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White & Pretty in South Korea

A complete stranger: “Hello!”
Me: “안녕하세요.” (Hello.)
Stranger: “오! 한국어 잘 하시네요!” (Wow, you speak Korean very well!)

White, pretty, female privilege. What does it look like?

Two laborers, doing construction work: “Would you like some Makgeolli?” (Korean rice wine)
Me, walking past them on my way home: “No, I have to drive later. Thanks!”

How much of it is privilege and how much is simply a welcoming, kind culture?

Me, at the local coffee shop: “One waffle and one Americano.
Owner: “One thousand Won, please.” (About 95¢)

Are discounts because I’m foreign? Are they because I’m pretty? Are they because I’m white? Are they because I’m a “guest” in Korea, expected to leave within a year or so? Are they because I’m a girl? Is it simply because the shop is new and it’s my first time coming here?

A coworker’s mother-in-law’s funeral. As my coworkers each put money into an envelope for the family of the deceased, I realize I don’t have any cash.
My coworkers: “Oh no, you don’t need to give any money.”
Me: “Are you sure?”
Coworkers: “No, no, no. It’s fine.”

Should I feel grateful or ostracized, knowing that others likely won’t get the same treatment?

Walking around with my Korean boyfriend in Seoul. No one spits at, grimaces or insults us. No one assaults us. We are served a free soft drink at dinner, just because.

Which part of my foreign, female, and pretty identity exempts me from the idea that foreigners “dirty” the Korean race? Why do Western men and Korean women get treated differently, disdained while I walk around, unscathed?

An acquaintance of my boyfriend sees us together. Behind my back, he gives my boyfriend a thumbs up.

What part of my identity makes me a plus as opposed to a negative? If I was fatter, would the reaction be the same? If I was skinnier and less pretty, what then? What does it take to flip the scales and push me into “unwanted foreigner” territory? What if I was really from Russia, but looked the same? Would anyone notice?

My coworker: “Oh my gosh! I forgot to tell you about the staff picture! You aren’t in it!”

When should I insist on being treated the same, when it affects me negatively or when I’m served free food and drinks for my skin color? (Or is it my long eyelashes?) When I’m forgotten in the staff photograph or forgiven for missing the school assembly? If I put my foot down on special treatment, will that offend the Koreans I work with? The Koreans I meet? Would they listen?

I don’t take put any kimchi on my plate during lunch. No one says anything.

Can I ever be anything other than just an “other”, even with my culturally desirable white skin, skinny body, pretty face and fluency in English? I spend time understanding Korean culture and learning Korean, but is it enough to be accepted? If I speak fluent Korean, will that be enough?

I fear not.

Should I be upset about it?


Those that came before me:

Understanding Racism in Korean on Seoulistic

A Huge Cloud of Shiny Whiteness: On Being White and Privileged in South Korea on The Unlikely Expat

“Because you’re foreign…” Western, White and English privilege in Korea by Sarah Shaw

“Be White” on Scribblings by The Metropolitician


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18 thoughts on “White & Pretty in South Korea”

  1. I felt like this for the majority of my life growing up as a non white person in the states (I’m Korean-American). Except, I never got any “service” or compliments. I was spit on, humiliated, and kicked around from preliminary schooling till high school. At times I wished I were white, so I could walk down my block hoping I didn’t have trash thrown at me. It got better once I moved to Los Angeles and mingled with other Korean-Americans, but I was never truly accepted by the Korean community on the account of being too “white”.

    1. I’m truly appalled and surprised that this is really how you were treated. I would hope that people were at least accepting enough to keep any negative thoughts to themselves (aka not throwing garbage, wow). I’m sorry this characterizes your school years, it shouldn’t be that way for anyone. End of story.

  2. Wait… sorry it seemed like I was bitching about my past life…

    It seems like in your case the people with small kind gestures such as free soda, some wine, and a compliment were just trying to welcome you so you don’t feel alienated. But it can backlash and communicate just how real your alienation in Korea is.

    As for you not being told about picture day. That’s just seriously fucked up. You should really stand up for yourself in a situation like that.

    1. Right, so the point I was trying to bring up was that discrimination and privilege are really two sides of the same coin and that feeling alienated from a culture can arise under many different circumstances. And while I walk around reaping the benefits of being the right kind of foreigner, others, whom I see as no different from me, are treated with disdain and disrespect. I don’t feel as though I deserve the free soda with dinner, when a black man and his Korean girlfriend would be given stares and evil eyes from those around him, instead.

      And then the little favors, like you said, reenforce the reality of my otherness. Koreans don’t get free service items at dinner for no reason, so why should I? The answer: because I’m not Korean.

