My Life as walking human exhibitAfter living two years in Korea, I am surprised that I have not learned to say, “Please stop staring at me.” Any foreigner who has touched down here can certainly relate to the experience of being made to feel like a walking museum exhibit.
As recently as two hours ago I had a staring competition with a woman on the subway. She did not seem to realize that I knew she had been looking at me for a while, and I had been glaring directly back for much longer than what would be considered polite under different circumstances. Maybe some food was stuck in the corner of my mouth. But enough. I moved several seats away.
After going two months without seeing another Caucasian (or any other non-Korean, for that matter), by the time I got to Seoul, I think I stared more at foreigners than any of the Koreans around me. I often wonder what those blonde girls in Jamsil thought of my intentions when I ran up to them and said, “Hey, can I talk to you?” It was pure cultural desperation.
At first, being stared at really got me down. A kind American GI once taught me how to say, “What are you looking at?” in Korean. I used it once when some young men were transfixed on my girlfriend. After nearly starting a fight, I learned how confrontational that expression can be. I have yet to thank that soldier for the cultural tip. I also have yet to use any of the other phrases he taught me. Maybe I should try them out on the persnickety ajumma down the street. I am pretty sure I could outrun her.
But being the object of blatant observation has some upsides, too. I am far more meticulous about my wardrobe than I used to be and much more careful about my posture. When I go back to New Zealand I suspect I will feel quite neglected and may have to resort to dyeing my hair neon pink just to get attention. But as long as I am in Korea,I have secretly come to enjoy it.
Now, I indulge in staring at foreigners at every chance. On nights out in Itaewon, I simply cannot help watching and thinking, “What’s with those shoes?” “Been cutting our own hair have we?” Or “Uh oh, looks like someone is missing a chromosome.”
Just when does people-watching cross the line into a bad place? Until someone angrily asks, “What are you looking at?” you are probably safe.
by Andrew Harris
Mr. Harris teaches English at a private language institute in Seoul.