Saturday, July 07, 2007


I'm a Thriller in Korea

Korea is one of those countries where it is very difficult to identify the natives strictly by their appearance. When westerners discuss a Korean that they both are familiar with but may not be able to identify by name, we often say things like, “Do you know Rachel? You know … kind of short … has dark hair … talks with an accent?”

The nation as a whole is quite homogenized, and especially so outside of Seoul, where most of those with Anglo-centric origins have gathered. As such, I have found that it’s very easy to feel scrutinized while doing virtually anything in Korea that requires me to venture out into the public.

Many times, the people whisper words to each other they assume I won’t understand. At times, their glances linger on my personage for a substantially longer than average period of time. Then, of course, there are the children.

The best example I can offer of how children react to foreigners in this country took place on a typical Saturday night in the city of Chuncheon, when I was buying groceries (and yes, this is a typical Saturday night for me, and has been ever since the days of my youth, when my parents would organize the epic weekend trips to Super Wal-Mart). I stood at the checkout line, holding two bags with about $30 worth of goods in my hands, not sensing an extraordinary amount of attention being cast my way.

It was only due to a chance glimpse behind me when I notice the two kids: one boy, one girl, both of whose heads were geographically located at an approximate parallel to my waist. Another common feature of the two was the expression of absolute glee found on both of their faces: their lower jaws both extended to their respective nadirs, their lower lips tucked over the teeth on said jaw, and their eyelids spread so wide that their baby browns seemed ready to emerge and become satellites orbiting their larger planetary heads.

My reaction was the typical awkward smile: closed mouth, lips curved upward to reach both cheeks, and eyes glancing sideways to be certain of where the exits were, just in case. “Uhm, hi,” I said.

Their mother tapped the girl, the older of the two, lightly on the shoulder and instructed her to give me the traditional Korean greeting of “Annyeong haseo” (literally, “Are you at peace?”).

The young girl responded with lisped version of that: “Annyeong hatheo!” They were obviously not English speakers, and my knowledge of their language does not extend far beyond the phrases which I find handy when answering the phone, such as “I am not Korean,” “I don’t speak Korean very well,” and “There are no Koreans here.” Therefore, I assumed our interaction was at an end and I could go back to focusing on the check-out line.

That’s when I felt their hands. I suppose I’m asking for it whenever I wear summer garments, because most Asian people have almost no visible body hair, while my arms and legs resemble a kind of blond rain forest. The children stroked at the hairs on my forearms for several minutes, perhaps enjoying its texture, or maybe to see if I would purr.

Such attention from children is not hard to understand. I can distinctly remember when I was slightly younger than their age and I met a very burly man who was probably in the neighborhood of my current height, which is 6’3. Although we were the same race and nationality, his physical stature inspired me to ask him, “Are you a giant?”

It’s hard to imagine how a person of that height and a vastly different appearance would have affected me at the time. Fortunately, imagination is not all I have to rely on, because many of the children in Korea are very expressive, even when they are not so happy to see me. Small girls have seen me, stopped what they were doing and started to bawl out loud. Small boys at dinner luncheons have refused to eat until I left the room.

Fortunately, excited curiosity is more common than unbridled terror. I used to refer to 3 p.m. as “magic hour,” because that’s when youth all over Korea emerge, wearing their school uniforms, ready to react to foreigners as if everyone of them were Thriller-era Michael Jackson.

For a long time, my response to this attention used to be one of great discomfort; I would try to convey via body language that I was just a regular guy trying to buy 2 percent milk, not a pop star who’d one day be brought down by a bad habit of spending the night with his pre-pubescent fans.

More recently, however, I’ve embraced my status. These days, if a child says “Hello!” to me as I’m walking by, I will pivot directions as if they held me on a yo-yo and immediately walk in their direction.

“Hi!” I shout. “Nice to meet you! What’s your name!? Hey, where are you going!?!?”

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a celebrity. One thing I have learned is that, when dealing with kids, dignity will only hold you back.

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