Sunday, July 12, 2009


In America, if you see 100 people and 5 are not white (the majority race), you think, "there are a lot of white people here." In Korea, if there are 100 people and 5 are not Korean, you think, "why are there so many foreigners here?"

At first it was kind of fun. I'm kind of a celebrity here without even trying. Everyone thinks I'm beautiful and is fascinated by me. People like to give me free things and gifts. Strangers say "hello" to me on the street or speak to me in English on the subway sometimes. A large number of my friends and students say I'm the first or maybe second foreigner they've ever talked to. They're shy and excited and they have a million questions. My guy friends make jokes about dating me and some of them ask periodically if I have a boyfriend or am looking for one. There's a waiting list at this point.

Girls whisper about me and guys stare. When I'm with a Korean friend speaking English, we might as well have a flashing neon sign above us saying, "UNIQUE SPECTACLE" or "LOOK SHE'S AMERICAN~GUESS IF (S)HE'S KOREAN-BORN OR NOT" or one of a million other things Korean think about us. Men tend to think, based on movies and TV dramas, that I'm easy, and I've even been asked for sex on a first meeting. Old people sometimes gape in horror if I'm with a guy. I still remember the incident with the crazy old man in 까치산 (Ggachisan) who grabbed my boob and kissed my cheek. Someone I originally met for a job interview ended up trying to kiss me. Even in my own home, if I cook something in the kitchen and there are other people there, it's extremely awkward. I don't know if I should say something or not, and although the people are usually kind, I have a strange feeling that they are judging me.

I'm becoming narcissistic and paranoid, and I'm developing illusions of reference. If I look around, I can tell that not EVERYONE is staring at me. But, I still THINK they are. Sometimes I strut my stuff and drink in the attention, real or perceived. Some days I just wish they would all go away or that I could find a place to be alone and scream and release some steam.

I'm gradually losing weight. I bought jeans that were too tight in America in anticipation of this (public transportation, healthier food). Now I need a belt to wear those jeans. My legs are becoming more toned and less jiggly. I'll admit readily that I'm not a skinny person, but I might finally get to know what being thin feels like while living in Korea. After a lifetime of being average, the extra attention here and the fact that looking at myself in the mirror is becoming more satisfying is really inflating my ego. I see this and I hate it. I love myself and I hate myself at the same time. I feel guilty that I'm enjoying the result of West worship in Korea. I've always wanted to be admired, but I wanted to earn it. Here I get a million extra points just because I'm American.

When I do see other foreigners, it's strange to me now. They look so awkward and out of place. The men are usually not handsome, and the women are usually not beautiful. Since I prefer Korean men over western men anyway, most foreign men here look just plain ugly to me. But many of them have beautiful Korean girlfriends, because Korean girls generally LOVE men who are fluent in English. Western women don't often accept Korean boyfriends. I know it's easy to get a Korean boyfriend as a Western woman, but it's much more unusual to see a Korean man-Western woman couple than it is to see a Western man-Korean woman couple. This could have to do with women valuing conversation more than men, thus making it difficult to find a good boyfriend whose first language is different. Maybe it has to do with the size stereotypes. It could be because Koreans usualy have smaller bodies and muscles and much less confidence than Westerners. This goes for both men and women. In women, small and shy is almost universally desirable, whereas in men, strong and confident is desirable. Therefore, the women from a small race and shy culture are sought after, but the men are shunned. Usually if I see another foreign women with a boyfriend here, the boyfriend is also a foreigner. Remember, the night I broke my nose I talked to a Russian girl who likes black men. I think Western men also become narcissistic after a while here, as most of the ones I've met are players. They can't really speak Korean, just enough to get a girl in bed where they say they can speak a "universal language" with those cute Korean girls. There's a reason all of my friends here are Koreans.

