Don’t you wish you had a get-out-of-jail card for small annoyances? If you’re a buxom blonde, maybe you do, but an easier way (at least if you look like me—neither buxom nor blonde) is to move to another country. In my case, Korea.
I’m not sure about other countries, but in Korea, we call it the foreigner card. It is an acknowledgement that as foreigners (i.e. non-Koreans), that along with all the disadvantages of living in a foreign culture, we have certain privileges by not fitting into the cultural system. It’s one of perks of living over here. Let me give you some examples.
- You are driving and run a red light. A policeman pulls you over, but upon seeing you’re a foreigner (and assuming you don’t speak Korean) he lets you go because he doesn’t want to deal with the situation.
- You want to return something at a store without a receipt. They refuse, saying it’s not the policy. You give them a blank look and keep nudging it towards them, saying juseyo (please give me) and eventually they just do it to make you go away.
- All the teachers at the school are going out to eat. Although there is mandatory attendance, you don’t want to go, so when they tell you about it—in Korean—you give a big smile and say, in English, “see you tomorrow” and just go home.
Now some of those are accidental and some are deliberate, but you get the idea. The idea is getting away with things that other can’t simply because we don’t fit in or people assume we don’t understand (or we pretend we can’t). Here’s why it works.
- We stand out. – I will never, ever pass for a Korean. I did have one man ask me if I was Korean, but he was either drunk or a bad guesser. I don’t stand out like a sore thumb; I stand out like a missing limb. If you happen to be black, then you stand out even more. Because of this, it is very easy for people to make judgments about us before we even speak. Here are some of the common stereotypes: foreigners don’t speak Korean; they don’t understand the culture; they’ve just arrived in Korea; and they insist on others speaking English.
And so on. The point is that even before I open my mouth, the other person has formed an opinion of me in their head.
- A lot of the stereotypes are true. – I’m not trying to bash foreigners living in Korea: I am one, and even though I speak Korean now, I didn’t when I got here. The truth is that there is a huge demand for English teachers here and speaking Korean is not one of the requirements. People often come for a year and then leave, which means they don’t have the time or motivation to learn much of the language. Because of this, they are forced to interact with Koreans with what they have: English and gestures, which can be frustrating for everyone involved. Some Koreans get so tired of going through this time after time that they just try to avoid it. Some shopkeepers type the price into a calculator and show it to me because they assume I wouldn’t understand them if they said it.
- Korean culture puts a high emphasis on service. – When you are a customer in Korea, then you are a king. Tipping isn’t practiced here and it’s very common for shopkeepers to throw in a bit extra or something free, just as good service. You run across people who don’t want to serve foreigners, but usually they will err on the side of good service.
On one hand, it’s very nice that people make exceptions for us at times, since as I said before, a lot of it is deserved. It is very humbling to live here without knowing the language, since you have to rely on others to help with a lot of things: setting up an account, going to the doctor, buying a cell phone, etc. However, some people try to game the system by pretending they are more ignorant than they are. Since people already assume we’re ignorant, why not use that to our advantage, right?
I try not to use the foreigner card if I can help it. Mostly because it’s dishonest if I deliberately pretending to be more ignorant than I am, but also because after living here for so long, I really want to fit in. I am very tired of always being the exception, even when it’s beneficial.
Also, I want people to know I speak Korean, because dealing with foreigners is very stressful for a lot of people. Koreans feel that because they study English in school, they should speak English when they meet a foreigner, not that the foreigner should speak Korean. I can see the fear in their eyes when I come into their shop, as they desperately try to remember everything their middle school teacher said while they were talking in the back of the class. So, I try to speak Korean as soon as possible to put them at ease. You can see some of them, usually younger people who have studied English, visibly deflate with relief when they realize you can speak Korean.
So, there it is: a way out of minor difficulties based on stereotypes, real and perceived language barriers, and cultural misunderstanding. Still, it’s nice to have it if you need it.