

  8. You make a good point. That is something I frequently observe when I take my partner to Asia. Mind you, I put it down to Korea (as many other Asian countries) is predominately a homogeneous society so any ‘oddities’ will stand out more. Compared to your native Canada (granted, I don’t know where you are from exactly) and my New Zealand – because parts of our countries are so multicultural we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at someone who looks different.

    • Yeah, I’m from Toronto, and heterogeneity is standard there. I can understand it, in that sense: when everyone you see falls within a certain gradient of human features, someone far outside of it can be really interesting.

  9. Are you Southern? If so, I’d imagine you’d REALLY get some odd looks, especially if you used words like “y’all” or “fur piece,” which I refuse to strike from my South Carolina vocabulary even though I work in higher education.

    Sometimes I wish I could travel the world just so I could tell people that most Southerners:
    1) Don’t eat dirt.
    2) Don’t marry their first cousins.
    3) Have more than the sum total of four teeth in their mouths.

    It’d be an uphill battle, but somebody’s got to do it.

    • Ah, I’m a Canuck, but there are a few Southerners amidst the other English teachers. They haven’t mentioned getting dogged about their accents and word choice… actually, it’s the South Africans I’ve heard getting the most “Your voice makes little sense” sort of comments.

  10. I love it. My friends have just moved to Hong Kong. It made me think of them. In london you just blend in. Everyone does. I work in Soho and it amazes me the lengths people go to just to be noticed sometimes. It’s like a cry for recognition – a fear of never being noticed, as if being aknowledged is a way of validating your existence.



  11. Dear Mr. Foreigner,

    I believe that Americanization has blended much of the Western world to the point where it takes a discerning eye to know whom has come from where, anymore. That’s what makes Korea such an interesting experience: she’s a proud nation; her culture resists outside influence for the most part.

    I have never been, but I feel as though I have. My girl spent four years in Korea as a translator for the American Air Force, and her time there comes up in conversation every day. I’ve learned many phrases, just from repetition.

    “Jun bee?”

    “She jokk!”

    It sounds like Klingon to me, but I’m really rather fascinated with the culture. Culture fascinates me, anyhow.

    Yes, so, anyhow, I suppose that’s why your piece caught my attention. This is interesting writing, and I like your style and tone. Keep it up, Sir.

    Yours Truly,


    • I would agree with the first for the most part. English and Western culture seeps in a little through the cracks, but in controlled ways, and usually in a “Hey, that’s funny and weird!” sort of way. Although my students all adore Michael Jackson.

      It’s a hard language to adjust to at first, at least because all language experience I’ve had previously was Romance or Germanic languages. Korean is far out of what I knew.

  12. I like your post. I am living in China, coming from “white-bread” Maine in the US, am 6’7″, blond, blue-eyed…so I know what you’re experiencing. On TV, we watched an NBC reporter in Tiananmen Square, saying, “Look! They (Chinese people) want to have their picture taken with me!” My wife and I said, “Well..DUH!” We experience this all over the place. Your revelations on being a celebrity are great. We talk about that too. We find most people happy to see us, just want to relate, and practice (or show off) their English skills. Chinese students are all learning to speak English, so we hear “Hello,” from the tiniest kids.

    Be thankful all the Koreans want to do is stare and say, “Hello.” We spent 2 years in Bangladesh, and while at one place, all these Bangladeshi young men, who were students, came up to me and wanted their picture taken with me. A long line ensued. They had a video camera. One fellow wanted to outdo his friends, so he kissed me on the cheek (perfectly acceptable for men there). Then another…I said, “This is too weird for me!” and got up and walked away!

    • Most Koreans are too shy to actually attempt approaching me on the street, though some have snapped pictures of my friends and are getting closer to asking for pictures with us. It’s also common here for men to be a lot touchier… my male Korean friends regularly hug me or stand with a hand around my waist. It was something to adjust to at first, for sure.

  13. I can totally, 100% relate.
    I’ve been living in Gwangju for six months and lived a year in Busan as well.
    I often long for times when I don’t get gawked at.

  14. Actually, I felt the same way when I went to Seoul last month to organize an event, and somehow to unwind. I also noticed that the Koreans, though not all, tend to be more spontaneous and supportive if they are dealing with their fellow Koreans – which happens to be working otherwise when they are dealing with foreigners / tourists.

    Amidst these qualities of Koreans, I definitely look up to them when it comes to their love for their country. I just hope it will be the same way here in the Philippines. The Koreans are very much dedicated on their culture and patriotism.

    I know you could keep up with them. Koreans are good and funny people. I myself got a new set of friends there. 🙂

    • They are very proud of their country and its accomplishments, which contributes to their curiosity with Westerners. My co-teachers frequently ask my opinion on Korean food, culture, life, to see if I appreciate it.

  15. Great!
    I`m another one who relates 100%, walking around saying hello to everyone. But here they call me lao wai, as I am in China..
    And the pictures really astound me! I’ve lost count of how many times people just stop and ask me to take a picture with them, and I’m just totally confused as to why on earth would a stranger want a picture with me?!?
    My life as a celeb in Asia… But it’s mostly fun/ funny/ amusing. 🙂

  16. Ooohh shiznit…I feel totally stupid now. I re-read the whole post and turns out that I misunderstood some (well, quite a lot really) of your points. Sorry about that!

    Anyhoo, I think it’s really common for us Asians to look at foreigners in a “different” way. That happens a lot here in Manila, Philippines too. Whenever a Westerner is seen here, some (not all, though) would giggle and stare. I personally think it’s kinda rude to do that. I mean, I don’t want to walk a street and have strangers staring at me. So as much as I can, I try to never intrude anyone’s privacy or make them feel creeped out by me.

    If you ever come by in the Philippines, you must try BALUT! I’d imagine you’d draw out a huge crowd, with some even cheering you on. hahaha! 😉 We love it when foreigners eat our local food! 🙂

  17. haha it’s funny to read this post, reminding myself that i used to be one of those teenagers who “jokingly spatter the English they know to one another, mocking the language and chuckling”!

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