A Sasquatch in Korea

My students won’t stop stroking my arm hair.

I’m not exceptionally gifted, follicly speaking, but in Korea, I’m a sasquatch. Body hair is fascinating to my kids, and whenever I check their homework and chat with them about Starcraft and soccer and their cute little stories about the spectacular deaths of their classmates there is at least one timid touch, a gasp of shock, and an embarrassed “Sorry, sorry” when I turn around. Even adults will sometimes sneak a photo when they think I’m not looking.

I spent a lot of my time in Korea feeling a bit resentful toward a population which considers my very presence in their country so strange that they stare and whisper wherever I go. But eventually I realized that there’s nothing sinister behind the stares; Koreans simply aren’t used to foreigners, and most are eager to learn. My students are fascinated when I tell them that we have schools and homework in Canada too, and that yes, it is physically possible for me to eat rice. People in shops want to know everything about Canada, but when language is a barrier, people must satisfy their curiosity in… other ways.

In the city of Changwon, a friend and I wandered into a small basement grocery store in search of beer. On our way down we passed a tall, strange ajosshi in coveralls and a yellow construction helmet, who waved at us and rambled in Korean and accused Tom of being Russian. He followed us to the beer aisle and began gesturing madly at the dried fish snacks while he waggled his eyebrows. We struggled to talk to him, but when we picked up our maekju his eyes lit up. He leaned in closer and deepened his voice, and then without warning he thrust his hand down at my friend’s crotch and then jerked it back up to his face with a long, vigorous sniff. While I stood there gaping he turned and did the same to me, giving me a firm cupping before inhaling my musk. We escaped when he moved on to the deli counter.

I still haven’t determined what he wanted to tell us, but the study of foreigner anatomy is very popular among men his age. I’ve taken to warning newcomers about the Ajosshi Lean-Back, a common hazard in public restrooms where the man beside you will lean way over and crane his neck, sometimes even motioning for you to move back a little, to get a really good comparative look.

While the bad or really strange experiences stand out, many of my experiences with the locals have been positive. In no other country do so many people commit acts of random kindness to strangers. People will often stop you in the middle of the street to chat and show off their English, and excited restaurant owners will often give you free snacks. If you’re lost, there will always be someone eager to help with anything from finding your way to talking with shopkeepers to driving you to your hotel two cities away, even if they themselves have no idea where they’re going. (They eventually gave up and took us to the bus, but were very sweet and apologetic about it and took about 22 pictures before letting us go.) But this is my point – whether we’re greeted with genuine warmth or bitter racism, foreigners are always noticed. We can’t blend in.

When you come from the dominant group in a society that boasts about its multiculturalism, Korea can be jarring. Even today over 98% of its residents are ethnically Korean, and of the rest, most are temporary labourers or soldiers and very few have integrated into the culture. Once known as The Hermit Kingdom, Korea has opened its borders and embraced the outside world so suddenly that its people haven’t had time to adjust to changes in their social makeup. Public schools with strict uniform rules barring dyed hair or perms have proven unable to cope with mixed-race children who don’t quite fit the mould. It’s unfortunate, but non-Koreans are very much social outsiders in this country.

Yet is this really so different from the West the early years of our own society? Korea has developed so rapidly that it’s hard to remember that a few decades ago it was a third-world country. The people have suffered long at the hands of foreign powers, and it’s easy to see where the mistrust of outsiders that underlies so much official policy comes from. Still, it’s painful to watch a Korean friend get chastised by an angry ajosshi for polluting herself by speaking English or for sitting with a filthy waeguk . But though some of these attitudes are passed down to children, the younger generation are learning for themselves that the outside world isn’t so bad. They seek out foreign friends and travel to places their parents fear, and bring home stories and experience and, little by little, change their world.

I imagine the Canadian minority experience is similar, though we may be subtler. No matter how accepting a culture is, the very fact of being different changes how people perceive you. We all use difference as shorthand for identity – the Asian girl across the room, the brown guy on the couch, the nerdy white kid in the corner – and those labels play a part in who we are. I’m starting to understand why people of the same background band together, why immigrants form their own communities in their adopted countries. While it’s nice to be noticed, sometimes you just need to feel unremarkable.

But the world is getting smaller, and our differences are fading. The best thing we can do is talk to each other, make new connections, and expand our worlds.