Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Life in Korea Requires a Thick Skin ... Really!

Living in Korea isn't always easy

After having a rather intense conversation with another westerner last week, I began to think about how we even survive here.

Well, overall life is pretty comfortable in the land of the morning calm. From my blog entries and Facebook posts, Korea may look like it's all fun and games. However, some actions or episodes can really make me hate certain aspects sometimes.

You may be saying, "Well, that's just culture shock." But it's beyond that. Foreigners have been saying the same thing to each other ever since I first came here. You need to have a thick skin to survive in Korea.

It's the reason why many people don't see themselves staying longer after a year or two. And it can be even worse for those of us who aren't white westerners. Seemingly tough and secure people can break -- emotionally -- after just a couple of years on the peninsula. Some folks break quickly and pull a midnight run. I've seen friends suffer and leave with no intentions of returning.

Why is that so? Certain experiences can be really grating, even if they're from students.

For example, during a recent discussion on basic hygiene vocabulary, a student declared that I must be dirty because my skin was brown. She said that over and over again, and the class thought that was hilarious.

I've also been called a monkey, and have gone through classes with disruptive students making gorilla noises.
Letting the hate get to you will make you lose your mind  

I've had children and adults say awful things about my natural hair. According to some people, it's bad, ugly and dirty.

On top of that, imagine watching television. Every commercial break shows advertisements featuring skin whitening creams. In its seasonal peak, summertime, every commercial break promotes three or four ads telling me that I'd be more beautiful if I bleached my skin.

As soon as the summer sun comes out, so do the parasols ... the pretty umbrellas designed to block sunlight. That's to keep them from getting darker. There's even a joke claiming that the quickest way to make a Korean woman insecure is to compliment her tan.

Now, after experiencing these sorts of events, imagine not having anyone to talk to about them. For example, my English-speaking coworkers are white and seemingly would never understand. In my time here, I've seen the locals give favorable treatment to my whiter counterparts. It's difficult to talk to a very average looking man who's constantly being told he's handsome by the locals.

As a result, it can be very easy to feel alone and helpless.

Like in any country, simply being foreign has its downsides

To a lesser extent, there's the whole element of being a foreigner. I understand that immigrants and foreign workers have it tough anywhere to varying degrees. However, in Korea (and in other Asian cultures), there's that element that shuts you out. You'll always be the "other" and you'll never be accepted completely, no matter what.

There's also the whole status and hierarchy thing. Foreigners here can have it extra tough when you're not respected. I know that, for example, whenever I am in a dispute, Korean people will generally automatically agree with the Korean person over me, no matter what I say. Children also may not have respect for me because I'm foreign.

All of these things can quickly weigh down on you. As a result, it requires a specific toughness and security to be able to live through all of the *bs*. One should be very solid and have high self-esteem, especially if they're a person of color. It seems to be the only way to go through life in Korea with your dignity intact.

You definitely need a thick skin to survive for long.


  1. Yeah I've heard the same from other girls living there. At least you are skinny though! I've heard that if you are a US size medium, you are like an XXL in Korea and people act like you are the scum of the earth when you try to buy clothes.

    Good luck and I hope you won't feel too lonely and depressed!

    1. Thanks! I'll be fine, since I've been hanging in there for so long.

      I know that those who are overweight also have negativity they have to deal with. It's hard for me to speak to that since I've personally never had to deal with being bigger than average ;)

  2. I tried to post a comment earlier, Lauren, and it vanished. Anyway, to summarize, I love your blog, you're a good writer, I agree with everything you said, and you are not alone ;)

    1. Thank you for your comment Kathy. I appreciate it!