Stranger In A Strange Land: A Teacher’s Life In Korea
The previous weekend, in a brief fit of madness, I had purchased a baby bunny from an adjuma in the Singil station of the Seoul subway system. The old woman crouched in the middle of the transfer walkway, tossing bunnies from a cardboard box like enticing, furry water balloons. Pushing my way through the crowd, I found myself drawn to a particular little bunny who kept trying to make a break for it. And what creature wouldn’t, considering his current home was a concrete tunnel in which gnarled fingers continuously hurled him from his warren of bunny companions to attract customers such as myself? He rode the train back home with me all the way to the Sosa station in Bucheon in a shopping bag stuffed with strips of newspaper.
“Erin Teacha. Do all American rabbit have blue eyes?”
I stared at Amy blankly for a moment.
“I’m American. What color are my eyes?”
Sure, English was their second language, but I was fairly certain at this point that my students had at least a tenuous grasp of the color wheel and its corresponding English words. I had been hoping for an answer more along the lines of “brown.”
I had been teaching English in South Korea for almost 10 months — a period of time I felt was sufficient to break down some of the stereotypes I encountered in those first terrifying moments in the classroom. And yet this was the response I received after trying to engage Albania Class in a discussion about what they thought of rabbits. (Every class in the school was named after a foreign country — something about encouraging multiculturalism, though the only time most of my students even interacted with a non-Korean was within the walls of my hagwon.)
My students were young — this particular class was stocked with nine and ten-year-olds — but they had been taught by foreign teachers before; I wasn’t even their first American teacher. They sat there in miniature, pastel-colored chairs, grinning up at me. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if my eyes did look a bit orange in this light.
No. Impossible. I surmised that they were either not taking my question seriously, believed I possessed vampiric features a la a D-list horror film, or had vision issues that required immediate medical attention. In my attempt to dispel my class’s apparent belief that all Americans and their animal sidekicks sported fair features, I had instead reawakened one of the most recurrent themes in my life as an expat.
Moving to Korea, I presumed I would be a bit of an oddity. There would be no disguising the fact that I was distinctly not from ’round those parts. But I was used to the U.S., where even in relatively small towns there is a modicum of diversity. Land of the free, home of the immigrant, melting pot of the world. I wasn’t prepared to feel like an outlaw in an old Western who stumbles through the flapping doors of the local watering hole only to be met by a sudden hush and the steady gaze of every patron in the saloon.
Seoul, Korea’s capital and home to almost half of the population of the country, is about as international as a city can get. In certain areas, there are more foreigners flitting about than Koreans. But I had been assigned to a little after-school language center in Bucheon, a suburb of Seoul, where I was not just a minority, but the minority. Strolling the sidewalks of my neighborhood, I was a Caucasian giant standing at an imposing five-foot-seven — and everybody noticed.
The stares had an interesting novelty in my first week or so. Koreans don’t waste time tiptoeing around the ogling issue like Westerners do — stealing furtive glances from behind a newspaper, catching a glimpse in the reflection of a compact. If Koreans find you intriguing, they will smack you right in the face with an open-mouthed gape. Children near my apartment building locked their eyes on me, backpedaling while tugging a mother’s blouse and audibly whispering, “Miguk, Miguk!” (American, American!). Adults were worse. While going about my day I caused near car accidents, young women would blatantly snap pictures of me on the subway with their camera-phones, pedestrians narrowly dodged becoming road kill; the citizens of Bucheon seemed to forgo their powers of peripheral vision when I was in view.
The gawking was rarely sinister, merely curious. Those who spoke even a word of English got quite excited at the opportunity to practice. I had the following conversation approximately four times a day, when an enthusiastic, blinking individual would sidle up to me.
“Where you from?”
“Oh, the U.S.”
“. . . ?”
“Ha, ha, America! America, very good. America.”
My conversational companion would then depart, pleased with the dialogue that had just taken place, leaving a confused American in their wake, standing awkwardly in front of a store boasting large advertisements for kimchi and soju in the window.
I was an alien in every sense of the word, an extraterrestrial not to be missed once spotted. With great curiosity, some of my youngest students would grasp a lock of my hair and begin to ask, “Teacha is . . .” trailing off and, not knowing the English word, miming the spiral of a curling iron. I told them, no, I do not curl my hair. Erin teacher’s hair is just curly. I wake up and, poof!, curly hair. They would gasp, twirling their fingers into the tresses in disbelief.
Many of the students at my school kept English “diaries” for which I would occasionally assign them writing topics. One day, I posed the question, “Would you like to meet an alien? Why or why not?” A particularly droll student who went by the English name “Sally” at the hagwon wrote: “No, I wouldn’t, but I want, because I wonder alien, alien . . . so wonder. So I want to meet. I want to look them. You are — alien!”
