A friend from Seoul came to visit me this weekend. A Korean girl, born in Seoul, who I met at Indiana University South Bend, a graduate of Notre Dame who is now doing graduate work at my old university. But before you think oh, what a small, small world this really is a month or so ago I met a Korean girl who lived in South Bend for six months and went to the South Bend English Institute, where I had tried to get employment before coming to Korea. I never would have thought either of these two meetings would have happened, but happen they did.
The friend from Seoul reminded me of a fact which I had not yet acknowledged, and that’s that I’m now a minority. Here I am, a brown-haired, green-eyed, white-skinned American in a sea of brown- and black-eyed, dark-haired Koreans. Why this had not struck me in impactful way prior to her mentioning it, I don’t know. Even now, it doesn’t really strike me. When I first came to Korea, I found myself socializing with a group of Korean-Americans, standing out from the start, and not caring one bit about it. It was quite good, actually; it was like a crash course in Korean culture.
Now, though, I don’t see those friends much at all, which means the people I hang out with are more diversified. Some are from the United States, others from Canada, still others from Korea, all with different backgrounds, many of which I don’t understand very well. But this is one of the most challenging parts about being here: Meeting people who have different backgrounds than I do and trying to understand them. And I suppose I am a minority here, but I’m also in a minority group, us waegukin, us foreigners, and we tend to find and commune with each other. This happens naturally, like a force pulls us toward each other or at least makes us acknowledge one another on the street, with brief eye contact, a slight head nod, or any variation of hello.
This, I think, is good, so long as we don’t band together so tightly that we shut the majority out. So long as we don’t start to think Korea should cater to us as Westerners. So long as we keep in mind that we are in fact minorities who have been given the privilege to live here, if only for a short, dizzying time.