Four months ago, my wife and I decided we had had enough. Our jobs had become dreadfully boring, and the part we were playing in the American economy was taking more time than the part we were playing in our marriage and church. We needed something a little more exciting in which to devote a third of ourselves. In essence, we desired not only to do something different, but we desired to be different.
So, we decided to move to South Korea and teach English. I won’t weary you with details about how we came to this decision. What I will tell you is how being in South Korea has changed our lives and our outlook on many things. It has made us better people in a number of ways and forced us to think beyond ourselves. One of these changes has been about being something that we have never been before—minorities.
Living in Korea, the first thing you notice is that Incheon, our city of residence, doesn’t look that much different from a city like Chicago. There is a Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Baskin Robbins and Dunkin Donuts all within walking distance of our place. We can finish off our day with a Meat Lover’s Pizza after teaching (educated word for babysitting) for eight hours. However, one thing we were picking up on, ironically, was how much we stood out.
Americans pride themselves on being different, while Koreans pride themselves on wearing matching outfits with their friends and significant others. When I was in high school I would have been utterly embarrassed to show up to school with the same shirt as my best friend, let alone my girlfriend; and here they encourage this. Not only did everyone dress in a way that made us feel like we didn’t quite fit in, there was also that obvious distinction of physical looks. We might as well have put a sign above our heads stating, “Stare at us, we enjoy it.”
Now, I have, in the past, given some thought to the idea of being a minority in the States. But, being a Caucasian living in a small town in Indiana, it was really only a thought, and not something I had experienced for obvious reasons.
So waking up one day in Korea and realizing that I had become the minority was enlightening to say the least. I could no longer drop under the radar and enjoy a nice cup of coffee and a good book without being reminded that I was committing some cultural faux pas such as wearing shoes in an obvious shoe-less area or unwittingly casting a Midwestern grin at someone whose job it was to make sure no one smiled. It’s times such as these I get a little glimpse at just how hard minorities have it.
I remember one time back in the U.S. being in line at Wal-Mart. There was a Hispanic woman in front of me in the express lane—the one where it’s no more than 10 items or death by lynching from the impatient mob behind you. Well, this lady hardly spoke English, and the person behind the counter thought that if only they screamed a little louder that she may eventually understand that she had 14 items.
The woman had no idea what was going on, and the older man behind me was mumbling something about how she should learn to speak “American.” She eventually left the line crying and not knowing what had just happened. I didn’t really understand the woman’s woes until the same exact thing happened to me in Korea. It’s amazing how many times someone will say a sentence to you in hopes that on the sixth time you’ll understand.
It is this realization of hardship that has left me with a bad taste in my mouth about the way Americans, myself being the foremost culprit, treat those who are not like us. It doesn’t really matter what race we are, we hardly try to understand the other person. A Caucasian country girl from Kansas can expect to be treated the same way walking into a big city as an African American man from New York stopping by the farm in many cases—badly.
America is changing, and in another 50 years we won’t recognize ourselves. The lesson I have learned is that of acceptance. We are different; it is fruitless to deny this. In our difference, however, I hope we can find patience to endure misunderstandings and the fact that we are all just different flavors of ice cream, all trying to figure what that sign says in the Wal-Mart check out line.
We are now in our third month of living in Korea, and we are looking forward to feeling a little more at home in a country where we don’t look the part. Being a very small minority may not be the best experience we’ve ever had, but it may turn out to be the most exciting—and this is exactly why we stepped onto the plane, and out of the comfort of being like everyone else.