Marginalization, Racism, the Whiteness, Typing Stereos

Being an Alien

I live in South Korea at the moment and my Otherness is complexly intersectional there. I’m white, I have blue eyes, I’m very tall, I speak fluent English, and my parents are doctors (for some reason, this means I am a genius). Those are all highly valued traits. I’m also fat, have poor fashion skills, am not very “feminine,” am loud and stubborn, and have a nose ring. While some people value my foreigness very highly, I have yet to meet a Korean who was able to interact with me on the basis of being a person, not based on hir identity as a Korean and mine as estadounidense. The day to day effects of my Otherness are not so pleasant. People assume I am lost constantly. People assume I cannot speak Korean at all (admittedly, most foreigners can’t) and sometimes refuse to speak to me in Korean even if I speak Korean to them. People are often visibly startled when their eyes focus on me and register my otherness. People of all ages stop me in the street to practice their English or find out where I am from. People often laugh when I speak English. Or when I speak Korean (because it’s like seeing a monkey speak Korean, not because I do it badly). They are shocked that I can use chopsticks. They are shocked that I can eat spicy food. Even people who have known me for six months or more comment on my chopstick skills, my Korean skills, my spicy food or alcohol tolerance as if they have never seen me do these things before, so pervasive and insidious are the myths that foreigners cannot do these things.

The thing that gets to me the most, however, is the constant giggle-and-point on the streets, accompanied by the exclamation “외국인이다!” – “It’s a foreigner!” Most schools in the country have a native English speaker on staff these days – they’re slowly cutting down, but most of these kids have one, if not several, foreign teachers in their daily lives. And yet we are still so Other to them that spotting us is like a surprise game – like punchbuggies when I was young. Most foreigners, not speaking Korean, don’t notice it. But I always catch the sentence, turn, and see people of all ages pointing, either laughing or with round, startled eyes and dropped jaws, like I’m Bigfoot.

The other day, I was riding my bicycle and a toddler holding her mother’s hand pointed at me and started giggling excitedly. *Oh boy* thought I, *here we go, c’mon, say it – 외국인이다!* I braced myself, mood turning sour even in the bright sunshine.
“BICYCLE!” shouted the little girl in Korean. I broke out into a smile, pleasantly startled out of my gathering stormcloud, and waved at her, said hello in Korean. She greeted me back in Korean and bowed with comic small-child clumsiness as I went past.

It was a turning point. I realized how much I brace myself when going outside for the inevitable stares, the comments people make assuming I cannot understand them, the general and pervasive feeling of being Othered. I did not experience this growing up. I did not have the tools to piece it together and give a name to this feeling anywhere else I have lived abroad. It has given me a profound empathy for people who live with this kind of attention anywhere, but particularly in the countries of their birth, where they should belong, but because they are people of color, or fat, or disabled, or have any of million visible marginalized features attract attention and are treated as less than full people. And in trying to express this feeling to my Korean friends, I know now how my friends, marginalized by the unkind kyriarchy, must have felt trying to explain their daily experiences to me, with all my privilege and inability to sufficiently imagine. I am so sorry.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Being an Alien

  1. I lived in Japan for three years and have heard other foreigners (called “gaijin” in Japan) express the same sentiments you have. One white girl I knew who lived in Tokyo told me she couldn’t stand it anymore, that people were staring at her on the streets and categorically refused to respond to her in Japanese (which she was quite good at).

    I, however, had a very different experience, and I’m still trying to figure out why. I lived in a very small town in central Japan where my job was teaching English to middle school students. I wasn’t the only gaijin in town; there was one other white guy and a Malaysian woman who were both married to Japanese spouses and had taken up residence there. A lot of times little kids would stare at me, but I’d just wave and smile and they’d do the same. Most of them seemed to know me first as their teacher (since I visited all of the area schools, even the kindergartens) and only after that as a gaijin.

    I didn’t speak any Japanese when I first arrived, but most of the townspeople didn’t speak any English, so they talked to me in Japanese anyway. This didn’t work out particularly well at first, but I got better and by the second and third year I had lots of people stopping me to talk on the bus, at the store, or just out walking. They weren’t trying to find out where I was from (everybody already knew); they were just eager to get to know me.

    I can’t figure out why my experience was so different from the other gaijin I knew, even the ones who later joined me in the same small town. I didn’t feel like I was being stared at or ridiculed–or more accurately, if I was stared at, it just didn’t bother me. I think sometimes that it has to do with my transgender identity. I have plenty of people staring at me in my home country, the USA, trying to figure out what gender I am and how to interact with me. I guess it just wasn’t that unusual to me.

    Posted by transrelativity | April 27, 2011, 15:50
    • I lived in a small town last year, and everything was fine. Most of the town knew me already, knew where I worked, where I was from, etc. If adults stopped me, it was usually to tell me that I taught one of their children. Children stopped me to chat, but not in such an intrusive way. And I think in Korea in general country people are more polite.

      Now I live in a big city, which has a bad history with foreigners because there used to be three US army bases around it. I don’t know how that would lead to pointing and laughing, but maybe it’s a factor. I think in general though, the people who bug me most are those who THINK they’re so cosmopolitan, ah yes, I know all about foreigners and what they like and how to speak to them. The people who are meeting foreigners for the first time I have general found to be extremely respectful and adorably nervous.

      Posted by startledoctopus | April 27, 2011, 23:55

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