Ulsan is a city of about 1.1 million people. In Korea, this makes it one of the smaller cities. I’ve been asking all of the expats here that I’ve met how many foreigners they think live in Ulsan – the answer is always somewhere in the hundreds. In a city of 1.1 million, this seems incredibly low to me. I think that a good number of them must live in my neighborhood, however, because whenever I go out walking I run into an average of one foreigner/group of foreigners per hour. Most of the time when we cross each other on the street we nod and smile, maybe saying “hey” as a brief acknowledgement that we speak the same language. I kind of like this ritual, this fleeting recognition of the fact that as foreigners in an extremely homogeneous country we automatically have a long list of shared experiences.
Yesterday I was walking down the street and I saw a group of 3 white guys, sitting at a table outside a bar. They saw me coming and called out “hello, how are you!” Now, the street was just busy enough, and they were sitting just far enough away from me that this greeting was shouted through a crowd of a dozen or so Koreans. It didn’t have the subtlety of the passing “hey” that I’d gotten used to exchanging with foreigners, and I found that this really annoyed me. I could tell that they wanted me to come over and chat. In a split second, I decided not to engage. I yelled out a “hello” in return, and kept on walking. As I got further and further away, I tried to figure out why I’d brushed them off. I normally love talking to strangers. Back in Chicago I made more friends while riding the train than anyone I know. So what made this situation different?
I think that a part of the answer lies in my general dislike of feeling like a tourist or outsider when I travel. I don’t enjoy sight-seeing, and if I ever need to look at a map I find a private place, memorize what I can, and hide it away before continuing on my way. In Korea, I am a perpetual outsider. My light hair and green eyes immediately peg me as a foreigner, and strangers (especially children) say “hello” to me on the street all the time. This is unavoidable, and I kind of appreciate it as a welcoming gesture. But when other foreigners try to talk to me (beyond the passing greeting), the only obvious reason being that they are also foreign, it seems as if they think that we belong to some exclusive club of non-Koreans. And this grosses me out a little.
But then I realize – if I was walking down the street in Chicago or Minneapolis, and a group of guys sitting outside a bar yelled out to me, there is actually no way that I’d go talk to them. I would immediately categorize them in my mind as people who will probably make me uncomfortable, pretend I didn’t hear them, avert my eyes, and keep walking.
Yes, it’s different here. We all belong to a tiny expat community in a small city. And knowing how my life works, I will probably meet these people again soon, in a more legitimate setting. And ignoring the grossness of being singled out on the street due solely to the fact that I am non-Korean, the fact remains – moving to Korea is not going to change me into someone who talks to groups of older men who yell at her on the street from bars.