Being a foreigner in Korea, specifically a half-white, half-Korean American who can only speak a little of the language, has its pros and cons. Here are some observations from the past 6 months:
- Getting stared at. When I walk down the street, I can’t tell if people are looking at me because they think I look cool in my sunglasses or because they notice my non-Korean-looking face. I suspect it’s usually the latter.
- Not being able to read labels. Took a cold shower my first day here because I didn’t know how to turn on the hot water heater, and I still have no idea what most of the settings on my washing machine mean. (But let’s be honest, I’d probably have about as much trouble with that in the US.)
- Taxi drivers sometimes taking advantage of you by taking a longer route than necessary.
- Difficulty in communicating with maintenance people. I could have sworn that the woman who came to check the gas in my apartment the other day said, “There is a problem,” but she left without saying much else. The sticker she put near the gas valve says “safe”-something so it’s probably fine, right?
- The ability to make people smile just by whipping out a few Korean phrases and bowing. (This is especially true of older people, like the vendors at the market.) The other day, an older Korean man on the subway started in surprise when he turned and realized that the girl next to him who had just answered his mumbled question “Where are we?” was a foreigner. I had literally said two words: the name of the stop and “yes,” but he was completely taken aback and asked, “How did you say that so well?” with a grin on his face.
- Cars stopping for you more often when you cross the street (some would say).
- Being shown a lot of grace and understanding about your ignorance of Korean manners and being told your Korean is “very good” when it really isn’t great. (Those who look Korean are held to a much different standard, though.)
- People automatically thinking you are interesting because you are a foreigner. And doubly so when they find out your mother is Korean.
- People occasionally going out of their way to help you when you look clueless.
Overall: Easier Than Expected
I have managed to find skim milk, my favorite Neutrogena hand cream, plain oatmeal, and even the Ricola drops I crave when I have a sore throat. And to access American TV. All things I expected to go without! But now that I’ve decided to live here long term, I’m really hoping a few more things (namely, Baked Lays, whole grain bread, and froyo) catch on over here soon!!