Saturday, October 21, 2006

White Face

Walking into Dong-A University Hospital yesterday my girlfriend suddenly said to me "Look, a white guy!" Sure enough, as I was hustled inside with the flow of humanity I turned around quickly enough to catch a sideways glance an an elderly and impossibly tall Caucasian Westerner standing outside the entrance. He became the first white face I've seen in the week since I arrived in Busan.

It wasn't more than five minutes though before I'd seen my second. This time a young woman who also appeared impossibly tall. I'm 5ft 6" so blend in well with the local population as far as height is concerned - perhaps I'm just not used to seeing anyone significantly taller than me any more? Or maybe this is a sign of some more disturbing social conditioning taking effect - I'm turning Korean and now believe any Westerner looks tall. Maybe even I look tall to Koreans who walk past me muttering "Waygoogin" (Foreigner) - if so that would be really great.

The woman presented a new problem though, in that we were walking towards each other down a corridor, which while wide gave us no more than a few feet distance at the point of passing. When she first entered my field of vision - no more than 10 feet away, I discovered that I've been here long enough for my subconscious to alert me to something odd in my field of vision - this being a white face - so I had to do a double-take and probably rather obviously look at her again to confirm what I had seen before quickly looking away. This was probably very Korean of me! Anyway, I was clearly busted because according to my girlfriend she apparently smiled at me as we passed while I busily looked somewhere else.

This encounter raises a complex question though. What is the protocol of passing Westerners? Should we acknowledge each other, smile, nod or heads at one-another slightly in acknowledgement of our rarity, collective experience and suffering? Or do we play it cool and just try to pass by without recognition as we would without question at home? Certainly there's no point saying "hello", unless we want to be guilty of assuming each other to be English-speaking foreigners, which of course we should not.

Maybe if I was an English teacher I'd see other foreigners every day, so my experience of feeling like the only white face where I live is uncommon. I am, after all, living like a Korean rather than as most foreigners seem to live here.

I wonder if instead of "Hello" I said "Waygoogin ida!" (It's a foreigner!) it would be amusingly satirical or is that foreigner in-joke old here by now? Probably.

edit: it turns out I'm not the only one worrying about this - there's a thread on the KoreaBridge forum - it looks like eye-contact and a nod is the preferred protocol.

1 comment: said...

If it's any consolation, the same effect can be glimpsed whenever I see another Chinese person walking past. If he/she is by himself, the temptation to stare at them is overwhelming.

But if there's more than one of them they're usually Chinese-Chinese people huddled deep in conversation and ignoring all those around them.

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