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You lookin’ at me? Staring in Korea


Ahh geez… It’s one of those days again. Look, no offense kind madam, but if you eyeball me one more time I’m going to start stabbing people. Thank you for not staring. It only took you five subway stops to lose interest in my remarkably hairy arm. Thanks. A word of advice? Perhaps next time you see someone with blue eyes you won’t look make that ‘throw up’ face. Deal? No? Fair enough. ** **** yourself.

What? You’ve never thought this before? It’s brutal, sure but try getting stared at 24/7. And to think, mine is a face that is a socially acceptable deviance of what a foreigner ‘can’ look like (so to say). But who am I kidding? I’m the poster boy for native English education. I can’t imagine what others are experiencing here. I know it’s not just me.

Where I’m from, it’s rude. I’m not saying that it doesn’t occur in the States but it’s not appropriate social behavior. Regardless of the reason for staring be it an interracial relationship, hyper-obesity, revealing clothing, special needs, a little person, etc – it’s just not a nice thing to do. Americans are taught at a young age to put their curiosity aside in order to allow the other person to be treated equal. While not universally obeyed, if any staring occurs, attempts are subtle and try to go unnoticed.

While likely not an isolated event in Korea, it is my understanding that those doing the staring are clueless to it’s offending powers. In Korea, some misunderstand it and take it as racist behavior. Looking at it from the racist angle, it’s quite uncomfortable and victimizes the person who receives the dagger-like stares. While I’m sure racism exists in some form on every continent, I would suggest to try not to get offended. No matter how tempting it may be to scream “왜 그렇게 보고있어?!?” I urge you to try looking at it from their perspective. It’s not out of blood-boiling hatred or radical nationalism. It’s out of pure curiosity. *most of the time.

KC101 blog staring subtle korea looking stare

*Okay, not all the time. Sure sometimes, it’s because a foreigner is talking too loud on the bus or subway. Hey even if you were speaking Korean you’d get stared at for the volume of your voice. Sometimes it’s because you’re showing too much skin. Not saying you should wear a turtle neck 24/7 but if your upper body’s exposed, eyeballs are drawn to the exposed area like a moth to a flame. Sometimes it’s because your clothes are different. Yep. In a world of shiny pants and pink couple shirts for all, your Abercrombie & Fitch clothes might look a little off.

Fair enough, but some of it also stems from ignorance and misinformation of other nationalities.

A common complaint (and one shared by myself) is the situation where razor-like stares are sent when a clearly non-Korean man (like myself) is seen with a Korean female (be it just a friend or significant other). It’s not anything new and not anything terribly shocking, either. However, at least a few times a week, it apparently deserves hardcore glaring from anyone curious or old enough on the subway. From a purely superficial skin-deep standpoint, I am in a common-looking international relationship. A white guy with a Korean woman is nothing new to write home about. One would think that people would have quit freaking out about that a hundred and fifty years ago.

Despite the uncomfortableness it may cause the receivers of such random fixed gazes, I submit that most Koreans are staring out of pure curiosity. Come on, one cannot make the claim that Korea is so homogeneous and expect an interracial relationship to be anything but a source for curiosity; especially for the older generation. I have the utmost confidence that Korea will soon find other things more interesting than an insignificant foreigner such as myself smiling at my significant other on the bus.

Solution? Things are-a changing. Slowly, but surely some foreigners get it, too Many have figured out that things aren’t the same as back home. However, it is fair to say that many Koreans with international experience have figured out that staring is rude to most westerners. In the meantime, if you find yourself the victim of eyeball glares and analytical squints, just relax and turn up the volume on your iPod. See no evil hear no evil.

Got your eye on some more? Well, more than just Koreans are doing the staring. Apparently, it’s an Asian thing. What if you’re just minding your own business with a friend of the opposite sex? Sadly, this happens even to platonic friends of opposite gender, too. In closing, in a wicked sense of comedy comes this little tidbit of information: even other Asians get stared at, too. Go figure.

Photo credits: 선현우 and 안효진