Elwood 5566

Westerners Who Think They're Korean

Posted in Diary notes, Westerners by 노강호 on April 13, 2010

Okay, Sunday morning at 8 am and I’m off for a quick splash at a bathhouse. In the distance I spot a western woman who is perhaps 35. We are the only two on the pavement and despite passing almost shoulder to shoulder, starring straight ahead, she ignores me. All it requires is a marginal turning of her head, a raising of her eyes for us to make eye contact but she clearly wants to blank me. This happens several times a week with different westerners,  indeed it happened this afternoon. Once again, we passed close to each other but as she neared me she began to focus intensely on the fizzy drink or coffee plugged into her face via a straw.

Why is it that so many westerners behave in this manner?  I am not homesick for my own kind but as the only western teacher in my school, it is sometimes a little luxury to talk in a manner I might do at home and it is even more of a luxury to mutually exchange humour, sarcasm, irony and all those facets of conversation so culturally specific. Perhaps I am being a snob,  but is the only way to get a courteous acknowledgment or a simple nod by sporting a goatee, wearing baggy cargo cut-offs and looking like I’ve just returned from a backpacking trip around Thailand? I am familiar with perhaps 10 westerners  in the vicinity in which I live and yet few will speak or say hello and couples and groups are even worse.

Now you’re probably thinking, well why  don’t you say hello or be friendly? The problem is it is strange to initiate a greeting in the absence of  eye contact especially as it suggests the other  person doesn’t want to acknowledge you. I’m tempted to think such behaviour is symptomatic of those with insecurities; that to acknowledge another westerner is to appear novice and new and so at all times one must walk through their presence without seeing them. Of course, they freaking know you’re there, they saw you coming a mile off but to acknowledge you is uncool as it suggests being a beginner at Korean life.  Unfortunately, when you’ve been exposed to such blanking for a long period, you begin to expect it and so when confronted with someone who I know is going to blank me, I fix my eyes on their face, and look directly at them, craning my head around  as they pass, until I see the nape of their neck.  I’m sure they’re quite nice people but come on! You’re not fucking Korean. You probably can’t string a sentence together in Korean, or read a simple text, you probably do most of your eating in the fast food joints and you’re probably not a teacher by vocation. Hey, we have a lot in common! I don’t need mates or boozing buddies or even an extensive dialogue,  simply some eye contact and a smile.

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  1. Chris Backe (AKA Chris in South Korea) said, on April 13, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Being neutral to people you don’t know is more than just a Korean thing – it’s a ‘you’re not my friend’ sort of thing. Seoul does bring it out more – half the time I’ll pass by a foreigner in much the same fashion you described. Get us standing at a bus stop, and I’ll probably start up a conversation. That’s just how I roll, but it’s not for everyone.

    Don’t be offended by it – it’s a sign that we’ve adapted the expected customs in a strange land.

  2. Nick Elwood said, on April 14, 2010 at 3:51 am

    Chris, I partially agree with you except I often don’t interpret such behavior as neutral as it is very much, ‘I don’t want to acknowledge you.’ It extends to individuals standing at the other side of the crowd waiting to cross the road, sitting at the table furthest from you in a restaurant and even crossing the road to avoid you! And in places in Europe, smiling and making eye contact is common. Even in the UK, the least tactile place in Europe, the chances are very high another person would greet you early in the morning when the only people on the street. Oh, my God, am I paranoid? I think not. Having said that, I have certainly met some interesting and sociable people.

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