The title of my identification card in Korea could not be more fitting: my existence here defined by an Alien Registration Card. Living in Korea, I am reminded daily that I am an “alien” here. In a country with a very small percentage of foreigners and an ethnically-homogenous population, there is no way to escape the fact that as a white American, I don’t even need to open my mouth to stand out. From the young Korean men in the meat department of the grocery store: “Hello! Hello! You are very beautiful!”; to the elderly Korean women openly staring at my “unusual” features or petting my hair in the subway, I am beautiful simply due to my Caucasian features. Never before have my ordinary brown hair and brown eyes caused this much commotion. Besides the obvious physical differences between the average Korean and I, I also have to adjust to cultural differences that run deeper than skin, hair and eye color. A quick bow is a standard greeting; the depth of the bow increasing depending on the authority of the person being greeted. I must remove my shoes before entering any dwelling, or swap my outdoor shoes for “indoor” shoes. Living and teaching English in Korea, it would be easy to complain about the endless list of dissimilarities between Korean and western culture. It would be equally as simple to surround myself with foreign friends and the comforts of western food and culture. However, neither of these tactics result in the rich knowledge I can gain by taking the time to understand and adapt to Korean culture.
To the casual foreign observer, Koreans may seem rude. They push and shove their way through the subway even when the crowds don’t seem to merit this shoving. It is acceptable to spit at any time or place, and direct analyses of a person’s physical appearance are also the norm. But there is also much to be learned from the gregariousness and helpfulness of Korean culture. I once asked (or rather mimed to) a random stranger for directions and instead of simply pointing out the correct route after skimming over the address, the stranger marched to a service center, studied a map, and proceeded to lead me directly to my desired location. This entire transaction was conducted through mime and limited English and Korean exchanges. While hiking, Koreans will invite my friends and I to enjoy lunch with them, immediately rush over to help us set up our tents, and offer us flashlights as we hike down a mountain in the dark. As a whole, Koreans are the most generous, honest, and hard working group of people I have encountered. While I still find myself somewhat disgusted at the frequent globs of spit that glisten on the sidewalk, I understand that spitting in public is simply a cultural difference, rather than an act of rudeness. I was taught that spitting in public is rude, and was told to blow my nose – a practice that is considered rude in Korean culture. Neither practice is “right” or “wrong”; it is merely a difference in upbringing. Similarly, while the habit of removing one’s shoes inside is the norm in Korea, removing shoes is a practice that varies from household to household in the U.S. Without accepting and attempting to understand these cultural differences and actively seeking to integrate myself in Korean society, I would become a poor example of a foreigner. And in a country such as Korea, I may be the only foreigner a Korean will ever meet.
Living and working abroad is an exchange. I will learn and adapt to a different way of life and, in turn, learn and develop as a human being. In exchange, those I encounter can gain insight into my culture and country and I have the opportunity to instill a positive impression of Americans and foreigners. Taking the time and care to show that I am interested in their culture, food, and language goes a long way in bridging cultural differences and forging lifelong friendships. Building face-to-face trust, confidence and understanding in a foreign country helps connect our world in a way that distance alliances and economics ties never will and, ultimately, is a much richer experience than simply encasing myself in a little bubble of familiar faces, foods, and customs.