A friend of mine, who was from the African country of Zimbabwe, once told the story of his brother’s visit to Indonesia. Walking through towns and small villages he became an instant attraction and everyone was called from their houses and workplaces to come and see the “Giant Black Man“. When everyone around you has the same facial features and voice tonality, when everyone you are used to is predictable and constant, an unexpected foreign presence is absolutely exotic. This is especially true in Korea…
Korea is a homogenous society. This means that everyone is of the same ethnicity. Unlike multi-cultural countries, where people often have friends of different cultural background, hear a flurry of different languages everyday and eat Mexican, Mediterranean and European food all in one day, Korea has a strict and predictable sociological structure. In many aspects like food and language, many Koreans have very little exposure to outside influence. This is especially true of the very young and the very old. And this is precisely why your presence in their country will unlock the strangest response from these two groups.
For many young kids, you might be the very first foreigner they ever lay their eyes on. This potentially has them frightened, clinging to their mothers, or if their brave, they will point or even run up to you with a frown and confused look. As for older people, to the dismay of many foreigner workers they will often stare at you on the bus or subway. These things are less prominent in Seoul and the bigger cities that have a sizeable foreigner community.
So as a foreigner in Korea, you will have to get used to being very visible. Students and co-teachers alike will always be watching you and observing your actions, never to try and find fault, but rather because they are immensely interested in how foreigners run their lives.
Combine this with the fact that the Korean social structure is collectivistic, which means privacy is a very relative term, and you’ll often be confronted with situations and questions that would seem highly inappropriate from a Westerns viewpoint. “What’s inside?” someone might ask when you receive a package in the mail. “Why don’t you have children yet?” they’ll ask if you??re married. “Your hair was nicer before.” That last one really gets some of the females in a fit.