It’s Not What So Many People Think It Is…

I have no idea why the ajeoshi needed to check with the picture in the menu. I said it very clearly, “Be Bim Man Du Han Na Chu Sae Yo.” It’s only five syllables, and then repeated the relevant syllables three times more: “Be Bim Man Du Yo.”

I’ve said it many, many times before to people and they’ve never seemed to have a problem understanding. Koreans sitting with me always express annoyance when I order and waitresses just aren’t listening, or are too freaked out to hear a white face saying Korean words to pay attention to the words themselves and nervously check with the nearest available Korean. My pronunciation is usually at least fine for anyone who’s listening when I order food or drinks, including many Korean friends who—for my own good—have always corrected me when I have been wrong. Pronunciation’s one of the things people compliment sincerely when they hear me trotting out my otherwise rather poor Korean speech.

So why this guy opened the photo-menu and pointed at the wrong picture, the “Mo Deun Man Du”, I will never understand. I looked at him as if he were nuts and once more time said, “Be. Bim. Man. Du. Yo,” but I didn’t point at the picture. I wanted him to realize that yes, I was actually saying what I meant. Finally, he pointed at the right picture and I nodded, and he asked me if it was “okay?”, the food in the picture.

Why did he ask me that? Was it the myth that foreigners can’t eat red pepper paste? Was it the mistaken idea I was again, unwittingly, ordering the wrong thing? Was he just being waaaay too cautious?

I’ll never know, but I know that when I confirmed my order for the fifth time, I had an annoyed look on my face, which he took badly; he avoided my apologetic gaze, and cast me at least one annoyed look as he was leaving the shop to deliver something.

I don’t know if I was a jerk, or he was a jerk.

Was he scared of misunderstanding my order? Was he scared I wouldn’t like the order? Had some festival-goer from out of town ordered something and gotten something else? (I have seen foreigners presumptuously order something, have it confirmed back to them incorrectly, but they missed the wrong confirmation, and were brought the wrong food, and made a stink about it. And I’ve seen their foreigner friends defend them in it, even though it was bullshit to do so.) I can understand him being cautious, but good God, does he really need me to say the order five times?

Frankly, I think I’m just tired of people freaking out because my face is not Asian, of having peoples’ brains turn to quivering Jell-O when they look at me, of having people assume so much about me from merely looking at me.

This isn’t racism, see. That’s one thing that’s clear. There’s a difference between racism and… I don’t know, race-consciousness. There is racism in Korea, but this isn’t an example of it. This is a combination of awkward things: encounters with specific people who hold the expectation of a bigger language barrier than there was, an old man being nervous for some strange reason—perhaps fewer foreigners go to that shop than others in the area, maybe a bad experience or two, maybe short supplies in the back or a bad call earlier in the day, and then an annoyed foreigner guy who had a long day, trying to get his dinner.

No, it’s not racism, per se, but it is draining. It’s draining because it happens so often. No, not everyone thinks this way about foreigners. But enough people do for it to seem that way. We buy the myth that, in all fairness, Koreans often tell one another about Korea being unified, monolithic, homogenous. We sometimes take it for granted that the first thing people see when looking into our faces is a foreigner, because just enough people make it plainly obvious that that is what they see…

The race-consciousness almost never seems to turn off in the environment here, whether it’s getting you pointed at or stared at, or getting you free drinks at the bar and extra-good service at a restaurant. Even if you’re with people who don’t think about race, somewhere, there’s feedback of some kind coming to you that’s largely related to it, positively or negatively.

Which is why, sometimes (and increasingly) the good and the bad both grate on me, because the reason for it is all so foundationless.

It’s not racism, but it is tiring having troupes of middle-schoolers giggle nervously at your appearance, of having mommies push their kids toward you and instruct them to say “Hello!” to the white man, having people take it upon themselves to inspect your groceries, or to fawn over you for speaking ten words of their language. I know, it’s nicer to have someone say, “Welcome to Korea!” than to hear, “Go home, whitey!” I appreciate that it’s a peaceful society I live here, or at least a very poorly armed and strongly self-controlled populace in general.

But after over three years, it’s a little bit annoying to still be welcomed to the country. It’s annoying that people assume I can’t eat food that, in fact, I don’t think is actually all that spicy. It’s at the point where I don’t even make conversation with cabbies because I am utterly dog tired of telling them where I am from, why I left Canada, why I am not married, what I think of Korean girls, whether I have a Korean girlfriend, why I don’t have a firm plan of what age I will marry or return to America, and the fact that, no, for the millionth time, I am not from America.

