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Korean uniforms with Joel's fiance Amy. Click for larger.

JEJU-DO—One of the weirder things about living in a country as ethnically homogenous as Korea is that you constantly, and in earnest, get to refer to people as foreigners. As in, “Can you believe what that foreigner is wearing?” or “This place is lousy with foreigners!”—statements that would easily get you branded as a racist or a bigot or just a prick if you uttered them in Canada, but which sound completely natural here when used to refer to oneself and anyone else who doesn’t consider pickled radish kimchi to be a perfectly reasonable breakfast food.

This can be partially attributed to Koreans’ own tendency to call out foreigners whenever they encounter them. Walking along the street on Jeju-do, it’s common to see a Korean person look at you with mild surprise, turn to his or her friend and exclaim something like, “Oh my, a foreigner!” then giggle like they just farted in church. The Korean word for foreigner is 외국 (pronounced “Waygookeen”), and since it’s one tidbit of Korean that most foreigners recognize, this practice is roughly equivalent to walking around, say, Spadina and Dundas in Toronto and exclaiming, “Whoa, check it out—Chinese people!” then tittering conspiratorially to your friends to express the utter strangeness of such a thing.

Such public exclamations of surprise are less conspicuous in cosmopolitan cities such as Seoul, but even there, most non-Korean people tend to congregate in one particular area: Itaewon, a neighbourhood long haunted by US soldiers from the nearby Yongsan military base, and the only place in Korea where you can grab a falafel, some bourbon and a hooker and make a night of it. I suspect that outside of Itaewon, Seoulites do remark on foreigners, but just with more subtlety and panache than the folks on Jeju—some of whom are, in their defense, still genuinely amazed to see us pink, hairy creatures turn up in their sleepy fishing villages. Maybe Seoul residents text each other white guy alerts tagged with little =O emoticons; I’ll probably never know.

Racial insensitivity anywhere in the world is hardly news, and I suspect that these days, a similar thing happens every day in cases where immigrants from any primarily Muslim country move to small towns in France or Kansas or Saskatchewan, although I have never been to any of those places, so further speculation is outside the reach of this blog. However, if I had to guess at a difference between Koreans’ blunt observation techniques and plain old discrimination, it’s that there’s no malice in the Korean version. Some lingering discontentment with the American military presence aside, there’s very little ill-will or even greedy opportunism aimed at foreigners in Korea; unlike the situation in many other, less-economically developed Asian countries, absolutely no one here is trying to rip you off because you are white. When I first got here, fresh from a trip to Vietnam, I made an ass of myself trying to be canny by bargaining with the man selling tickets at the bus station:

Me: “No, thanks, I’d rather buy my tickets directly from the bus company.”

Him (in Korean , at the time still unintelligible to me, making this a rough approximation at best): “What are you talking about? I’m the official bus guy. You can’t buy tickets from anyone else.”

Me: “Yeah, yeah, I know—your tickets are the best, right? Cheap, cheap? I’ll pass, buddy, thanks.”

Him: “Why are you making those faces? Don’t you want a ticket?”

Me (to partner): “Amy, do you see someplace we can buy tickets? I wish this weirdo would stop following us. No tickets, don’t want!”

Him: “I’m right here! I have the tickets! I just want to sell them to you at a reasonable fixed price, so you can have a safe and happy journey. That’s my job, don’t you see?”

Amy: “I think this might be the guy selling the tickets.”

Me: “Oh… two, please.”

A lot of the time, being a foreigner in Korea simply makes you feel famous. In certain cases, it can make you famous for real, as has happened to several of the guests on the Korean program 미녀들 수다 (Misuda, or “Chatting With Beauties”), a show on which attractive foreign girls speak Korean for the amusement of a studio audience, discussing hard-hitting topics like eating dogs and how funny old Korean ladies are (in other words, things you will doubtless soon be reading about on this blog).

Joel with Dutch explorer Hendrick Hamel (left). Click for larger.

It was only this past year that the number of foreigners living in Korea surpassed one million, a landmark that made headlines and sparked editorials in most major news outlets. Given that most of those foreigners live in Seoul, and that the total population of Korea is estimated at over 72 million, it’s understandable that people are still a little shocked when they see non-Koreans ambling around, asking where they can buy sour cream and Marmite. (To be fair, Chinese people, who make up the bulk of foreigners in Korea at 44 per cent, do not typically eat Marmite, although you have to believe they’re looking for even more obscure stuff than that.)