She signed off with a couple of hearts and a slapdash emoticon that stared at me skeptically. When I explained to Sally that she was actually correct in calling me an alien because I was from another country, she was rather taken aback. She may to this day be wandering the back alleyways of Bucheon, performing impressions of her teacher from Neptune for a disbelieving crowd of Korean pre-teens.
Months passed, and I tired of playing the part of sideshow attraction. “Teacha! Your eyes! Scary!” “Teacha! You have Pinocchio nose!” “Really?” I would retort in rapid-fire English. “My nose extends and shrinks in direct correlation to the lies and truths I tell?” Silence. I leaned back in my chair, satisfied that I had outfoxed them in my native language.
Koreans have a curious straightforwardness in regards to commenting on the physical appearance of others. It stands in stark contrast to the reserve practiced in most of their other social interactions. I worked with another American named Andrew who was not what one might call the slenderest of men. Once, a student pranced up to Andrew in the teachers’ room and exclaimed, “Andrew teacher! You are a big, fat pig!” Andrew laughed. Well, the student’s English pronunciation was commendable. Later I asked Andrew if it bothered him that the students mocked him because of his weight. “That’s just what they do,” he replied.
The level of importance Koreans placed on appearance troubled me, though I suppose no one should be admonished for first-rate hygiene practices. In a way, I appreciated the good grooming of the citizens of Seoul. Occasionally, it inspired me to look like I hadn’t tumbled out of bed 10 minutes before I was expected somewhere. And yet, there was something disturbing about the ever-present heels on the women, the perfectly coiffed hair of the men. It often struck me that the homogeneous nature of the culture was replicating and spreading like a perfection-seeking virus. I longed for the variety of a torn pair of jeans, a tangled mop of hair.
The constant commentary on my own appearance didn’t help me to feel any less like an outsider. “Erin teacha is black eye?”, my students asked, pointing out the dark half-moons that had blossomed under my eyes. “Yes, Erin teacher is tired, because Erin teacher stayed up all night worrying that you will never learn English.” “Oh, teachaaa!” they squealed in protest.
Once, when I was imitating a particularly choice misuse of the English language courtesy of one of my students, my Korean coworker overheard me exclaim, “I am is die!” She rushed over with a gleam in her eye. “Oh, Erin, you are going on a diet?” “No,” I said, staring back, daring her to suggest that I should. She said nothing, but shuffled away looking disappointed.
What was most unsettling was that this drive for a physical ideal was coupled with the desire to appear more “Western.” Koreans will shell out hundreds of thousands of Won to undergo plastic surgery that rounds the eye. Advertisements for skin-lightening cream plaster subway cars and billboards, featuring smiling pictures of gleaming, pale-skinned Korean girls. I imagined how the ad copy would read in English. “Look White and Western for just $9.99!” A friend of mine who taught at another hagwon just north of Seoul received a tube of this bleaching cream for Teacher’s Day, a holiday of sorts where students in Korea bring in small gifts for their various educators. My friend was South African and self-identified as “Coloured.” When she showed me the present, I tried to reassure her.
“It was probably just a generic gift. I doubt it was intended as a hint.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Probably.”
Koreans shun the sun like Americans seek it out. On a cloudless day in Bucheon, the city streets slowly fill with a parade of bobbing umbrellas, blocking those pesky skin-darkening UV rays. I discovered that the prejudice against the darker-skinned is a relic carried over from Korea’s leaner years, when having a tan meant that you were a poor, outdoor laborer.
A co-worker once informed me that Korean orphans with darker skin are less likely to be adopted than their happily fair-skinned counterparts. Nobody wants them. This rampant desire for a Western appearance seemed a disturbing rejection of heritage. I would luxuriate in my own unkempt appearance, my wild hair and shabby flip-flops a silent rebellion against the flawlessly put-together society around me. “This is what a real Westerner looks like,” I would smugly think to myself.
There did, however, appear to be a threshold for just how “Western” one could look before rounding the corner to being an anomaly again. Pale skin and wide eyes are swell, but take caution lest you start to look too much like a Miguk. Lest you start to look too American. A Korean co-worker of mine, who went by the English name “Luke,” delighted in reminding me of this. One day between classes, he looked at me for a long time. Then:
“You are very beautiful.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“But, you look too Western. Your face is like Greek statue.”
“Um, thank you,” I replied, flattered.
“Really? Thank you?”
Luke tilted his head, giving my features another hard look.
By Erin Salvi
About the Author
Erin Salvi is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. She enjoys drinking copious amounts of coffee, rocking out to David Bowie, and thinking about the space-time continuum.