Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Traveling Korea: Will I Get Bugged? Plus, Blatant, Crass Self-Promotion

Got this question... usually answering questions is the realm of Ask the Expat, Ask A Korean, and sometimes Chris in SK does them, too, but this one came to me. I've made some changes, for brevity, privacy, and to make myself seem more awesome:

Hi Roboseyo the awesome

My name is Kyoposeyo - I'm such a fan of yours that I legally changed it, and your blog gives meaning to my life. As a second generation Korean/Canadian, I want to thank you on behalf of my race for being so awesome. Awesome. I'll say it twice. That's how awesome you are. Having been raised by first generation Korean parents (grew up in a Canadian city), I know a thing or two about Koreans, despite not having lived there, nor being as awesome as you.

I want to throw a question your way: hopefully this complete stranger's question will pierce your near-indestructible shell of awesome. It would help me a lot if it did, and you answered.

I am planning a trip to Japan and Korea in May; I'm going with my caucasian boyfriend. He wants to see Korea's natural beauty, and bask in the awesomeness of the place that inspired your awesome blog. Awesome. There's that word again.
I have been to Korea with my family before, but NEVER with my boyfriend. I speak Korean, but am wondering how Koreans will react to us being together. I thought I'd ask you since you are a foreigner, and I am assuming your girlfriend is Korean?

Your thoughts on this would really help me in planning my trip. I haven't booked a ticket yet, as I am figuring out how many days I want to spend there with my boyfriend.

p.s.: Awesome!

Hi, Kyoposeyo.

Thanks for the sweet letter. It's actually my policy only to answer letters that use the word "awesome" the exact number of times you did (ten, or twice per paragraph for longer letters), so you lucked out, I guess.

To answer your question:

First, a qualifier: I can't speak for how your family will react. Because family's closer, things are just different; your parents will be more useful in briefing you on introducing him to the family. If he's meeting your uncles, I bet they'll try to get him drunk, as my best friend's uncles-in-law did. For family, their impression will depend a lot on how they've been prepared for meeting him, but that's all I can really say about that.

Next, for people in Korea, once it's clear that you're not Korean born-and-raised, you often get a kind of a free pass here. Therefore, one thing you could do is simply pack clothes that are clearly Canadian, and noticeably different from the fashions Korean women wear. Wear very little make-up, which will set you apart from most Korean women, even in the summer. If you're going to Japan first, pick a few distinctively Japanese accessories you can wear, that'll set you apart for passersby looking from a distance. Then people will size you up as a tourist and the "rules" won't apply to you. You could even speak in more laboured Korean, as if you don't know it well, to make your disguise complete. Of course, if it doesn't sit well with you to deny your Korean background, don't do it; I sure wouldn't hold that against you.

Third: I think the reactions your boyfriend will get, being seen with a visibly Korean woman, really depend a lot on your boyfriend's appearance. Some people have a lot of trouble with negative attention from Koreans when they're out with their Korean girlfriends, but I never have, and I think it's because I do what I can to keep a well-groomed appearance, and try to make a positive first impression on the Koreans around me, especially when I'm with Girlfriendoseyo (who is Korean: you were right about that). I might be totally wrong here, but I bet you'd get more attention in general, if he looks like a bedraggled hippie with long hair, a grizzly adams beard, and torn clothes - just because NOBODY dresses or looks that way in Korea; once he's attracted all that attention, there's a greater chance some of the attention he attracts will turn negative, and that some individual will peg him into the stereotype of the ugly English teacher stealing "our" women or whatever. But if he dresses in a way that keeps a low profile, and fits in with the locals, there's a much much lower chance that he'll elicit that reaction. When in Rome, wear a toga. Those viking furs might be the heighth of fashion in Denmark, but they won't get you far at the Coliseum.

If he's groomed, smiling and polite, if you teach him a few Korean phrases and he says them with a friendly air, all those same people who'd otherwise mutter, will smile and tell you he's a handsome guy, and maybe offer him a shot of makkeolli or some extra side dishes. If you're out climbing mountains and in nature, which it sounds like you want to do, you're very likely to encounter the nicest side of Koreans, rather than the unsavory side: many of the most positive experiences I've had with Koreans, especially older Koreans, have been on the mountain. The same old lady who, in the city, would shove you to get onto the subway car before you, will share her lunch with you on the mountain-- the climbing culture is one of the friendliest aspects of Korea I've come across, personally, so you're probably in for a treat if you're heading for the hiking trails.