Historically, Korea has been one of the most homogenous societies in the world, existing as a single culture and kingdom—albeit one often under the harsh control of its neighbours—from the Unified Silla period in 668 AD until 1948, when the military demarcation line was drawn at the 38th parallel, splitting it into North and South. When Hendrick Hamel, the first Westerner to write extensively about Korea, landed on Jeju-do in 1653 with his Dutch crew, he and his friends were first taken to see the king and then promptly told they could not leave, ever, presumably because the king was afraid they might bring back other idiots like themselves who couldn’t understand that sour cream and Marmite were gross.

All the way up to the twentieth century, this little doodle wagging off the coast of Asia’s hulking mainland earned the nickname “the Hermit Kingdom,” fiercely protecting its way of life as the wasps’ nests on all sides of it hummed with the lust for expansion. As a result, it developed one of the most singular cultures in Asia, and a fervent pride in its ability to weather powerful waves of foreign influence.

These days, the North is perhaps the most secretive, withdrawn country on earth, the last outpost of an archaic personality-cult Communism that would seem silly if so many people hadn’t died because of it. (I’ve tried to get in, but was first told by one tour company that I wasn’t allowed because I’d written a few film reviews and could therefore be considered a journalistic threat to their relationship with Pyongyang, and then told by another tour company that was willing to take me that I would have to pay about $8000 for a three-day trip—a deal I ultimately decided against, based on my suspicion that most of that money would go towards supplying Kim Jong Il with exotic hair product.)

Meanwhile, the South is on a spree in the huge flea market of genius and idiocy we call globalization, continually warming up to new foreign products, media and people. Last year, the Blue House and the White House finally agreed to fully periwinkle their economic relationship by signing a controversial free-trade agreement, and it took mere weeks for American beef to start stampeding the meat counters of my local Lotte Mart, eager to return after a four-year ban. Giant robots, boy wizards and horrible, rampaging monsters continue their assault on the domestic film industry (although Korea still boasts one of the most vital film industries in the world—much more vital than, say, Canada’s). The demand for native English speaking teachers remains high; by the time the current generation of middle-school kids reaches adulthood, a huge percentage of them will have had at least one foreigner as an ESL teacher. Soon, it may be considered rude to point at a foreigner, whisper to your friend and laugh like you just saw someone serenading their own feces. Shame, really.

And yet, speaking of fecal balladry, perhaps all of us can take solace in knowing that there is at least one foreigner we can always laugh at and abuse with zero guilt. Plus, for all of Korea’s inevitable assimilation into the global monoculture, there are still a hell of a lot of weird things entrenched in the Korean market that no amount of free trade will ever get rid of. And so, next week, I bring you the ultimate in oxymoronic lists: 10 Essential Korean Oddities.

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  • Pat Tanzola

    My cousin Mark took the plunge, got the right visas and paid the extortionate fees for a week in N.Korea. Aside from his raving positive reviews of the place (who knows what hypnotics they fed him), he came back to Canada with a souvenir bottle of North Korean snake liquor (from the Pyongyang duty free) that would make JoHo gecko juice seem like Crystal Light. Yecch. But apparently the capital city is spotless and gorgeous.

  • Edward

    Again, a nice post.

    One quib. When you say, “albeit one often under the harsh control of its neighbours…” I’m not quite sure what you are referring to. Japan dominated the peninsula from 40 years from 1905 to 1945 and the Mongol Yuan dominated, through a figurehead Korean king, in the 13th and early 14th centuries. Other then that, Korea was largely independent.

    If you mean Chinese rule, that wouldn’t be control per say as it has been a tributary relationship. The Chinese do not directly control a country through a tributary relationship. What it does do is set-up something like a trade and security alliance where China is honorifically called an “older brother” nation and gives nomial approval of leadership changes in the tributary state. A far cry from direct rulership.

  • Joel

    Edward makes a good point. Japan’s harsh rule of Korea for the first half of the twentieth century was a relatively short period in the country’s long history, and Korea’s relationship with China has often been beneficial. The country has been independent for most of its history, and had some remarkable eras of strength, such as the Joseon kingdom, which lasted from 1392 to 1910 (Japan didn’t actually annex Korea until that year, although Korea was a Japanese protectorate from 1905), and was especially strong in its early years.
    If I made an error in using the word “control,” though, there’s no question that Korea has often had to fight hard to withstand attacks from its neighbours. In the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth, Joseon was weakened by invasions from both the Japanese and Qing dynasty China; the Japanese conflicts gave Korea one of its enduring national heroes, Admiral Yi-Sunsin, a badass naval commander who helped develop the Turtle Ship, an ironclad warship armed with cannons. Mongols and Manchus have also taken their fare share of shots at Korea. Add the Korean war, which was largely orchestrated by the Soviet Union and China, and I think it’s fair to amend my statement to say “under intense pressure from its neighbours.”
    Thanks, Edward, for pointing that out. Korean history is nothing if not a testament to the nation’s scrappy spirit, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise.

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