Good piece on how expats in Japan rank each other in the unspoken pecking orders. The author’s observations apply quite well for waeguk-in in Korea, too, except for the fact that there are effectively no jobs at all for a foreigner here who isn’t either an english teacher, working in the local branch office of a foreign corporation, or an exploited migrant factory worker.
It’s always a quandary – what to do on those rare occasions that you do see a foreign (read ‘caucasian’) face. Being the big friendly galoot that I am (provided I’m not having a Grumpy Day), I generally nod and smile conspiratorially. Due either to some deficiency in my powers of charm, or the fact that most foreigners here spend a great deal of their time having their very own Grumpy Days, at least 60% of the time my friendly mugging is met with a blank stare. That’s OK by me, as it helps me to realize that it’s not the majority of Korean people that I dislike, it’s the majority of people in general. It’s important to keep your misanthropy honed to a keen edge.
‘On being a gaijin’, from the same writer, hits very close to home as well.
At the moment, all the TV networks are running a pre-World Cup ad campaign whose basic message is : “If you’re approached by a foreigner, don’t squeal and run away, or shoo them off like a great dairy-product-reeking beast, be nice to them! If they come up to you, babbling incoherently in their long-tongued, incomprehensible gutterspeak, brandishing a map, try to help them! Strange as they look and outlandishly as they may behave, they won’t bite, usually.”
The fact that the government finds it necessary to run these ads on heavy rotation speaks volumes about this place. Not for nothing was Korea once called the ‘Hermit Nation’.


Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. Preach on Brother Chicken!
    I normally give a polite head toss hinting at a “what’s up?” if they are young enough to understand such a gesture. If they return such body language, a “Hello” is possible before I continue on, lost in the crowded sea of black hair once more.

  2. You know, I have the same problem. Most of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in in the US have been predominantly white with very few asians. So whenever I see another korean (we can usually tell by just looking), I always want to smile and say hi. 90 percent of the time, I get a super super dirty look back. I don’t know if they think I’m competition or if I’m being condescending. Whatever it is, I’ve gotten quite shy around other koreans that I don’t know for fear they’ll hiss at me. (On the other hand, it’s also easy to get entangled in the local korean gossip web if you get too close. As soon as I get to know one other korean, news of me will spread like fire to every other korean in a 20 mile radius. I think I prefer a little anonymity.)

  3. two things:
    1. Hermit Kingdom not Hermit Nation.
    2. Jo.. i have found similar attitudes in koreans outside of korea. my wife was warned by her sister (who lived in hong kong) that koreans act differently outside of korea. don’t know why.. but she was right.

  4. Whoops. Yeah, you’re right, Pukester.

  5. The gossipping web IS something part of Korea’s everyday life. What would the ajummas if they didn’t gossip?!?
    First time I came to Korea, in 1990 (and people back home knew exactly what I had been doing, go figure!), Foreigners used to greet in the street, like Seoul was a bleeding village or something. Spent my time saying hello back to strangers, lest they thought I was a snub or something… Then a strange thing happened. In 1992, when I came back, Foreigners watched their feet, or the sun, or anything else BUT other Foreigners, like they were ashamed or something. At first, I thought it was just me being over-sensitive or something, but I asked around, and friends confirmed. It lasted a season or two, and subsided later on. True, the foreign population has grown a lot (still WAY too few of us, but still…). People can’t just say hello to everybody anymore. But it still happens sometimes, a happy fellow, freshly arrived, OR very candid, starting up a conversation in the subway or in the street. As a Frenchman, this is strange, wherever I happen to be…
    Back home, in France, I sometimes have the tendency to greet Koreans, although that’s the last thing I want to happen, of course, Korean tourists hanging on me…
    Didier, in Seoul

  6. There are other jobs for foreigners than “english teacher, working in the local branch office of a foreign corporation, or an exploited migrant factory worker.” I, for one, am in a 100% (except for me, of course) Korean company and I am hardly exploited. Granted, my experience and education makes me one of those “specialists” noted in the Giajin-Japan webpage noted in your blog, but there are us here who are not exploited by hogwons, multinationals or factory foremen. Additionally, I know of another 2 expats in similar positions at similar firms (one is a smaller London-based concern but the other is exactly the same as my firm).
    So, there ya have it.

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