A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Happy New Year to you too Mr. Kim...

One of the strangest things about adjusting to life in Korea is suddenly being an object of spectacle.

In a country of genetic hegemony, a green-eyed, curly-haired, blonde(ish) Canadian sticks out like a parasite in your kimchi. Today for some reason, everyone seemed to think I look like Harry Potter...

I have a difficult time explaining to the kids that I don't have a "perm-u" and that my hair is naturally curly and has been so since birth (although strictly speaking this is a lie, but it's easier to relate than explaining how my stark white, smooth straight locks turned ash coloured and curly in junior high, perhaps to emulate the tense coils of puberty).

Growing up in bone-white Nova Scotia, my next door neighbor was Lebanese, but I hadn't seen many people of other ethnicities until a visit to family in South Carolina at age 6, when I tugged on my mother's sleeve and innocently told her, matter-of-factly, that I had seen 14 black people since leaving the airport.

Even in a small city like Halifax there is ethnic diversity, and it's something you come to appreciate as a norm when you find yourself on the flip-side, alone and gawked at in a human sea of Koreans.

Sure there are times when it can make you feel unique and even respected for no good reason, but to tell the truth, most days I feel like an outsider and an object of others amusement. I know the staring and the giggling isn't malicious, and in most cases is probably just nervous curiosity, but be they from a bashful teenage girl or a suspicious old man, stares have a way of sticking to you— each one layering over the last like gig posters on a telephone pole. Eventually you feel like you're carrying around a second skin of other people's shifty looks.

Then there are little sunshine moments that make you forget you're even a foreigner. Like when one of your favorite students gives you a smiling lion eraser as a gift for no reason in particular, or when you walk into the local bakery and are greeted by: "Hello Mr. Sam! Happy New Year!"

Then the stares start to peel a little.

1 comment:

Shane Patenaude said...

I totally know what you mean. At times I'm worn out by the continuous stares of strangers, and other times I can feel like part of the community when I'm with people around the neighborhood that know me.
Either way it's an interesting situation. Even if I feel like an outsider at times, I have to see every day as a unique experience I'll probably have trouble matching in the future.