Spending all of my life in a fairly diverse society, I had no idea of what was in store for me when I decided to live in a homogeneous one for a year. As soon as I arrived in the South Korean community where I was to teach for a year, I pretty much knew that I had lost my ability to blend into society.
During a group tour to a Korean temple, I felt that all eyes were on me. Next, I heard voices. As I stood on the mountain where the temple was located, taking in the view, one of my new friends, a member of our group, told me that there were people behind me. My dreadlocked hair was a point of curiosity, and some of the not-so-shy Korean visitors came closer, touched my hair briefly, and chatted away in Korean. I had no idea what they were saying, but I remained patient. “This is a learning experience,” I thought. They are learning. I am learning.
A trip down the block in the Korean neighborhood where I lived always brought quizzical stares. Sometimes people would speak to me in Korean. Sometimes they’d wave. The first time someone asked to take a picture of me or with me, I felt like a celebrity. I wondered what the caption of the picture would say, or what the person would say when the picture was shown to friends. By the end of the year, I shunned the attention. I did not want my picture taken while I tried to shop, eat in a restaurant, or simply visit an ATM. I didn’t want to have all eyes turned towards me while I found a seat on the subway.
There were plenty of bright spots during my stay. Parents sent their young children over to me to say hello and show off the kids’ English skills. Members of my new community often invited me to sit and have tea with me. Shop owners would give me free products. It was easy to make friends, but difficult to distinguish real friends from those who merely wanted a bit of that perceived glamour.
Although I appreciated my time in South Korea, and there were periods when I loved the special treatment, I now have a deeper respect for privacy and anonymity. I have a new respect for celebrities, people who want to be celebrities, and those who are given celebrity status whether they want it or not.