All in all, I'm becoming very self-conscious. I find myself looking around for mirrors in public, of which there are many compared to in America. Koreans primp a lot, both men and women. I wonder if people are staring at my large feet or my imperfect skin and judging the entire western world by my actions and clothes. I'm extra embarrassed when I do something clumsy, which as those of you who know me well can attest to, is pretty often. I try to look sexy, cute, and/or sophisticated at all times and I'm always trying to look like I know what I'm doing, even if I don't. You can imagine I make a fool of myself pretty often. There are language barrier issues, culture differences, the differences between living in suburbs like I have for my entire life and living in a big city in which half the population of Korea is crammed. On top of all that, I'm a 21-year-old girl living alone in an unfamiliar country with no real goals or purpose and no clue who I am. I'm at the finding-out-who-I-am stage of my life and I have no anchor to help me keep my feet on the ground. I'm drifting in white-water rapids, and the days here are the slowest I've ever felt but at the same time they're going by more quickly than ever before. There are so many things I need to do, so many things I want to do, so many things I forget to do.

Life is completely overwhelming and I really don't know how I would stay afloat without having a place to play piano. I'm lucky I have some hobby that's so close to my heart that I can take anywhere. Now I've been playing piano for 11 years and composing music is my catharsis. But even in the music academy where I practice, I'm always wondering if people are judging me because I'm the only foreigner and the rooms aren't 100% soundproof and I sing. I know I' m a good singer but what if they're listening and picking out every slightly wrong note and ever time my voice cracks, and what if while I'm learning a song they're mocking how little talent I have and thinking Americans must be terrible at playing music? What if they don't like the songs I choose to play, or worse yet, what if they hate the songs I compose? What if they secretly think I'm strange and they talk about me where I can't hear them. Well, they'd be talking in Korean so I wouldn't understand them anyway. When I hear them talking, I always wonder if it's about me.

Whenever I hear people talking, I always wonder if it's about me. Sometimes I know it is because of body language or the few words I understand. Mostly it's neutral or good, I think. For instance, I hear the phrase "English teacher" a lot, and one of the first words I learned here because I hear it so much is "beautiful". But my Korean vocabulary is very limited, especially in terms of negative words. I don't know the word for ugly, so I would never know if someone said it. This heightens my anxiety because if they're saying good things, I feel like a red carpet celebrity. If they're saying bad things, I feel like a front page criminal. I always feel like a monkey on display at the zoo.

When the attention first bothered me, I tuned it out easily and got on with my life. Now I make a conscious effort not to look at people. If I meet someone's eyes, I have a moment of terror. I don't completely know why terror is the feeling I get. I have a constant anxiety and a fear of people following me. I'm even afraid to talk to people because I'm sure I'll understand enough to prove I can speak Korean, but not enough to understand what they're actually saying. That's worse than understanding nothing because I feel like a child or an idiot. If I understand nothing, the Korean is the one who feels stupid because he/she can't speak English, which is becoming a class distinction in Korea. The only thing I hate more than being frustrated by the language barrier is the thought that people are assuming I'm a tourist. I try to speak Korean even if I know the person can speak English because I don't want to be seen as a tourist. That nullifies my existence here. I'm trying to make Korea my home. I can't be a tourist and a resident at the same time.

The funny thing is... I hate it more when people don't pay attention to me than when they do. It makes me indignant. Like, HEY I'm special~ you should be admiring me!! You should want to sit next to me on the bus or the subway so that you can brag about it to your friends later!! Because the worst thing is when people see me briefly and then purposely avoid me. I've seen people stand or walk to the other side of the subway to find a seat rather than sit next to me. On the bus, one woman even put her purse on the empty seat next to her as I got on to prevent me from sitting next to her. Do they hate me or are they just afraid? A bank teller admitted that he was afraid when I approached his desk because he would have to speak English. His English was really, really good. He had no reason to be afraid. Some of my friends say that some people hate Westerners and want all of us to leave, especially Americans. It's a very complicated political and cultural situation that I don't completely understand. I came here curious about how Koreans think of Japan and Japanese people, but I find myself being an object of so many different emotions and judgments. Whether I like it or not, I will never fit in here.


