Today a white woman got on the bus, and I was struck by her confidence.
I live in Korea, so she was the only fully white person on board, but she just calmly smacked her gum and found a seat. My first thought was, “This is the attractiveness of a woman in her thirties: comfort in her own skin.” Then I decided this woman’s ease was also probably related to the amount of experience she has had abroad. I remembered how uncertain I used to be as a foreigner in Korea, how even something simple like riding the bus intimidated me. And it struck me how much I’ve changed.
I’ve been living in Korea for nearly 6 years, but I’m still an outsider.
As some coworkers recently pointed out, I always will be. Even if I were to marry a native (as they have), even if I were to become fluent in the language (as some foreigners do), I still wouldn’t be fully embraced, because it all comes down to blood.
I do have some Korean blood, so I suppose I hold more hope of acceptance than most, but still. Being an outsider isn’t easy. It’s one of those experiences that changes you.
I didn’t come to Korea in order to stick out like a sore thumb. It was just a side consequence of living here that I’ve generally endured and/or ignored. (And I haven’t always felt ostracized. I have also been genuinely and surprisingly embraced.) But today I feel thankful for the ways being an outsider has stretched me.
When you are part of the majority, you take a lot of things for granted: being accepted, being comfortable, having your needs acknowledged and met. Even the opportunity to be anonymous is a privilege I didn’t recognize until it was taken from me. In Korea, I’ve been forced to face who I am and what I value. I’ve learned to find my approval outside of society’s standard. I have learned to go without backup, to be creative in communication, to persevere through frustration after frustration and wall after wall. And sometimes, I’ve learned to let go.
Sometimes I have wondered if living abroad was a form of running away, a convenient way to sidestep the expectations and restrictions of living at home. Sometimes I have not given myself enough credit.
Stepping into the unknown of moving to Korea was scary 6 years ago. (I had the stomach ulcers to prove it!) Every time I stepped out of my apartment, stepped onto a bus or crowded subway car, stepped into a bank or grocery store, I had to muster up strength. That habit of mustering up strength builds muscles over time, and I’m thankful for the muscles I’ve built the past 6 years. I’ve been stretched, I’ve been scared, I’ve been so tired I thought I would collapse, and I’ve learned that pushing through is not just about getting to the other side, it’s about finding out who you are.
As an outsider, I have a unique freedom to sidestep social norms and bring fresh perspective. I can operate independently from the people around me precisely because I know I am not one of them. I can pick and choose which parts of the culture I embrace and which I modify.
But ultimately, my goal isn’t to separate myself from society, but rather to connect. I don’t want to just become a woman confident in her own skin, but one who makes life brighter for everyone around her. And as an outsider, I have unique opportunities every day to do just that.