As a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white American living in Asia, I tend to stand out in a crowd. It’s an interesting and bizarre thing that has become a part of my everyday life. Even living in Seoul, one of the biggest cities in the world, where more and more people of different ethnicities come every year, children on the subway stare at me unabashedly, store employees sometimes get visibly nervous when I come to pay at the counter and my students frequently ask me why I have gold hair.
When I was living in the smaller Fuji City, Japan, my presence as a foreigner was much more pronounced. While waiting at a crosswalk one day, a high school girl beside me turned and jumped, screeching “ah! Gaijin da!” “Ah! A foreigner!” I remember once at a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan, a middle-aged Japanese woman was asking the staff for directions to a certain temple when I popped into the conversation and told her, in Japanese, what train station it is near. The woman gave me a confused look, then asked the receptionist, “did he just speak Japanese?” To which I responded, “Yes, that’s right.” Again, to the receptionist, she replied “Wow, that’s interesting.”
Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.No matter which Asian country you live in, there seems to be a certain subset of questions and comments that the foreign community constantly received. People will ask if you are capable of using chopsticks. Any use of the local language will yield extremely flattering praise, regardless if you simply said “hello” or if you gave an in depth appraisal of surgical medical equipment. Sometimes, white Westerners may get a little bit of superstar treatment, people coming up to them at bars, buying them drinks and saying that how much the Westerner looks like a movie star with a “small face” (the above photo is the result of a night like that).
But, the good comes with the bad. Once a friend of mine here in Seoul tried to set me up on a blind date with his female friends, and more than a couple turned me down simply because of the fact that I am a foreigner, saying that I am simply passing through Korea and not looking for something serious. Also, a foreigner can live in an Asian country for the majority of their life, get married, have kids, obtain citizenship, but to the public at large, they will always be seen as an outsider first. This comes with the territory. It’s important to know that people are often not intentionally being rude or discriminatory; they are just unfamiliar with foreigners. This possibly being one of the few times they have ever had to interact with one, having grown up in a homogenous society where 99% of people are of the same ethnic or racial background.
Growing up, I remember more than a few times when my teachers told the class, “You wouldn’t want to live in a world were everyone was the same race, with the same hair, skin and eye color, would you?” The truth is, not everywhere is a soup of diversity, even within the United States. The world is certainly heading in a much more connected, multi-cultural direction and it’s exciting to be bridging that gap between east and west.
[Photos by Jonathan Kramer]