I’m 5′ 6″ and slightly overweight. I have dark hair, dark eyes, and dark rims on my glasses. In Brooklyn I was invisible. I liked being invisible. In Korea, I am not invisible.
I hate being the center of attention. If you ever want to make me super uncomfortable, you can tell the waiter it’s my birthday. Especially true if it’s my actual birthday. My mother knows this super well and always makes a mischievous smile before she tells them. I think she likes celebrating my birthday more than I do. She also likes complementary cake. An exception might be the time I bought a round of beer for the kitchen at The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland and marched through the whole restaurant interrupting everyone’s nice pre-Christmas night out ringing the provided bell and shouting about my birthday. Then the kitchen staff stops cooking everyone else’s food to receive the tray of beers. Fuck your dining experience, other patrons. It’s my birthday.
You’ll be forgiven for not being familiar with the video game Hitman: Codename 47. It was a sort of second-gen, middle-tier first-person stealth shooter that has since been made into a number of well-reviewed sequels, and for what reason absolutely no one knows, a feature-length film. But the original is fantastically difficult, and, let’s be fair, pretty garbagey. You’re supposed to carry out the assassinations stealthily, so to let you know you’re being watched, every character in the game turns its accusing, blankly-rendered face toward you, pivoting heads on polygon bodies as they walk by on their implied personal business, never breaking eye contact until you’ve cleared their cone of vision. And I’m reminded of it every day, because that’s exactly what it’s like to be a foreigner in Korea.
It’s not hard to stand out here. Korea is a homogeneous place. My apartment is near a large international hotel, a US Army base, and probably the only reasonably multicultural neighborhood on the peninsula, but it doesn’t take more than a short bus ride to become the only non-Korean on the street. My division at work likes to pride itself on being the most diverse in the conglomerate, with a whopping 88 foreign employees. Out of more than 150,000 employees. I count six other Americans. Sometimes I see a group of really depressed-looking Russian guys in the cafeteria. They stand out, too.
One time I was leaving a bar at a pretty reasonable 10pm, when a pretty drunk guy insisted that I could not pass without giving him a high five. He just really needed a high five from a white guy and was sooooo stoked about receiving it.
I really like it when I’m clearly the first white person a toddler has ever seen up close, and they make this stunned face with their eyes open real wide like they’re being abducted by aliens. Until I smile at them. Then they usually cry.
I even catch myself staring at blonde people when I see them on the street now. Golden-haired freaks.
It can be hard for foreigners to get a cab, especially in neighborhoods or at times of the night when they’re scarce. Drivers make a point of passing you by, picking up someone downstream or just skipping the whole block for fear you’ll rush in. I don’t really blame them–my taxicab Korean isn’t terrible, but I don’t want to put up with my bullshit either. One time a driver refused to take a group of us somewhere, and a half dozen men in orange vests emerged from nowhere to give him a ticket. Where the hell were these guys? Were they hiding in the trees? Are they wearing cloaking devices? I was mostly surprised to learn there was actually a discrimination law of any kind.
My wife, Alana, has bright blue eyes and purple hair. We have not one, but two Siberian huskies. Everyone sees us. A benefit of walking with the dogs is that they get the attention and wary looks instead of me. Alana wrote a longer post on dog ownership in Korea, but for me its mostly a series of reactions from strangers. There’s almost no one without an opinion on them, mostly ooohs and aaahs, but definitely some terror in there too. I like it when children (and adults) argue about whether or not they’re wolves, “neukdey, neukdey!” And I like it when men throw their girlfriends in front of them as a human shield. I speak enough Korean to say, “it’s okay, doesn’t eat you,” as if anyone trusts the half-coherent proclamations of a guy crazy enough to walk around tethered to two savage wild beasts. You’d think they were tigers.
In 18 months I’ve learned to be less obvious. I make fewer stupid lost faces. I spent less time wandering into the wrong doors. I’m also less worried about the eyes on me. But I’m looking forward to being invisible again. Maybe I can train with the taxi police.