And yes, it’s tiring having people be extra-nice to you, having them be extra-generous or whatever. People don’t understand that—and I don’t blame them—but sometimes all that hospitality can make you feel as if you’re on the other side of an impermeable, invisible, but crucial membrane. Which is why I like hanging out with Lime, with Sang Joon, with Il Hyuk, as well as a few foreign friends like the ones I saw on Sunday night. With them, the question of who pays doesn’t come to some issue of overplayed hospitality, it’s just a question of whose turn it is, or who feels like it. It’s relaxing, it’s good. It’s almost enough. Almost.

Sometimes I’d like to walk into a pub and be ignored except when I ask for another drink. I’d like for nobody to notice I’m from a different gene pool. I’d like to be inconspicuous, just for a little while. A few hours a week. (No, not living in some English village with all the hakwon teachers in town. No, no, god no. It’s not that I want to be among foreigners, it’s just that I’d prefer if Koreans made less of a big deal out of my nationality/race/background. Sometimes I feel like that character Oscar in Bruce Sterling’s novel Distraction, whose “background problem” is continually, fustratingly brought up.) But the only place here in Jeonju to do that is at a certain bar, and I’m much less of a bargoer than I have been since University. So there’s really nowhere for me to do this.

And I also know, full well, that these are minor annoyances. They’re like the smell of fermented bean paste stew: at first it can be hard to handle, but it’s part of the place, and you have to take it or leave it. Like many other people, for now, I am taking it. But I think I need a holiday out-of-country, to readjust myself and recharge a little. Living in Korea’s fine, but being a conspicuous foreigner is just very tiring sometimes.

4 thoughts on “It’s Not What So Many People Think It Is…

  1. Having experienced many of the symptoms that you describe, I can sympathize. (I once considered dying my hair darker just so that I could blend in further.)

    Enjoy your holiday.

  2. This is a great post. Anyway, there are many possibilities to interpret the waiter. It depends on your situation, if you were alone, it could be simple. He just didn’t get white people could eat spicy hot food. Or he might make a mistake (ie. confusing be bim with mo dum man du) before, since he was not smart. But if you were with a Korean girl, things were more complicated. He wanted to know that your company was not your girlfriend (by bugging you 5 times). I had a similar experience back in LA. I and my ex-friend (white man) went to a Korean restaurant in Koreatown. I ordered 추어탕 for him. And the waitress asked me whether he could eat it. Another time was a different Korean restaurant. The woman waitress looked at us and asked me in Korean “you guys are just friends, right?” What the hell… None of your business!

    However, according to my Asian American friends, who speak English as their primary language, people in America always ask them where they were from (before America), how they learn English…
    Many Americans don’t expect Asian descents to be fully American…

    Since I am not American, people often overwelcomed me. I felt uncomfortable. Even some people (not educated ones) asked me they could teach(?) me English. (Well, I even graded and corrected graduate students’ papers in school.)
    I just said, “Thank you.” (They would be ignored.)

  3. June: Thanks.

    Yeah, I was alone, and I finally decided the guy was (a) a bit nervous about talking with a foreigner and (b) convinced that, even though I know how to order the food in Korean, for some reason I am unable to eat it.

    When I travel in the countryside I usually order kimchi jjigae or something like that at diners because people can’t make it less spicy. I once had a cab driver come into a restaurant and try to help me order food. He told the ajumma to make my sundubu jjigae “not spicy”, and was surprised and worried when I explained that sundubu must be made spicy or it’s not delicious. Hahaha.

    As for the situation in Canada: I have Asian-Canadian friends who, even having grown up in Canada, would periodically be welcomed to the country, too. It didn’t happen quite as often as to foreigners in Korea, though, probably because these days it’s only old farts and hicks in Canada who can’t imagine an Asian growing up there. Hahaha, one day a girl I knew was sitting on a bench in the mall, while I picked up a couple of books. She looked bored, and an old man walked up to her and said, “Cheer up! You’re in a good country now!”

    “I was born in Edmonton, pal,” was her response.

    And it is a relief to hear how being overwelcomed is burdensome to other people. Some people seem to quite enjoy it and to think those who don’t are being picky or weird.

  4. Good post on an all too common experience that really grates on the nerves after a while.

    When I speak in Korean with new people (especially older Koreans), I usually begin with a Korean “conversation starter” expression followed by a pause. It seems like this makes them realize that I’m going to speak in Korean, so they’d better get ready. Just blurting out what I want to say in Korean right away usually results in the kind of non-conversation that you illustrate well in your post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *