I’ve wanted to write this post for quite a while now, but I always put it off. I didn’t want to be too negative. I didn’t want to put people off visiting Korea, or living here. Although I try to keep my blog as transparent as possible, I know that there are a lot of feelings that I have about Korea that I keep to myself.
However, this morning something happened that really pushed me over the edge and that I just can’t get out my mind. That incident has prompted me to address my true feelings once and for all. In my everyday life, I talk about these feelings quite a lot. But Wee Gypsy Girl keeps them on mute, focussing instead on the best bits. I want to get real and show that life here isn’t all cherry blossoms, unicorns and nice pay cheques. Of course, life here has its low points too.
This morning I woke up and went through the same routine I follow everyday. I was in pretty high spirits by the time I left the house, probably due to the huge cafetiere of coffee that I had demolished just before leaving, and I was ready for the day ahead. I got to the bus stop a few minutes early and was just admiring the scenery- yesterday it had rained, so today the skies were completely blue and clear. I felt really content at that time. Then, this Korean guy appears out of thin air, a centimetre away from face, stares at me and just blurts out “boypurenduh isseoyo?” (Do you have a boyfriend?) He caught me off guard so I just walked away from him, gave him a firm yes and nice snide look. I wish I had made a bit of a scene and told him to fuck off, but as it always goes, we only know the best thing to do in hindsight. The guy actually also grabbed my arm on the street a couple of weeks ago and asked me where I worked. I pushed him away and walked away from him. The worst thing about all of this is that he is a TEACHER!! He works at the girls’ middle school by my house. A man with such a low level of respect towards women should not have any influence on any young girl’s education.
Part of me feels as though I’m blowing things out of proportion. A guy asked me if I had a boyfriend. Big deal. Why am I so angry? Am I making mountains out of mole hills?
But, I know that I’m not. The reason that I’m so angry is that I know that if I was a Korean girl, he would never have acted that way. A lot of Korean men (not all, but a lot) have less respect towards foreign girls than they do towards Korean girls. There is a sentiment here that foreign girls make good girlfriends, but they’re not marriage material. Korean guys should have their fun with foreign girls while they’re young, but eventually they should marry a Korean girl. They think that we are disposable and not deserving of the same level of respect.
The man at the bus stop had no respect towards me. He didn’t care to find out my name, where I was from or where I was going. You know, the usual things you’d like to find out about someone. The sort of small talk that I have with curious locals at the bus stop almost everyday. He just wanted to know “did I have a boyfriend?” How did he think that was going to end? Did he think I was going to say “no, I’m single” then bunk off work and check into the closest love motel with him? Seriously, some folk need to take their heads out of their arses.
This isn’t the first time that this has happened either. I hear people talk about Korea like it is a huge utopia with no crime. Yeah, you might not get stabbed or shot or gang-raped. But as a FOREIGN woman, you can expect to be on the receiving end of pretty derogatory behaviour from Korean men- I’ve experienced my fair share of drunk ajosshis approach me on the street after one to many sojus to tell me that I’m beautiful and ask where I live. And at school, it’s not unusual for male teachers to comment on my appearance. That sort of thing is ok here- it’s not taboo. But it absolutely should be.
Why Korea and I aren’t always Best Pals
Now before I start this, I just want to point out that there are so many great things about living here in Korea. I have some really kind and amazing Korean friends and co-workers. I’ve lived here for 2 years, and of course I wouldn’t have stuck it out if I hated it. Korea has plenty of warts. But so does every country. Scotland definitely isn’t perfect. We have our own fair share of problems- sectarianism, alcohol problems and high rates of teenage pregnancy, to name just a few.
This isn’t a rant, and I’m not trying to insult the country or its people. This is an account of my experience living in Korea as a foreign expat. This is the most personal, and honest, post that I have ever written. I hope that my Korean friends and readers can accept what I have to say. The same way that I would accept what any expat living in Scotland would have to say about my country. So, without further ado, these are some of the reasons why I don’t always love this country.
Unattainable Beauty Standards
It’s absolutely no secret that this problem exists in South Korea. The country has more plastic surgery clinics per capita than anywhere else in the world. Look around you on the subway and you’ll see girls with western eyes and identical pointed “v chins.” Were they born like this? No. From a young age, girls are undertaking drastic measures to change their appearance. Last year, the middle school students who I taught told me that their parents would get them plastic surgery if they got a good result in their high school tests. That’s why they studied hard. Not because they wanted to become a doctor, a journalist, or even the president. Because they wanted to change their face. That is just so heartbreaking to me, that they feel that pressure to completely change the way they look at such a young age, and that their parents fully support them on that. They aren’t opting for surgery like rhinoplasty to fix a crooked nose that’s been causing them a lot embarrassment over the years. They want eyelid surgery so that they can disguise their ethnic features. They want jaw reconstruction so they can look like the “perfect Korean woman.” Their parents should be celebrating their beautiful faces, not giving them an incentive to change them.
With such importance placed on looks from such a young age, it’s not uncommon for students as young as 7 to notice if you are wearing less makeup than usual, or to point out that you have dark circles. It’s also not uncommon for adults to tell you that you look so tired and sick on the days that you are wearing less makeup than usual. For me, that was a huge culture shock. I have a lot of acne scars and often have Korean women trying to give me advice and recommend different dermatologists to me. It has been a bit shocking for me since back home it’s considered really rude to comment on someone’s appearance. However, since moving to Korea, I’ve honestly started to give zero fucks about what I look like when I leave the house in the morning. Ironic, eh? I know that even if I spend 30 minutes highlighting and contouring my face until I look like Kim K before I go to work, someone is probably still going to comment on my dark circles and tell me I look tired and sick. Or, worse still, tell me that I look so much better than I did the previous day and then proceed to treat me differently because of it. These days, I go out practically make up free on school days. I save my makeup for the weekend, and wear it on my own terms- not because I feel like I need to. It saves me time in the morning, it helps my skin breathe and most importantly, it allows me to give a big huge middle finger to the system! FTS!
