Before Eric and I made the big move to Korea, I did a lot of research on how non-Korean Asians were accepted in Korea. Since I am a mixture of Asian/Caucasian I was curious to know how Koreans accepted or perceived Asians who were not like themselves.
To my surprise, there really wasn’t that much information on the topic at all. I searched google, YouTube, and various blogs about Korea but I came up with very little. As a result, I moved to Korea feeling uncertain of how I’d be received here.
I’ve lived here nine months now and have had lots of time to discover what life in Korea is like as a non-Korean Asian. So today I am going to attempt to fill the information void and to give Asians some insight into what they can expect when they visit or move to South Korea.
1. I blend in
As an Asian expat in Korea, I blend in a lot more than a Caucasian foreigner would. I have an “invisibility cloak” to use at will whenever I’d rather not be noticed.
Also, I feel I am excluded from many of the negative foreigner stereotypes. Some foreigners can be loud and obnoxious, giving expats a bad reputation. I am exempt from these negative stereotypes because instead of getting lumped in with other foreigners, Koreans see me as one of their own.
2. I can catch a taxi!
I have heard from other foreigners that they sometimes have trouble flagging down a cab. I guess the reason for this is that when cab drivers see them, they realize they aren’t from Korea and assume that they won’t be able to speak Korean. Maybe they reason that it’ll be far too much work with the language barrier to try and figure out where they’re going. So instead of stopping, many cabs just pass them by.
This even happened to Eric and I one night in Busan. It was dark out and we were trying to get back to our Airbnb after attending a Buddhist lantern festival. Eric had tried flagging a taxi a couple of times with no luck so I told him to let me try. The very first cab I waved at immediately pulled over for me.
3. I don’t get harassed by Korean men
Harassment in Korea is sometimes a problem for foreigners. I’ve heard awful stories from other expat women about men stalking them, finding their phone numbers and continually sending inappropriate messages, and the like. It’s unfortunate to be an expat in these situations because in Korea the law seems to always side with the Koreans.
Thankfully, this is something I have never experienced for myself. I have been stalked and had some really creepy interactions in Korea but never by a Korean person. I think that being an Asian expat has been fortunate for me in this area. I blend in with all the Koreans and thus don’t attract too much attention.
1. The skin tone hierarchy
There seems to be an unspoken hierarchy in Korea that is largely based off of where in Asia you come from as well as your skin tone. The lighter your skin, the higher on the hierarchal ladder you’ll be. This makes it so that Asians with darker skin, like Asians from South East Asia, experience more discrimination in Korea than Asians with fairer skin do.
For myself, I land somewhere in the middle of the fair/dark skin scale, so as of yet, I haven’t personally experienced discrimination due to my color. Where I experience the hierarchy is in more normal aspects of daily life, for example, makeup shopping.
I noticed that whenever I went shopping for makeup during the summer, makeup store employees would always try to sell me foundation that was much lighter than my actual skin tone. I would decline and tell them that I wanted my foundation to match my true skin color, but this always seemed really confusing for them—possibly because Koreans like to wear makeup that is lighter than their actual skin tone.
2. Everyone assumes that I can speak Korean
The language barrier is hard enough as it is, but when you look like you should know the language it becomes even harder.
I’ve had a couple of experiences where a Korean person has started speaking to me in Korean, and even though I told them I didn’t speak the language they continued speaking to me in it.
Maybe they don’t believe me because I look Korean, or maybe it’s because I said that I couldn’t speak Korean in Korean. Whatever the case, it’s always really awkward and despite the amount of times they repeat themselves I’m still left clueless.
3. I can’t play the “foreign card”
I am held to a different standard than the average foreigner. I feel that my ignorance of Korean customs is judged more harshly than it would be if I were a Caucasian foreigner. I look like I should know Koreanisms and the Korean way of life, so I am expected to. The way I act/dress is compared to other Koreans rather than compared to other foreigners.
My style in clothes and makeup is not at all Korean. I haven’t found many Korean outfits that suit my style, and I do my makeup very much like a westerner. As a result of this, I have been told that I should change the way I do my makeup because it doesn’t look good on me, and I have also gotten some stares because of the way I dress.
4. People are sometimes very surprised that I can speak English
I feel that I can blend in perfectly and go the entire day without attracting attention or standing out at all—until I open my mouth. The moment I speak English, people begin to stare. It almost feels as though I am being mentally “assessed”. They are trying to figure out where I’m from, if I’m Korean-American, what I’m doing in Korea, etc. So that can be a little awkward at times. Most of the time I don’t let it bother me though because I know that these stares are just stares of curiosity and not of rudeness.
This wraps up my list of the pros and cons of being an Asian expat in Korea!
Please note that this article is in no way a jab at Korea or my life here. I absolutely love living here and am so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to move across the world. I wrote this article mostly out of necessity, because before I moved to Korea I found very little information on this topic.
What are pros or cons you might add? Have you experienced the skin tone hierarchy here in Korea? I would love to hear your perspective, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!