Let’s talk about race. This doesn’t mean I want to get into cultural, historical, political correctness, or any sort of controversy. When I was working toward my degree in biology, I became very interested in the evolution of the human species. From that standpoint, I do find differences and similarities between different races to be quite interesting–the differences which arise when populations exist in different environments and are separated for extended periods of time. I’m interested in the natural progression that history has taken us through, not in making any claims for what the future should or shouldn’t hold.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I will, admittedly, bring some cultural aspects into it. Growing up looking like the stereotypical white girl in Canada meant that race very rarely crossed my mind. Of course, I knew of challenges faced by minorities (not just racial), but I guess my own experience was just so far removed from those societal problems. I went through my childhood as a ghost–completely average, invisible, easily forgotten. It didn’t help that I was probably the shyest kid you’d ever meet. Anyway, I was used to passing by unnoticed, and happy with the lack of attention. I felt comfortable that way.
At 5’9″ (or 175cm), with fair hair and fair skin, I am average at home, albeit slightly above average in height. In South Korea (finally getting to the point), I’m not the farthest you can get in terms of physical appearance, but I can stand out in a crowd. I know I can’t say this enough, but delving into the world of discrimination and prejudice is not something I want to do here. I’m merely speaking of my own experiences as someone who got by on being invisible, and came to a world where this invisibility was yanked away (though I arrived by choice).
Wonju is not a small city, but Korea is a place of dense populations and these medium-sized cities find themselves much lower in the rankings. The population of expats in Wonju is not so small that they all hang out in one group, but small enough that you will rarely run into another expat randomly on the street.
The culture in Korea is obviously quite different from my rural town in Atlantic Canada. Beauty and appearances are held in high regard. I’m sure you’ve heard of the plastic surgery craze and the obsession with designer labels. Of course, there are exceptions to the high levels of maintenance and effort put into appearances, but most Koreans look good. At work, school, on the streets, wearing name-brand trainers or impractical heels, they take care of their appearances. There seems to be an innate sense of style, one that can be intimidating to the more fashion-inept of us out there.
With all this in mind (the average white girl moves to Korea, looks different, dresses… not up to par), we come to the real point of this whole spiel. I got attention in Korea. Walking down the street was an invitation to stare, for parents to stop and point me out to their small children, for people to approach me for photos randomly. None of these were gestures of malice, but of genuine curiosity. However, it was definitely a test of my comfort levels. After several months, the stares never went away. At first, I was irritated. I wanted everyone else to get over it. Eventually, I realized that no matter how sick I got of the staring, it was always new to the other person. I wanted to dye my hair a darker colour, to try to give myself a bit more camouflage, I wanted to hide myself away and be invisible again.
I taught kids from three to 14 years old at my school. My homeroom class consisted of seven energetic and adorable six-year-olds. In any culture, kids are kids. They don’t follow the rules, consider tact, or the fact that any statement may be inappropriate. My kids were amazed by my hair, so thin and light, and my exceptionally pale skin. They were amused by my differences and quirks and it brought me closer to them. After a while, I saw their expressions on the street. I got used to people randomly telling me I was beautiful (it sounds conceited, but I say it in awe, as it’s certainly not something I would get used to back home). I saw the stares as interest, not as immediate disdain. People came to know and recognize me immediately. I became a little less forgettable, more confident, and comfortable as myself.
It’s funny, I moved away from Korea about a year ago, and that’s become one of the things I miss most. I came back to a place where I am forgettable, quiet, and average. I retreated back into my little corner and gained the comfort of invisibility once more. Maybe it’s a true statement of who I really am, or a way of settling due to fear. But, I’ll always know the person I came to be in Korea, and know that I can be that again.
Have you had similar experiences in your travels/life abroad? Did your attitude toward these experiences change over time? Let me know!
Read about some reasons why I love living in Korea here!