Racism is Normal
Now, this might sound hypocritical since I come from the UK- a country where people talk about refugees from war-torn countries like they are vermin and Islamaphobia is growing by the day. However, racism is a bit different here in Korea. I feel as though in the UK people say racist things but know that they are being racist. Someone always calls them out on it, unless they are at a UKIP party conference. But here, making prejudice remarks is normal, and no one is getting pulled up for it.
When I first started teaching, I was showing my students a video which featured some hispanic children. The children were so happy, and I thought they were really cute. But everyone started laughing as soon they came on the screen. Then one boy shouted “Oh, so ugly!” I asked the student why he said that and he told me, “Oh very dark skin and big lips. Very terrible face. Very not beautiful.” I got really angry, and explained to them that just because someone is not a K-Pop star, or doesn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes, doesn’t make them ugly. Since that day, I have noticed that everytime there is a picture of a non-Korean/ non white person in a book, or in a video, students will snigger and laugh. While I put my foot down and question them, I know for a fact that most Korean teachers wouldn’t have done the same thing. I’ve even witnessed Korean teachers joining in and egging the students on! Racist attitudes towards non-Korean cultures is the norm here, and not the exception.
As well as this, there is a huge emphasis placed on having “pure blood.” Older generations were told from a very young age that they were the master race, and to be honest, the sentiment has trickled down. Last year, I was asked by a Korean woman why I had such dark hair and dark eyes if I was from Scotland. She commented on the fact that I don’t look European and that I have a very “oriental face.” She then asked if I was an “authentic Scotland person?” I explained to her that my great grandmother is Greek, which is why I have tanned skin and Mediterranean features. While I was talking about my heritage I decided to also point out that I have some Irish heritage down the line too, which is really common on the West Coast of Scotland. I could hear her translating this to the other Korean women who were with us, and I could see how shocked they all looked. I thought I was just sharing a little bit more about myself, and teaching her a bit about European culture- I didn’t know I was adding fuel to an already huge judgmental fire. Europe is a melting pot of people from all different countries. No two people look the same in Scotland, and regardless of whether we have ginger hair or not, we’re definitely still authentic Scottish people. I was offended that someone who doesn’t know me, or anything about my culture, tried to take that away from me, just because I didn’t fit their mould.
General Assumptions about Foreigners
I know that when people look at me when I walk down the street that they think I’m American, they think that I eat hamburgers or pizza for dinner every night and I like to go out and get drunk most nights. Korean men, like the man earlier, think that I’m probably easy and promiscuous.
On more than one occasion I’ve tried to order food in a Korean restaurant and been told by the waiter that I can’t have it because it’s too spicy for me- how do they know what my spice limit is?
I’m complimented daily on my chopstick skills.
Everyone I meet asks me if I can eat kimchi and is shocked when I say yes.
My co-workers are always shocked when I tell them that pizza isn’t actually my favourite food and that I don’t like to eat fried chicken.
9 times out of the 10 times that someone approaches me in the street, they will choose to ask me if I’m American, rather than just asking where I’m from.
I was recently told by a Korean friend that she watched a story on the news about an American man who was married to a Korean woman, but was having an affair with another woman in America. Why is this NEWS? That is a domestic problem!! Plenty of Koreans also have affairs, without having the dirt aired on the national NEWS! The Korean media consistently portrays foreigners in a negative light, and unfortunately too many people believe everything that they read and tarr us all with the same brush.
Japan did some pretty horrendous things to Korea during their occupation- they banned Korean language from being spoken, forced people to adopt Japanese names and, worse of all, used a lot of Korean women as “comfort women” to Japanese soldiers. There are a lot of hard feelings towards Japan and it is understandable. What I have a problem with is that it’s being instilled in children from a young age. My students often tell me that Japan is dirty and that they hate Japan and Japanese people. The saddest thing about this is that they are learning it from their teachers. There is a huge amount of nationalism here, and being anti-Japanese seems to be the mark of being a “true Korean.”
I was even told by an older Korean man that he hopes that even in 100 years, no Korean will ever forgive or befriend a Japanese person. He told me that he hopes that his daughters will never speak to a Japanese person. Most disturbingly of all, he told me how glad he is that America dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that all Japanese people deserved that level of horror and destruction. Even young children.
What the fuck!!!????
I can never make peace with a country where this is kind of thinking is normal. This isn’t just the feelings of one extremist. Sadly, many Korean people share these feelings, including young children, and educated young adults with the means to make up their own minds about things.
On a More Positive Note
There are of course days when Korea and I are pals. Days when I can look past all of its flaws. It’s the country where I taught for the first time, where I lived alone for the first time, where I travelled alone for the first time, where I managed to get by despite rarely being able to communicate in English. I’ve grown up a lot since I moved to Korea over 2 years ago, and I’m so thankful for all the experiences it has given me.
If you are interested in reading more about the positive side of Korea, check out my posts about some of my favourite places here, and why I think you should consider teaching English abroad. There’s 2 sides to every story, and this is just one side of mine.