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.