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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.

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