So I’ve introduced you all to where I live, what Bucheon’s like, how I’m adjusting to life in Korea, and so forth. But let’s get down to the nitty gritty quotidian aspects of my new life.
Observation #1. I get stared at. A lot.
This isn’t just your accidental stare or the uncomfortable stare of some love struck young man, oh no. This is people visibly turning their heads to watch you standing at the crosswalk as their bus drives past. Little children pointing at you as if you’re some kind of rare find. The man next to you at the bank looking over at you literally every ten seconds to make sure his eyes aren’t deceiving him – yes, it really is a foreign white woman sitting next to him opening a bank account.
Now, these aren’t covert stares, either. These stares are blatantly obvious and don’t stop even when I meet eyes with the initiator of the stare. Yes I see you, congratulations I look different, now will you please stop!?!
Some of these stares are funny, cute even. My kids tell me “Teacher, you’re eyes are bluueeee!?!?!?!?!” and “Teacher, is that your reeeeeal hair color?” and “Teacher, our other Teacher says you’re very pretty.” Others say less flattering things like “Teacher, your nose is so high!” And others just say obscure things, like “Teacher, did you get plastic surgery?” Regardless, just from my first two weeks of working at my school, I have a pretty good inkling that my kids are to some extent at least using class time as an opportunity to stare at the white lady standing in the front of the class. Awesome.
Some of the stares I encounter are less than adorable, however. I encountered a number of particularly un-adorable stares today when I walked out of Burger King with my first (ok maybe second…) American cheeseburger since I got here in hand. Even the people working in the back corners of Burger King came out of hiding to sneak a glance at the Western chick buying a (gasp!) Western burger. Walking out of the Burger King and back to my apartment, the stares I got were so smug, as though I’d just confirmed all their worst assumptions about Americans. Until that moment I’d assumed I was a fairly harmless specimen of whiteness for their staring pleasure, but in that moment, just wow…
It’s not like they’ve never seen a white woman before, either. I live across the street from a pretty substantial mall and I’ve seen the giant poster of Giselle in the window facing the street. I know that there are pictures of white women in their magazines, modeling their clothing. It actually struck me as weird at first how many pictures of white women there really are here. The Korean women I’ve met here are beautiful and take great care to make sure they look flawless (unlike me in this humidity…), so why wouldn’t you put pictures of them on display instead? Why bother with these white models at all? And how much worse would my staring predicament be if there were no white women in magazines for them to look at?
I can’t help but wonder why it is I’m so intriguing for people of all ages to look at. Why it’s so acceptable to openly stare at me in public while I’m just going about my business. But then doesn’t the same thing happen in the United States too? How often do we stare at someone who looks different, who doesn’t look like someone we’d expect to see in a given place? A white woman in a Korean bank, A Korean woman in Austinburg, Ohio? Something so seemingly out of place violates our expectations and in that becomes an oddity to gaze at.
In Korea, I’m finding myself in the racial minority. And it’s a really, really strange feeling.
There was a series of pictures in the Chicago Museum of Art I saw right before I moved here which I think is relevant to my staring/gazing predicament. In these pictures, a photographer in the museum took pictures of patrons viewing paintings which gazed back at them. A gaze met with a gaze all being gazed at by the lens of a camera. While not aesthetically special by any means, I immediately connected with the gaze inversion happening in these concept images. Call it one too many film theory classes in college, but I find this entire “politics of looking” as I’m calling it fascinating. Had I never really been cognizant of such staring in the U.S. because I was a member of the gazing masses, because I was white, and not an object to be gazed at (well skin color-wise at least)? Do I have a right to gaze back now that I am the obvious minority in one of the most racially homogenous cultures in the world? Or is the right to gaze one that I unknowingly lost as a part of my move?
Now obviously I am no expert on Korean/American race, looking, and location politics, but these are just my initial thoughts on the whole situation I’ve found myself in. I will definitely be thinking more about this issue in the next twelve months, so stay tuned…
Moral of the story-- Please don’t stare at people. Any people. Being constantly on display blows.
In other news, I went to the hospital today for my required health tests and learned than I am 167.3 centimeters tall. Surprisingly useful information, my kids have been asking me for a while now…
Finally, I will try this new thing called actually being on skype when I’m in my apartment. If you live in Ohio, remember I live 13 hours in the future, so plan accordingly when trying to connect with me :)
- Christine -