Here’s an interesting experience I had here in South Korea a few weeks ago. I was turned away from a club in Seoul’s prolific art district, Hongdae, simply for being a foreigner. At the time I sort of shrugged it off, but later on it sort of resonated with me and since then I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind trying to figure out how it is relevant to the question of how many Koreans view foreigners, or more specifically non-Koreans, and how North Americans carry themselves abroad.
The night happened as such. I had met with some local Korean friends in Hongdae for a drink and we ended up “going three rounds” which means we bar hopped to three different places – a common practice around here. After one of my friends went home after having “had enough” another Korean friend and I decided to head to a local club of which there are many in Hongdae. It was at the first club we went to I was barred entrance. I had overheard the bouncers talking to my friend saying something along the lines of “no foreigners in here” and my friend relayed this message to me. I asked why and he said the bouncers explained to him that some foreigners had caused trouble there recently and so they were not letting in foreigners until further notice. “Fair enough” I said and we walked on to another place.
A few days later I started thinking about it though and a few questions popped into my head. These were along the lines of “I wonder how many Korean patrons have caused trouble in that club?” and “If I had been an ethnically East Asian foreigner would they still have barred me?” and finally “This certainly could not have been the first problem they’ve had with (visible) foreigners if they’re banning them from the club, so why are foreigners causing so much trouble?”. However, I’m not writing this to vent about whether Korea is racist or not, but rather to bring to light a number of realities for those intrepid travelers who are thinking about surveying the Land of the Morning Calm.
The first two of my questions are fairly easy to answer and I feel can be boiled down to Korea’s ethnic population. Like a number of other countries in the world, Korea is largely homogenous – meaning that the citizenry of Korea is largely comprised of ethnic Koreans. This naturally has some positive effects, such as an identifiable “culture”, mannerism and society which can be thought of as uniquely Korean and can be explored and analyzed by those who are curious enough to do so. The downside of course is that there are a considerable number of preconceptions Koreans have towards those who do not fall into the majority demographic – also known as stereotypes. In other words if you are visibly non-Korean and happen to find yourself in South Korea don’t be surprised if people treat you a bit differently than they would a local. Most of the time it’s stuff like asking if you need a fork or assuming you don’t like spicy food which is largely benign and mostly well-meaning, but other times it’s stuff like treating you dismissively or straight up not acknowledging you (often for fear of having to speak English which not everyone is capable of doing). In these instances language is often the key, but if you don’t speak the language at all then you’ll just sort of have to deal with it.
As far as me being turned away however, I feel this likely comes from a general lack of North American foreigners from which to draw good examples. First of all even though the amount of North American foreigners in Korea is steadily increasing, they are still vastly outweighed by locals and Asian foreigners. Therefore it’s understandable that if a few act up in a club the management, who likely have somewhat limited experience with foreigners may decide that it may be a good idea to bar would-be trouble makers from his or her establishment. This whole thing isn’t helped either by the fact that foreigners – especially those from North America have established a rather negative reputation in Korea especially in regards to their night-life etiquette. As far as I have experienced we North Americans, especially hetero-sexual males in Korean club land are often thought of as being loud, obnoxious, occasionally violent playboys with entitlement complexes concerning local services and females and this is obviously nothing to be proud of.
So what can we do about it? Blame the locals for their short-sightedness? Well maybe we can to some degree, very so often news reports crop up about foreigners causing trouble in clubs or having drunken altercations with other foreigners or locals on weekend evenings in the busy streets of Seoul. I’ve even noticed a profound difference between drunken locals in any one of the popular Korean night-life areas compared to the drunken foreigners in Itaewon whom come across even to me as much more loud and aggressive than their Korean counterparts even to me. What I’m saying is that when you’re a guest in a foreign land you need to remember that whether you like it or not, you are representing your country and that in a country like Korea that has a long history of collectivism, people can and will group you with other foreigners and look at you as a cohesive group. All I’m saying is be sure to be considerate when your abroad because your actions will reflect on you and your peers. That is all.