Of course, you can also just tell everybody you're married, too. These days, international marriages are nothing out of the ordinary in the countryside.

So, dear readers... agree? Disagree? Am I totally out to lunch? What other advice should I give Kyoposeyo and her Caucasian boyfriend about having the best experience possible in Korea?


kushibo said...

How tall are you, Rob? I wonder if height is a factor in the tendency to be harassed or not. Maybe, for example, the tall and the short don't get it as much as the mid-range people (the short because they're not seen as a threat; the tall because they can fight back).

Just a theory. The vast majority of non-Korean-looking people I know have received little or no such negative attention, so I don't have a lot to work with.

Erik said...

I've received negative comments on being a white guy in the company of a Korean woman only a couple of times in my five years here. The first time I was politely lectured on how interracial relationships were a major problem in Korea that was ripping apart its very social fabric.

The second time an old, angry drunk guy going down the escalator while I was going up punched me in the face. That one I took personally but I didn't really have to retaliate. His wife did a perfectly fine job of publicly shaming him in the middle of Yaksu Stn.

조안나 said...

Well, I've been dating my Korean bf for almost a year. We haven't gotten many negative comments. People are often surprised to see us together, but few people are brazen to say anything negative to us. Once, a parking lot attendant casually asked if I was Russian. I was so mad, I was fuming for hours, since there is a large population of Russian mail away brides and prostitutes here. But, supposedly, Russians are also known for their beauty (?) which is supposedly why he assumed. Whatever, I tell myself whatever it takes to make myself feel better about the situation.

Most days people just look on with casual interest, but nothing serious or worth mention.

Gomushin Girl said...

I don't think my boyfriend and I have ever gotten a single comment. Heck, I don't think we've even merited a second glance from passersby. Maybe it's Seoul. Maybe we're just the most boring couple ever.

point5asian said...

right on bro! U are right. Keep clean, smile and show some respect and the Koreans will do the same (at least the women).

Roboseyo said...

GG and Joanna - thanks for the female perspective; it's much appreciated. Kushibo: you're right. I'm 185 centimeters, and that might play a part; even now, as Koreans are getting taller, I still tower over most of the people who'd think of giving me lip. I hadn't thought of that, but I know that in my first year especially, my height was part of what made me feel generally safe on Seoul's streets.

Charles Montgomery said...

A couple of points..

1) I'm not sure that when Rob is out and about, Koreans know what species he is, let alone worry about his race. ;-)

2) Rob's point about the climbing culture is spot on. Hiking up mini-peaks in Bukhansan or any other mountain is the quickest way to meet totally cool Koreans who will share anything they've got with you.

3) Erik's point is also good .. try to stay away from drunk old men. The only problem I ever had in Korea, was with one of these charmers.

and have fun!

Anonymous said...

New subscriber here, heard about you from other Korea bloggers! As a white male hoping to come teach English in Korea soon, thanks for the tips. :)

Unknown said...

I'm a Korean-American female dating a caucasian Canadian male in Seoul. We've never been outright confronted or yelled at, but we've certainly gotten a fair number of dirty looks or lengthy stares. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable, sometimes not. It just depends on my mood. I've also had several conversations with helpful cab drivers enthusiastically encouraging me to marry a Korean man.

That's just my experience. I understand where it's coming from and take it all with a grain of salt.

kushibo said...

Sara wrote:
I've also had several conversations with helpful cab drivers enthusiastically encouraging me to marry a Korean man.

A good number of Caucasian males I know in Seoul, particularly the ones who come across as clean-cut and "nice-looking" by Korean standards, also get the "you should marry a Korean."

Though one might wonder, hearing just your case, about the possibility that the taxi drivers are speaking disapprovingly of your interracial relationship, I think it's more likely that taxi drivers are just enthusiastic marriage pimps.

Low birthrate and all.

Gomushin Girl said...

I think everyone who has ever ridden in a cab has heard "You should marry a Korean." Universally the best match, be you a gigantic Canadian man or a petite Chinese woman, Korean is your best choice for matrimony. I bet the international marriage brokers are all former cab drivers.

I have to say, knowing Rob, I'm skeptical that they don't pick on him because he looks like he could take 'em in a fight. Rob looks like he couldn't say "boo" to a goose. Then again, maybe that's why they don't bother.