by Eugene Bass
Stares. Not a sideways glance. Not a subtle, over the shoulder peering. I’m talking the in your face, head to toe once-over. That is what I have grown accustomed to here. I know back in the States, if I am rolling through parts of Oklahoma or Arkansas and pull off the highway for a quick bite and a drink, I can expect it. That typical “you ain’t from around here” look. But I am in South Korea. The current city in which I am living is on the smallish side, compared to Los Angeles, that is. In LA, people do take note of the little things about a person, albeit much more subtly. We notice the personality, shoes, hair style, fashionable or non fashionable attire, etc. Here in South Korea, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or whether your hair is curly or straight. Blue eyes or black eyes. It’s not racial. You could be Korean or not. It doesn’t matter. Here though, one thing is for sure, we are just a FOREIGNER, or “waygook,”plain and simple.
The STARE. It’s not a starstruck kinda thing. Not like LA, when you happen to see one of your favorite sitcom stars sipping on a latte in Starbucks on Sunset. This one is not with a smile or grin or even a smirk. It is usually accompanied with a jaw drop…and folks, I am not kidding. A real mouth opener. The kind of look like maybe you have a third arm coming out of your chest, kind of stare. The kind of stare that you can’t take your eyes away from… or you may have to do a double take to gather more information. From the person doing the staring, there is never a gentle hand wave or “I am sorry for being so rude and staring” kind of gesture. It’s more like they are thinking, “Am I really seeing what I’m seeing? Is he real? I know this is weird and I am being really rude, but I can’t look away either! Is he really WALKING and BREATHING? Oh my God! He is! Look at the funny waygook! Everybody look!”
Usually there are more subtle ways to “check someone out.” You could do the–I’m really looking over there ‘beyond you’ but not ‘at you’ approach. Even try the really quick look in your direction and then look away; continue on about your business. But to watch an adult woman walking down the street, stop in her tracks and just STARE. Stare as if you are looking at another being made out of 24karat gold, as if you are 3 foot tall and just landed in a disc shaped object from the heavens above, stare as if YOU ARE Michael Jackson in the flesh. I understand it has to do with the newness of all. Korea has recently opened it’s doors to a whole new wave of English teachers from all over the world. It’s a little strange, but like I said earlier, The Stare is not immune to other Koreans. It has no boundaries. It’s just cultural. I had to just get over it.
It took me a little while to get use to it. At first, I was offended. I thought it was just me. Then the questions really started. Is it maybe that I am too sensitive? I don’t think I am a very threatening person. I know I don’t look threatening. They say we “talk too loud.” Do we? Is our English frightening? Maybe I am not fashionable enough. Maybe I walk funny. Maybe there’s something hanging out of my nose? But as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, I can be out with a “foreigner friend” on the bus, walking down the street, or having a cup of coffee and we will both get the same infamous “stare.” All my theories are out the window. “Let’s take a different approach,” I said to myself. I took it in stride. Thought of myself as some famous singer or actor from Hollywood in town working on a special international project. When that game got old, I became indignant and began staring back or giving a really clownish “hello” or friendly wave as if I know them.
Trying to blend in as much as possible helps to some extent, but my hair is thinning on top so I can’t have the latest “cool” haircut and as far as the popular skin whitening creams here, that will never work on my mocha skin. I can buy the skinny jeans and obligatory sports coat to wear over the obligatory silk screen shirt with some sort of cool retro art design. Maybe?
I do feel bad for some of the blonde female teachers here though. There is one girl in particular, from Minnesota, attractive, sweet, not an attention-getter, who has lived here now for two years and is fed up with it. The streets are very safe here at night and the odds on something bad happening to you is akin to being struck by lightning. If she is alone, however, she actually gets propositioned by business men in the evening. They say things like, “How about a date?” or “You’re beautiful. How much-ee?” In all actuality, there are many working Russian prostitutes who have found a nice little niche in the Korean market here and she gets mistaken for one of them all the time. She used to get so offended, but now her typical response is just, “Fuck off!”
Young children, wandering around with their folks in the shopping centers, have never cried at the sight of me but they have stood for long periods of time while I am shopping or eating and just stared in awe. Trying to figure me out. As if my face were a puzzle. When the parents do find their bewildered child staring in amazement, they come to break the spell that I have cast upon them, only to be taken in themselves by my mind controlling eye lock. They can’t shake it even while the salesman is shouting, “Sale, Sale,” repeatedly in Korean over the loudspeaker of the department store. I am just that powerful! (Marvel Comics is thinking of using me as a model for one of their new Superheroes! Maybe they can call it “StareMan” or “The Waygook Chronicles”).