Being Invisible


Hanging out with Lisa was interesting.  Of particular note was how markedly different our experience here is, and yet so much the same…

While we were walking around, trying to talk and window shop, we got accosted three times by locals wanting to chat her up.  A statuesque and attractive waygook (foreigner) of Dutch descent, she’s an instant target for those wanting to improve their English.  The solicitations were everything from obnoxious to needy to eliciting sympathy. Lisa dismissed the first two and then participated in a survey in English, conducted by a student and her father.

Interestingly, I also am a foreigner, speaking perfect English to her, but nobody bothered to ask me anything…while I felt new appreciation for the imposition she had to face being in public, I also felt the stark inconsequence of being a returning adoptee.

Often, as I travel around Seoul to various functions or meetings, I notice young foreigners with posses of Korean friends, having a blast.  They are celebrities here.  For some it is an annoyance, but for most it is a flattering annoyance that has benefits – inclusion and introduction and welcome into the culture.  Yes, it is self-serving.  But mutually beneficial.

Me, I have said hello to the foreigners in my building on many occasions.  I’ve even spent quite some time with them having conversations.  And a week later, they don’t recognize me.  Standing in the elevator.  Passing in the lobby.  Walking down the street.  Waiting for a taxi.  I say hello.  There is a double-take.  They walk on.  Next time, no recognition.  I just blend into the woodwork.  I am invisible here.  Invisible to foreigners.  A rude deaf mute to natives.  The salespeople coming into the office try to sell me their teacher aids and snacks, and everyone chuckles and tells them I can’t speak.  The phone rings and everyone chuckles as I tell them I can’t speak.  People come in and inquire about this or that, and I have to point them helplessly towards some other teacher.  An odd curiosity at my workplace.  An interesting project and source of compassion and pity for my nearest co-workers. And then there are those times where I’ve been sworn at and received a barrage of verbal assaults in Korean, because I’d done something that, had I been Caucasion would have been dismissed, but because I’m Korean is held against me.

It is a most unusual phenomenon being a returning adoptee, especially an older returning adoptee.

I get asked all the time by anyone who speaks English how long I plan to stay.  I have ceased to give a date.  I say that every other day I feel differently about it.  I say until I can’t stand it anymore.  My goal used to be to stay until I can speak fluently enough to learn about the culture in depth.  Now my goal is to learn enough so I can be safe and take care of myself.  If, for example, I have to call 119 (emergency)  I am pretty much screwed and will die.

I think I’ll eventually need to find that third country, wherever it is.  A place where I’m JUST an expat and everything is clear and obvious to everyone.

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11 thoughts on “Being Invisible

  1. I felt invisible also, then was reprimanded by people who were mad I didn’t speak Korean. OF course, my blonde hair blue-eyed brother was a magnet…

  2. [And a week later, they don’t recognize me. Standing in the elevator. Passing in the lobby. Walking down the street. Waiting for a taxi. I say hello. There is a double-take. They walk on. Next time, no recognition.]

    … really?

    I go to the dumpling shop that’s like 5 blocks down and buy… wait for it – dumplings! and then I won’t appear the next day, but instead like 4-5 days later and they’ll recognize me.

    Or like last Wednesday I went to a different dumpling shop near my language center school. Didn’t see them until yestday – they recognized me instantly. O.o

    [Invisible to foreigners. A rude deaf mute to natives.]

    Yeah, sometimes people ask me stuff and I don’t know, so I just say I came from Canada and only speak a little bit. but the ironic thing is – as you’ve noted – a “foreigner” foreigner will not know I can speak english, because my appearance indicates I should be speaking mandarin instead. It’s just so strange.

    [The salespeople coming into the office try to sell me their teacher aids and snacks, and everyone chuckles and tells them I can’t speak. The phone rings and everyone chuckles as I tell them I can’t speak.]

    Suki, I don’t mean to sound conscending, or maybe it’s just the way I’ve been interpreting your blog posts – but it sounds like you can’t speak anything to at least survive. again, it’s just the impression I get from your posts – I could totally be wrong.

    Did you study ANY Korean before coming to Korea? Anything for survival mode at all? Like “I want to eat” or “I need the bathroom” or “I want to go to ___”?

    It just sounds like you haven’t really been picking anything up, nor been trying to explain anything about why you can’t speak the language.

    I could of course be totally wrong and you could be explaining to some people on occasion if they keep talking to you. But I get the impression that, well… do you tell people you can’t understand?

    I would not presume to understand the difficulties of learning Korean. But I’m wondering – what DO you know in Korean? What CAN you say? Anything?

  3. sigh. as i’m off to my korean class…

    i can’t speak a goddamned thing. it’s just sitting in the back of my head gestating and nothing comes out.

    and no, i did not study much before i came to korea. a year ago i had never thought i’d ever even visit. and i couldn’t afford to take classes nor did i live close enough to classes before i left. only a tiny bit of self study and some kdramas.

    and, as you know, the last few months here have been indescribably distracting.

    well, i’m off. starting over was a good idea. i may be back at square one, but at least a little is kicking in.

    i know less than most of my white foreigner friends do. i know way more about the culture and a smattering of cultural words and concepts that are probably at like level 5 in Korean, but i don’t know hardly any survival phrases.

    i really never intended to be here my whole life. i was the ultimate in ethnicity denial.

