Experiences as a foreigner in Korea

My experiences as a foreigner in Korea may not be representative, as we come in many varieties and our experiences may therefore be quite different, but here is a list of 10 things that have happened to me since coming to Korea:

  1. I get stared at. By children and older generations alike. Most of my experiences are variations of this theme. This included an app. 12 year old Chinese boy in Jeju airport who very obviously told his mum to turn around to look at me too. Note that he was the one wearing a fluffy hair band with a big bow and ears. I’m becoming better at tuning it out, but the first few days were a little overwhelming since I’m definitely not used to being noticed like this. In the case of children I just smile at them – maybe I’m the first non-Asian foreigner they have ever seen.
  2. An actor in a play in Seoul interrupted himself to point out to the entire audience that a foreigner was present.
  3. While I was sitting on a bench in a market drinking juice with a  friend in Jeju, an old lady stopped and bent down to stroke my shin. I didn’t know how to react and she was obviously harmless, but my friend stepped in immediately and asked her to stop doing that. I just greeted her politely when she was obviously not done looking at me.
  4. While waiting for a bus in Jeju, my friend noticed how people in cars driving by were looking and she could mouth read the word 외국인, foreigner.
  5. All of the ladies working in the hanbok rental shop in Jeonju came over to have a proper look at my blue eyes after I had changed back into my regular clothes and was ready to leave.
  6. When a song by a Danish singer (Mø, “final song” for the curious ones) suddenly started playing in a café in Buyeo and I enthusiastically started lipsyncing and moving to the music in my seat, the barista turned up the music, which was when I found out we were being watched. I was mortified while my friends thought it was hilarious.
  7. As I was having dinner alone in Gyeongju, I was not entirely sure how to approach some of the food and spying other diners for clues. The staff (especially one ajumma) was incredibly kind and attentive, and showed me which things to combine for the best results although I had not asked. They had just noticed my insecurity even if I tried to be stealthy.
  8. Two guys (early 30s?) working in a food stall at a town festival/event in Buyeo greeted me loudly “Hiiiiii!!!! God bless youuuuuu!” when I passed by. Both times I passed by…
  9. Some people will randomly greet me with a “hello” in the street. I just reply 안녕하세요. A man in Jeonju who insisted on shaking my hand came across as creepy, though.
  10. No matter how blatantly lacking my Korean is in some situations, people will praise me for trying – and only switch to English if I really get out of my depths and they know the English expression corresponding to the Korean one that I don’t understand.

Have you had similar experiences in Korea other other countries? Do share in the comments! 🙂

11 thoughts on “Experiences as a foreigner in Korea

  1. Someday Korean

    A lot of my friends complained about constantly getting stared at. I personally didn’t notice people staring at me that much, but that might just be because I’m oblivious haha.

    1. Mai Post author

      That may have saved you from quite a bit then 😀 It’s definitely gotten a lot better, but I guess that has more to do with me tuning it out than people looking any more or less than they did two and a half weeks ago. People being aware of you doesn’t come from ill intentions, but in the beginning it definitely made me more aware of how I carry myself than I usually am.

  2. N

    I had similar experiences when I was in Korea. I disliked that I stood out no matter where I went. I felt very out of place and did want to go out by myself for the first few days. I quickly accepted that I can’t help my appearance and therefore cannot expect to receive the same treatment as other members of a very homogeneous society.

    1. Mai Post author

      I understand what you mean. The first few days are hard. I have never tried anything like it before – or maybe I’m just completely oblivious at home. The first few mornings I just stayed in my room or the café in the hotel area, writing on my thesis and “gathering courage” before going out on my own before meeting my friends. Time-wise I could have done a lot more things in the first few days but I just didn’t feel like it. It took a few days to adapt…

  3. N

    One of my favorite experiences was when my Korean friend took me to a club (where I was the only foreigner) in Hongdae. A Korean guy danced with me, and apparently failed to notice that I was not Korean because of his bad eyesight. That was one of the few moments when my race went unnoticed and I was not automatically seen as 외국인

  4. Christian

    I have never noticed that in Seoul, but I think it’s really bad in Shanghai and especially in Beijing. Admittedly, I am kind of the stereotypical German (somewhat tall, blonde, blue eyes), but I don’t think that should make a little girl on the subway scream and jump away from me…

    1. Mai Post author

      Oh dear, what a reception! Out of curiosity, how did the parents/other passengers react?
      At some point in Korea I wondered if some of those kids had only ever seen blonde hair and blue eyes in TV shows where they would serve as supernatural features (think vampires/cursed people). That would explain some of the looks I received from children in Jeju airport as if they were thinking “they actually let her through security?!”.
      As for height, when I was younger I was quite sad that I was short (for a Dane anyway), but I have never been more grateful that I didn’t inherit my mum’s 182 cm than I was in Korea. I can imagine that being a tall German adds to the stares.

      1. Christian

        The others didn’t say a thing and didn’t even react in any way, shape or form.
        I think I must have been one of her first “real life European guy encounters”, otherwise I really cannot explain the reaction…
        Here in Seoul I haven’t been stared at, I just think it’s funny that everyone thinks I don’t speak Korean (and are always really surprised when I speak it). In China, everyone approached me in Chinese….. A guy on the subway in Seoul showed me his KakaoTalk with “Excuse me, where are you from?” written in the field down below. I answered the question in Korean ^^ That’s my weirdest experience so far

      2. Mai Post author

        Interesting that nobody else reacted, not even to the girl.
        Maybe you don’t notice the looks in Korea because you’ve had people literally jump out of your way in other places so it pales in comparison 😉 The Seoul metro experience is still a pretty good one for the collection, though.

  5. Joris Vankerschaver

    I had a similar experience as your #3: I was on the subway with my father-in-law and an old lady started stroking the hair on my arm and going “oooooohhhh” in amazement and wonder. I thought it was hilarious, and my father-in-law told her off 🙂


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