As a white, middle-class, suburban-raised girl, being a minority (minority feels like an understatement~ more like rarity) is completely new to me. I had many foreign friends in America and sometimes hung out in groups that were 100% Asian except for me, but this is something I can't compare to any other experience in my life. To every minority member in the world, I'm sorry for the way you are treated.

Hopefully I can get past this stage soon. I know I will find a comfort zone in my mental assessment of my daily life eventually. At this point I actually sometimes go out for no real reason except that I crave the attention. I'll buy one thing at the convenience store just to see the look on the cashier's face when I say something in Korean. I'm testing the boundaries. I'm playing a game. I'm experimenting on society. They're doing the same to me. The future should be interesting.


  1. it's amazing that, in such a short amount of time, you have been able to make such sharply detailed and absolutely spot on observations about korean society and culture. my experience has been largely similar, yet also quite different at times, due to the fact that I'm a Korean-American. interestingly, one of the minor reasons I came here was to blend in more. Yet I have found that, if and when I should choose to stand out, I can be the recipient of some of the same celebrity-esque treatment. my situation is arguably "better" than yours since my Korean ethnicity earns me more favor with those who might otherwise dislike foreigners. despite all this, I think I prefer to blend in more than stand out for many of the reasons you described in your entry.

    Regarding other foreigners in Korea: though I am feeding a somewhat gross generalization ... a year ago I met a Canadian teacher in my fitness center who matched nearly every stereotype you could muster about North American guys in Asian countries. despite having been here for 2 years already, in my brief time with this guy I got my first introduction to hostess bars, Korean prostitutes in addition to learning about room salons and some of the "extra" services offered by Norae-bangs. Granted, I work for a small corporation here and am not part of the ESL teaching community, else I might have found out about these things much sooner. disclaimer: I did not personally partake in any of the aforementioned activities - honest to God!

  2. You have that unique middle ground, but I think it's pretty easy to tell domestic-born Koreans apart from 재미교포 or Korean-Americans. Although, in a crowd, nobody would look twice if you aren't speaking English or with an American accent. I wouldn't trade you situations, though, because I can now identify with one culture, whereas I'm sure you're a bit torn between blood and upbringing.

    Yeah the sex culture in Korea is nowhere near that of Japan, but it's pretty... developed. I've heard of a lot of foreign guys discovering just how developed it is very quickly and enthusiastically. Quite the investors, indeed...

  3. I give you credit for your perseverance.
    Although I won't pretend to understand why you put yourself in this position.

    Maybe you should call sometime.

  4. you seem ridiculously impressed with yourself.

  5. Thank you for your condescension, whoever this last comment is from, but I invite you to read this entry again (ignoring the numerous typing errors) and notice how much I talk about feeling insecure and ashamed of my ego. Yes, I am impressed with myself because most people here are impressed by me and it's rubbing off. But I realize it and I'm trying to counteract it with rationality and the knowledge that I'm completely average.

    I don't know if you've every been in this situation, but the statements I've made about the attention I receive here are not exaggerated or subjective. I get stared at a lot. Random people talk to me just because they want to practice English or because they want to see if I can speak Korean. I got a text message last week from a friend I haven't seen in a long time asking if I still had a boyfriend because he missed me. I was also propositioned to be a mistress last week, which is probably the most offensive offer I've ever had in my life. This is not me being impressed with myself. This is me telling it the way it is.

    In the future, if you have some negative comment for me, please at least temper it with something constructive, or a specific comment on something you disagree with and why you disagree with it. Vague attacks on my character are not relevant to this blog. What would be relevant would be, "were you so impressed with yourself before moving to Korea, or do you think that your ego has grown as a result of moving there?" See, you can insult me and pose a valid, thoughtful question at the same time. Be creative, please!

