Waeguk means foreigner-meguk- American (hanguk means Korean).
I haven’t really written on what it feels like to be a foreigner here. I remember the first morning that I left my apartment and how strange it was to be so immediately and definitely recongnized as an outsider. There was no blending in, I looked utterly unlike everyone else.
It felt so much different than being in a place like France, where I could walk the streets without standing out like a sore thumb. Nobody knew I wasn’t French until I opened my mouth to talk.
Here, I feel like I pop out from the backgrounds of building and crowds, my face like a signpost. And I still cannot get used to being stared at so much. The older generation does this even more so and the weirdest part is how blatant it is-people will often not look away when I catch them staring at me. I mean literally being just intently watched on the Subway for a good 10 minutes. Do I smile? Say hello? Stare back? Ignore it? I shift uncomfortably under the gaze and am not sure.
I had to ask my Korean friend, Kate, if Koreans stare at other Koreans like they stare at me. She laughed and said no, it would be rude.
While Seoul is a big, bustling Metropolis on par with Tokyo in size, it has never been a huge toursit destination. Even with the American military presence-meguks are rare. Korea is basically an extremely homogenous, foreigner-free society, so waeguks are still a huge curiosity.
I want to stress that in personal interactions, Korean people are friendly, helpful and sweet- but my presence has gotten a negative reaction from strangers in public. Once on the bus, while I was talking to a friend, a woman clapped loudly in our ears as a signal to shush. More than a few times on the Subway, friends and I, speaking in normal tones, have been told to be quiet. People get visibly uncomfortable around us and English.
On the other hand, kids often like to shout hello and wave to you and are excited to practice the bit of English that they know.
There is this local neighborhood pub teachers like to frequent called School Bar. Pete is a Korean-American, grew up in California, can understand Korean and told us once that the bar owner talks a lot of sh*t in Korean about the Americans. The owner is also afraid the foreigners drive away business.
If you had a favorite pub, that was then often filled up by Japanese, Swedisn, Mexican-whoever- immigrants, laughing and talking their language-would you still want to hang out there?
It’s interesting to be on the outside looking in for once- or on the outside being looked at I should say.