  4. [i can’t speak a goddamned thing. it’s just sitting in the back of my head gestating and nothing comes out. ]

    So you can picture the words but can’t pronounce them?

  5. im a firm believer that learning how to speak korean in korea is totally unnecessary. with the exception of maybe “Ice Cream (substitute any Konglish noun) JEW-SAY-O” or possibly thank you, which im pretty sure im miss pronouncing anyway. smiling and bowing does wonders!

    one of my new favorite things to do is speaking really loudly on my cell phone while riding the subway. i love all the random ass looks i get. and im pretty sure i dont have an asian accent so i think they take note of that.

    being invisible aint so bad though. the jehova’s witnesses and evangelicals that prowl subway stations and go door to door usually make a bee line right for the whiteys. and of course the homeless people. some guy in the park this saturday went right up to our picnic and asked for money for booze! how can you say no to that?

    im convinced that 50% of my students think im lying when i tell them i cant speak or understand korean. apparently its all a big charade to them MUAH!

    also this hip-hop club in hongdae called SKA2 has a “waegooks get in for free policy” and koreans have to pay 10,000 won to get in. needless to say i get carded everytime and have to show them my ARC. but the funny thing is most of the people inside are koreans. how do i know this? well its all in the dancing…

  6. You know, Mei Ling, it’s a good thing you’re not in Korea or I’d punch you in the face. I told my tutor about your post, and she asked if I told you to kiss my ass… You just have a gift of hitting SEND before you think about how your words might impact others, and despite all the supportive things you also post, IT GETS REAL OLD. Your batting average would be much higher if you just showed a little thoughtfulness and restraint.

    Not all adoptees came from the same kind of experience you did. We didn’t all have supportive parents who forced us to take lessons in our native language. We don’t all have the support and company of our birth families around us. We don’t all have nothing to do but attend our language class. And the way in which you only accept things which match your own limited experience or acknowledge that which supports your own struggles also gets old. Your privilege is showing, and you need to expand your world view.

    I am joining the many other adoptees whose feathers you’ve ruffled on AAAFC. I know you’re young and all, but come on. One has to learn to be less self-centered and thoughtless at some point in their lives.

  7. Willie,

    You’re totally right – learning Korean is totally unnecessary!!! But also, you’re just passing through and I may want or may be forced to be here for a very long time. To live as though I am just passing through for that long would be robbing myself of anything but a superficial experience.

    Nine Stone’s mother-in-law, for example…

    “some guy in the park this saturday went right up to our picnic and asked for money for booze!”

    in English? And yeah, ya gotta love moxie like that.

    My ALL TIME FAVORITE panhandling line was a young man holding up a sign saying:

    “will beg to differ.”

    And the waygooks get in for free thing – that’s just too weird. I bet they’re probably going to change the sign to “non-Asians get in for free” soon because of you! Is that because waygooks spend so much, or because more Koreans will come, or both?

    he, he, he…some evangelists or solicitors or something keep coming to my door, but I haven’t learned how to use my door camera intercom thing, (it’s loud! and what am I supposed to do, run back and forth while holding the door open?) so every time it buzzes, I just chuckle to myself until they give up and walk away…sometimes there are definite advantages to being stupid.

  8. papa2hapa – when were you here? Your whole family came? On a motherland tour?

    I don’t know how I feel about those. It kind of makes me feel ill thinking about it: here’s what you lost or here’s why we sent you away or this vacation is a nice boobie prize and I can’t imagine how exciting it is for the family and how weird it is for the adoptee.

    Wild horses couldn’t have made me go on one of those tours. Wild horses couldn’t have made me come to Korea. Everything had to be destroyed before I could even THINK about it.

    So what did you think? Have you been back on your own terms?

  9. I experienced everything you wrote within 6 weeks in 2001, then within 2 months in 2003. It must very hard to live in this situation for a longer period.

    When I’m sick and tired of being too visible here and want to go back to Korea, I remember how my short visits to Korea were like.

    I’ve also been think a lot of going to a third country.

  10. Maybe Hong Kong…English-speaking but Asian?

    My heart is in Jamaica, though, where I stick out like a sore thumb too.

    We can start an adoptee shady rest there. Old adoptees have to retire SOMEWHERE, no? Ha! Never thought about it before – there haven’t been retiring Korean Adoptees before now. The first decade of adoptees are just approaching retirement age, and the second wave (me) are thinking about it hard.

  11. Willie,

    Why oh Why do they call a hip hop club SKA2?
    I remember walking past it and being so excited to hear SKA music and see Koreans skanking, and then being so disappointed when the same old pop hip hop stuff came out the doors.

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