  6. again, you're way too impressed with yourself.
    you are obviously a caucasian woman. thus, you will NEVER be accepted by korean society as one of their own no matter how much broken korean and random words you know.
    so stop stressing out about it and get over yourself.

  7. oh btw, being that you're not korean, those cultural obligations don't apply to you

  8. Yes, I am caucasian woman; there are pictures of me all over the sidebar of this page, and I mentioned it in this entry. I know that I'll never fit in in Korea, but I never fit in in America either. After a couple of years, I'm hoping my Korean will no longer be broken, because I'm studying very hard and making an effort to learn as much as I can about the language and culture. I don't want to be one of those foreigners who have taught English here for two years and still orders in English at restaurants. You're not the first one to express malcontent with my being here, and you won't be the last.

    Just because I will never be Korean doesn't mean I shouldn't try to respect and absorb the culture as much as possible. I love when people are really thankful that I'm trying to learn from them, and I love when I can show my friends how I'm improving my grammar and vocabulary. Would you rather I shun everything Korean just because I'm caucasian? I came here to build a new life for myself, and I'm not going to do that by remaining completely American. As long as I can make some true friends and feel like I belong somewhere in m own way, I will be happy. I think that the place the best suited for me is here in Korea, and I want to come to terms with the way I'm treated here. This blog is meant to detail my experiences, my thoughts, and my observations. Can you say that anything I've stated about the attention I receive here is false? I'm not used to it, and I'm just writing how I feel and how I'm figuring it out so that people who have never experienced anything like this can have some perspective on life here in my shoes.

    Do white Americans tell Koreans to go back to Korea and stop trying to learn English because it's hopeless? Okay, I take that back, there are some assholes who do that. How is what you're saying any different? I'm an immigrant; I would like to stay, and I would like to fit in to the greatest extent that I can, however little that might be.

    I guess there's nothing I can say so that will make you change your negativity toward me. I suppose I should stop trying because you've obviously misinterpreted my meaning. I guess you probably haven't read any of the other entries, but just decided to judge me based on this one. Anyway, I have a life to go live and figure out, so I'll respond to whatever other biting comments you have later.

  9. To the other Anonymous,

    What the heck is wrong with you? Here is a young girl both trying so hard to create her own life in a unfamilar, foreign country and asking others to come in and join her in sharing some of her intimate thoughts, fears, worries and happiness, all in the name of growing up. And you for some God-forsaken reason call her megalomaniac??? What, she(Kristin) is too impressed with herself? No where in the blog had I detected a tinge of hubris on her part. If anything, Kristin seems to be dejected after the break-up, perhaps feeling like looking in from the outside. Let me just say this. When someone asked you to a dinner party, you just bring a bottle of wine and act like a guest and enjoy the party. You wouldn't go around trash the house or hurl out venomous, vitriolic aspersions at the host. Or would you? Gee.... I just have to wonder why some people are so cynical and quick to judge.
    Heed this: if you have nothing good to say about others, just keep quiet, although good constructive advices, I believe undoubtedly, would be welcomed by Kirstin.

  10. Wow seems like you're having quite the experience there. Truth is, you're not alone. Although your case is in Korea there are millions of people on this planet who has experiences like yours. As a Korean who came to the US during freshmen year in high school I can tell you that it really isn't that much different being a minority in any country. I have to say, American high school experience have to be pretty close to what you've been experiencing if you look different. In my opinion you sound terribly depressed and homesick. I haven't had the time to read all your posts but it also seems like the problem is stemming from some of the reasons you've left the States, and not meeting your expectations in Korea. I also have the 'no new place still doesn't feel truly like home' syndrome. Unfortunately I can't offer any solutions or advise (nor couldn't anti-depressents) other than offering you good luck. If you're living there long term, the first 3-6 months will be the hardest as this is when the new city novelty wears off but you still will be struggling with settling in. Keep your chin up and don't give up!

    PS. Learning the language helps tremendously. This will make Koreans take you seriously and more honestly. People will rip you off less and will make making friends much easier.