      (And Picture day… ahh. Things in Korea often happen with no warning, very suddenly. So when the staff picture was announced literally 30 seconds before everyone had to stand outside and smile, all the teachers rushed from whatever they were doing. In those thirty seconds, no one remembered to send me a message, so I missed out while I continued working in the upstairs English room. It’s no ones fault, but it’s probably subconsciously a result of separating me out as “the foreigner”, that they don’t remember that I’m missing in those couple seconds.)

  3. You forgot –

    English teacher wanted. (White) North American female preferred. Please send your resume with your picture.

    1. Haha well, thankfully not everyone gets what they ask for and there are a lot of male, not white, not North Americans that come to Korea, too. But that picture thing does bug me out sometimes.

      1. The reason there’s a lot non-white, non-North American males is because there’s not enough willing young (read: inexperienced), white, North American willing to come to Korea. Only occasionally will you see an ad asking for a male (usually North American or sometimes no specific nationality).

        Even as a young, white, North American male, I’ve been rejected from numerous jobs because they want a female.

        When I was first looking to move to Korea, I did get one offer from a recruiter because they were looking for a white, North American male. I promptly turned them down, despite it being a decent offer in terms of benefits/salary etc.

        And really, there’s not that many non-white English teachers around; especially in hagwons.

  4. This is such an interesting topic and one that could also have been written about how a white girl is treated in Mexico. These racial divides never cease to amaze me. I hate that being treated like a beautiful, perfect goddess because I’m white, curvy and have long legs really did increase my confidence and self-esteem in Mexico. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when I arrive in Korea.

    1. It is tough, when you’re trying to be self confident because of who you are and keep finding that physical compliments are boosting (or lowering) it, instead.

      I’ll be interested as well to see how you find the experience in South Korea. Make sure you write about it! (Or at least to me hehe.)

  5. Eyelashes?? You mean eye hair??

    One day my middle school girls asked how I got my eye hairs to be so big. I thought they meant eye brows and covered them up, sad. But they laughed and said ‘no, the ones that come OUT of your eyes’. I said theyre natural and they gasped.

  6. Oh, Korea! Appearance really is everything there. I often wonder how I’d have been treated if my skin were darker, for example. Recruiters told me that it’d be easy to place me because of my blue eyes and my hair colour (light brown). The lady in the local fried chicken shop would always give me extra, but if there were a seat next to me on the bus, it’d be very rare for people to sit there – they’d stand instead.

    I’d say ‘white privilege’ definitely does exist in Korea. Being gay, I have no idea about the whole dating aspect as you can’t really be openly affectionate in public. However, as a white man, it was never, ever difficult to find a Korean guy to date. For some guys, it was almost as if I were a trophy of some kind. Luckily they were easy to weed out.

    Anyway, on another note, I thought I was going to be reading a post with lots of pretty pictures of snow when I clicked on the link from Twitter haha!

    1. Haha! If this were about snow, it’d be called “White & OMG I just fell on my ass, that was ice?”

      It was similar with me. I’d also get extra chicken, or random goodies “service”, but as soon as people had to be in close proximity to me (seats on the bus, chairs at work, etc) then the story changed. But you can’t really complain about that too much, since extra space on any transportation is always appreciated.

      I’ve heard about that trophy phenomenon with some people I know who live in Seoul, they have a hard time dating there. If life were a video game, sleeping with a foreigner would be an “achievement unlocked” for those kinds of guys. Argh!

      But^^ with that, there are 100% tons of Westerners who have the same thing in mind while traveling… checking off their bucket list of locals… haha.So yeah, it’s ridiculous, but it’s also not just Korea.

      Anyways, I need to stop rambling now… bye…

  7. It’s interesting, yeah I heard a lot of things that related to this. I got new reality that maybe (I thought it was some people not all) skin tone and hair color or where you come from are really really a big deal in there. It’s kinda remind me of Apartheid that once happened in past, that white people are superior than others. Yeah and it looks like the ‘Apartheid’ still here now. By the way I’m not white as Caucasian but I have yellow skin cause I’m from Indonesia (Southest Asian girl), neither short nor tall but I have a big eyes with double eyelid (I heard that Korean considering the girl is pretty if they have double eyelid). I wonder how it would be if I were visited Korea (someday haha) and see what kind of treatment they would give to me =))

  8. Very interesting reflections, Sally. So often visitors or immigrants to the U.S. are not greeted with special favors but with suspicion – even when they are young and pretty. I like the idea of intersectionalities as a way of thinking about multiple intersections of privilege and oppression, and I think that’s what you’re describing here. Great post!

    1. Thanks! It’s a shame that there’s so much suspicion in the USA for foreigners, particularly from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, and I really hope that changes sometime soon. I think the first step to coming away from stereotypes and negativity is to treat people kindly, even if because of it (intersectionality as you put it), and then things can move forward to simply kindness, without underlying assumptions.

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