Ouch. really?

I’m revising my Clarion story The Country of the Young and the feedback from classmates is great. Not just the line-edits, which I’m halfway through, but also the general comments.

I ran across a comment in one of the manuscripts, beside the following text:

People always had done so, but at first it had only been a race thing: a Korean girl with any foreign man made people look a little.

Beside that sentence, someone wrote, “Ouch. Really?” I think it may have been Tina C, but I’m not sure. (Tina, was it you? Would anyone remember, even?)

Well, there’s some context to this: The story is set in a neo-nationalist time after the reunification of the two Koreas, a harsh time in which improverished Northern men (who suffer the worst of anyone from the deal) have some serious issues with foreigners at all, but especially reflexively-distrusted foreigners with Korean women. So “always” in that sentence is referential to the timeframe of the story, meaning from the early 20s until the 40s, when the story takes place.

But I have to admit, this is also, partly, from experience. Now, I have to qualify that. There’s a touch of exaggeration involved. Since moving to the vicinity of Seoul, I find that a lot of things are different from my experience out in the “countryside”. Said “countryside” being anything outside of Seoul and, perhaps, Busan. (I assume, in American terms, that this would be the equivalent of Seattle being considered a backwards country town, while only New York, Washington, and San Francisco have actual “city status”. Imagine “The Midwest” applying to anything outside of those big cities. Well, sort of, except you’d have to have all those big cities in New England all merged into a single megalopolis. But anyway, you get the idea.)

In Bucheon, which is basically in Seoul, I don’t find people stare so much. Some do, but it’s not as obvious to me. And some people very obviously avoid sitting beside a foreigner on the subway, or move when another seat becomes available, and I don’t think it’s always just because I have broad shoulders. Some do choose to stand on buses rather than sit beside the likes of me. But people seem a lot more tolerant, or at least, a lot less weirded out by the presence of a foreigner around here.

But in Jeonju, in Iksan, in other places we’ve traveled, yes, foreigners attract looks even on their own; moreso when accompanied by a Korean woman. The attention is directly proportional to how closely the woman resembles the Korean notion of desirability, meaning if she dresses up in fancy, dressy , or exceptionally “girly” clothing, wears a lot of makeup, and has perfectly coiffed hair, more total strangers will tend to ask questions of her such as, “What is the relationship between you two?” Meanwhile, the younger he is, the more he swaggers and conveys an air of thinking himself tough, the more negative attention they will get.

Lime doesn’t really wear makeup. She dresses like I do — T-shirts and jeans are a staple of both our wardrobes. She doesn’t spend hours daily on her hair — who could, when one is working all day long in a hospital? And I don’t swagger or give people nasty looks asserting my toughness. So we don’t get a lot of trouble, not a lot of interference, not like some people I’ve known have reported.

But even so, yes, there was a tendency in Jeonju for people to look. To stare, sometimes, especially older people. University students would sometimes say nasty things, and she would refuse to tell me what was said though I could catch from the tone that it wasn’t nice. A lot of old guys and kids would unrelentingly stare.

Lime’s usual reaction was to say, “She’s crazy,” when some student would talk nasty about her in her presence. At kids, she would gesture in a vaguely threatening way, or grumble, “What are you looking at?” in Korean. But all in all, during all that time we spent out in the ostensible “countryside”, she took it with great dignity, and saw it as a symptom of backwardness ignorance, and rudeness.

But the thing to remember is that I am white. White people, even if they’re seen as outsiders and have lots of negative stereotypes attached to them here, are privileged. A student I edited in the campus English magazine reported an interesting piece about the privileged-yet-resented status of whiteness in Korea, but to keep it simple, she said whites are still outsiders, and beyond the pale in some ways, but they’re definitely privileged outsiders. I imagine that were I a dark-skinned foreigner, such as the Indian man in my story, things would have been somewhat different in terms of social reactions. In some ways, that pattern doesn’t fit expectations, so Lime might have had an easier time since people might assume she would not date me. But I also imagine that random total strangers might, had they seen her holding hands with a dark-skinned man, have more negative reactions than they offered us.

I don’t know, that part is conjecture, but I do remember an interesting conversation I had with an older guy at a bar one night. I’d just played a gig with the old band, and my friend John and I had gone off wandering, looking for a place to eat dinner and sleep. This older guy invited us to dinner with some older woman friends of his. Characteristically, the younger, more attractive of the older women took to chatting with and making eyes at John, while the tubbier, older, and weirder of the two older women kept trying to feed me with her chopsticks.

In any case, the only one of the three who spoke English was the guy, and after (yes, very generously) feeding us and buying us drinks, said, “See? Koreans are so kind and generous to foreigners!”

“What if I was a Pakistani?” John replied, and he was exactly right in asking that question. If my memory serves, and I hope John will correct me since we’d both been drinking a lot, but I think basically the older guy said, “Well, that’s different.”

So, to make a long story short, yes, ouch, and yes, really.

Back to revisions.

3 thoughts on “Ouch. really?

  1. Yeah, that sounds like me. Sigh. It’s not that I have a hard time believing it, just that it’s always disappointing…particularly when you’re projecting another couple decades into the future.

    Also, I like your method outlined in the other post of how you’re using the critiques. Good idea.

  2. For what it’s worth, it’s getting better here. Used to be that you couldn’t walk around Seoul without getting glares either.

    And I had to laugh when you listed New York, Washington, and *San Francisco* as the major US metropolises. New York sure, Washington maybe, but San Francisco? That’s about as backwater a “big city” you can get. I would say New York and LA are Seoul, everything else is Busan at best.

    Of course, I’m sure you could find millions of people that vehemently disagree with me.

  3. Tina: Yeah, I thought it might be you. It is disappointing, every society has its bigotries. As Charles says, it’s getting better, at least for white guy-Korean girl couples. I am curious to hear whether that’s the case for other kinds of couples, especially Korean man-obviously non-Korean Asian woman, or Korean man-white woman. I have one (white) friend whose Korean husband basically gave up most of his so-called friends, and had to put up with all kinds of comments on the street, because he was with a white woman. Most of the comments were cutting her down, calling her a “thing” and so on. He’d get angry and tell people off, regardless of how old they were. This was in Jeonbuk, again, out in the countryside, but I think they’re relatively unbothered now that they’re in Seoul.

    Charles: Ah, okay. I thought San Francisco was the big one. Everyone I’ve ever met from CA was from San Fran, no LA. Funny. Having never lived in America, I don’t have a fine grasp of which are the biggest and finest cities. At least I didn’t say San Diego!

    And by the way — I don’t think it’s getting better in Jeonbuk, or Jeonnam, anyway. Kangwon wasn’t so bad, but I’ve heard they have relatively more tourists there. But in Jeonbuk, as of six months ago anyway, you just expect the glares and stares and either ignore it, or laugh at it, or get into a lot of arguments and fights.

    Luckily for me, I’m pretty good at ignoring stuff, or laughing and ranting later.

    But as I said, my perspective is skewed from having been in Jeonbuk for so very long. It’s like someone living in rural Texas for a while and then misinterpreting that as representative of pan-American culture, or something.

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