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

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Great White Hype

The walk from my apartment to school is less than five minutes, but it is my least favorite part of the day.

The sidewalk is narrow and uphill, along the base of the mountain. There is a metal guard rail that follows along street-side and keeps us nice and fenced-in. Normally this wouldn't bother me, but everyday I share the walk with hundreds of high schoolers, taking their afternoon break as I head to work.

It's a great tide of clean, white dress shirt uniforms, and I'm walking against it.

Again, this is something that wouldn't normally bother me, but I find it tiring to have to walk uphill, in the afternoon sun while avoiding eye contact with those who tend to see me as a curious novelty humanoid.

I'm more than willing to say hello or even stop and talk to anyone who would wish, but wave after wave of the same meaningless exchange:




That starts quickly to wear on you.

I hate to complain. Especially on a blog, because... I mean c'mon... but being seen as an oddity, either suspiciously or as novelty, is something that you can't really prepare for.

The worst are those who don't say anything, but as soon as they pass me in silence, burst out laughing.

As a foreigner living in another country and not knowing the language, you sometimes feel paranoid and borderline resentful, assuming that everyone is talking about you all the time. No one welcomes this state of mind, but it sort of invites itself in as the stares and snickers start to gain weight and influence.

I'll regularly be eating in a restaurant, and hear only two words I understand but still be able to delineate the conversation. "Wayguk or waygukin" (foreigner) and "hamburgers."

I imagine the conversation goes along the lines of:

"Oh, a foreigner. And he can eat Korean food."

"Isn't it too spicy for him?"

"He looks like he's enjoying it!"

"What do foreigners usually eat?"

All together: "Hamburgers!"

Just so we're clear, hamburgers are our (North Americans in general) cultural thumb-print on the world. Jughead is North America, Pop Tate's is the globalization that provides him with an unlimited supply of burgers, and Korea is a little kid with its face pressed against the diner window, agape at the masses of beef this freak of nature can pack away.

My friends and I had an old joke about "burger-lust" and how it was an affliction that would reduce the overweight to a state of slavish helplessness, and make them willing to do anything for a hamburger. Wimpyism, if you will.

Joey's long-standing dream is to run off to Canada so he can eat hamburgers for breakfast.

Is this the spark of burger-lust burning in his guts?
Where was I before I got on about hamburgers?

Ah yes, being paranoid.

I'm fully aware that Koreans have no obligation to spare my unknown feelings and make me feel comfortable in their space. My business in their country is my own. I don't belong here. It would be foolish to expect to feel normal in a small town, and I never did expect that. Those who I have a professional or even regular face-to-face relationship with (like shopkeepers etc.) have constantly gone out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. I'm indebted to many people for their goodwill and friendliness. That's not it. It just gets old being a constant object of attention to strangers. After all, it's one of the oldest and time tested comedic set-ups isn't it? Something unfamiliar but in a familiar situation? I must be pretty hilarious to some.

I'm all for self-satire, but every now and then I just kick the days in the arse as they pass me by.



"Don't come back..."


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean, Sam; the hospitality of some, and the gawking of many. It becomes tiresome.

Christ, I want a hamburger. Let's meet in Canada and get some.

/rach said...

I hate the paranoid days. Maybe they happen less often in Seoul, but they still bring my productivity to a halt.

riley said...

with you.

I try to roll with 'well, they're probably not saying anything truly nasty', but actually a friend of mine in Gohan who can passably speak Korean admitted to me that in most cases they're not exactly saying anything particularly nice either.


Justin said...

Oh yes Sam, I think all of us here are in the same boat. I have been picking up some Korean, I would say my ability is the same as a Canadian 7th grade student in French, and let me tell you most of the time it is not that nice. At least down here in the far South. I get my vengeance when I say hello to the ones muttering in restaurants I usually follow my Korean greeting with a “are you enjoying your food, I am". Is it wrong to learn a language just for spite and sarcasm?