The Angry Foreigner


If you’ve lived in a foreign country for long enough, chances are you’ve run into the “angry foreigner” at some time or other. Why does it happen? What can you do about it?

5819125499_dcaa29bed9_zLast January while travelling alone I headed to the sandy white beaches of Thailand’s Ko Samet Island. I was fortunate enough to make friends within the first five minutes as I shared the back of a pickup truck that doubled as a taxi. Among the group was a Dane and an American who were travelling together, and two Swiss girls that they had just met. We formed one of those temporary friendships that tend to form among travellers who need company for a few days before parting ways and branching off to other areas of the world. Not long after meeting, our Danish traveller who was teaching English in China, admitted that he was the angry foreigner. That frustrated, jaded and bitter expat you see flipping out at a local on the streets? That was him. His words, not mine.

Over coconut milk and copious amounts of sunscreen, we sat on the beach and discussed the mythos of the angry foreigner and its causes. As he explained, a large part of what turned him from a starry-eyed expat to an angry white man prowling the streets was frustration. He had been in China for around 4 years, and had slowly been beaten down by minor, every day aggravations. Inabilities to communicate, racism, living among large numbers of people in Shanghai.

The Japan Times recently published an excellent article on a phenomenon now being referred to by psychologists as microagression. Although it is written about expats in Japan, you could replace the word “Japan” for “Korea” and the story would be just as true.

In brief, a microagression is a small, nearly insignificant comment or mannerism that highlights otherness, a person’s alien status, a slight hint that one doesn’t belong. You’re sitting at dinner and a local says to a foreigner “Oh, you can use chopsticks?” While at first this might come as a compliment, the subtext suggests that foreigners should somehow struggle with such things, as if there is a genetic predisposition to using the utensil.

In Korea, I get this one all too often: “Isn’t kimchi too spicy for you?” Which sometimes makes me want to turn and scream, “My mother used to hide raw jalapeno peppers in tuna sandwiches when I was a child! Kimchi is a walk on the blander side!” The frustration stems from that feeling you get that sometimes people don’t expect you to be able to adjust to their culture.

4657852707_05183b675c_bBut this is not overt racism we’re talking about. 99 times out of 100, it’s a simply curiosity. Perhaps they’ve run into several foreigners who haven’t been able to eat kimchi, or fumble with chopsticks. There are no ill intentions. But what a local doesn’t consider is the fact that often foreigners hear these phrases on a daily basis. People are often surprised by my pronunciation, or my ability to read hangeul, the Korean alphabet. But my Korean is terrible, and hangeul is probably the easiest alphabet in the world to learn; it was designed to be simple. One may, over time, interpret this to mean how are you capable of reading a simple language system? But the truth is that many western expats don’t bother to learn it.

Another constant source of irritation is the lack of order on the streets. In Korea, personal space is virtually nonexistent in crowds, so getting bumped, jostled, and pushed is an everyday occurrence. Most people don’t say “excuse me”, they just elbow their way past. It’s easy to interpret this as a personal attack, and yes, it can be frustrating as hell. But I’ve spend time watching Korean crowds pouring through subway stations with bottleneck entrances, and everyone does it to everyone. It’s not personal, it’s a cultural norm. If you said excuse me to every person you had to push past, you’d lose your voice by the time you reached your destination.

Yes, there is racism toward foreigners in Korea, but I rarely experience it. And yes, these tiny comments can tend to wear a person down. This seems to be where the angry foreigner is born. But if you’re going to live in a foreign country, you need to learn as much as you can about it. If you don’t make the effort to understand why things happen the way they do, then you’re going to burn out quickly. Unless you realize that you are a statistically insignificant minority in a country that proportionally does not see many foreigners, you’re going to get frustrated. Yes, men, when you go to the jimjilbang (sauna), people are going to stare at your penis. You might be the only white guy that they’ve ever seen in the buff. Ladies, it’s the same for you. That butterfly tattoo is a rare occurrence here, and nobody trims the downstairs garden, so they will be curious. Don’t worry about it. Didn’t you stare the first time you saw vagazzling?

If you find yourself becoming the angry foreigner, leave. It’s time to go home. Because the only thing worse than microagressionsor minor instances of racism, or people staring at your junk, is an angry foreigner. With so few of us around, the few foreigners that some people may encounter will form the basis of how we’re seen. And the angry foreigner is by no means the measurement by which we should all be judged.

7 thoughts on “The Angry Foreigner

  1. Great post! Fortunately I’ve not met any fully fledged angry foreigners yet, but I have met some who were on the verge. Usually they are in their final few months of their contract and have had enough of Korea.

    I agree with you, you have to learn and understand as much as you can about a country, and if you can’t empathise with them (what would they think of the crazy things about Scottish culture? ‘You mean you don’t like haggis??’) the best thing you can do is to laugh at the situation.

    • I don’t know why people get frustrated at the end of their contracts, but they often do. Maybe it’s anxiety. I’ve been here two years now, and have no desire to leave.

      By the way, I love Scotland. I only spent a few days in Edinburgh, but it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to!

      • I’m coming to the end of my first year contract – but I have nothing but love for these guys – I’ve had the best experience!

        Thanks, yeh Edinburgh is a great city, although I’m from Glasgow so I’m biased towards the west coast! 😛

  2. This was a refreshing take on the “microagression”/angry foreigner comment. I especially loved it when you said, “If you find yourself becoming the angry foreigner, leave. It’s time to go home.” As a Korean-American, I will sympathetically listen to many of the rants of other foreigners (and even agree with some of the things they say). However, I also get frustrated when they don’t look consider the flip side: i.e. what it’s like for non-white Americans like myself in America…which is *not* a foreign country for me, but my native home as much as theirs. I appreciate you reflective attitude and open-mindedness~~~ And BTW, thanks for also checking out Korean Kibble. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of dovetailing stories as well as major points of divergence since I’m a Korean-American expat woman. Looking forward to reading more posts ^ ^

  3. Hey great article. I remember the ‘Oh you can use chopsticks remark’ on a regular basis. Another I got was women pointing at my stomach and saying ‘baby?’ That was a little hard to laugh off but I managed to do so. It’s interesting to note that wheras there seemed to be little order on the streets the Koreans were fantastic when it came to escalator etiquette – standing on the right so people can walk up the left hand side is a social cue sorely missing in Europe.

  4. Michael,

    I look forward to reading your calm thoughts on this when you yourself have experienced four years of micro-aggressions. You’re right that expressing this kind of frustration directly to the locals is counterproductive and causes problems for everyone, but a message like “you should leave” from someone who frankly doesn’t know what they’re talking about is also unhelpful. Perhaps these angry foreigners have experienced something you haven’t. Perhaps there’s something you could learn from them. Perhaps they could use your support. I don’t think “bugger off, you’re spoiling my paradise” is any more constructive than their anger.

    • Hi Victoria,

      I’ve been in Korea for three years now, so although I haven’t met your arbitrary benchmark of four, I’m fairly certain that I’ve had enough experiences to make a fair judgement. But I stand by my original suggestion that if you’re finding yourself pissed off at every minor irritation, it’s time to go home.

      I’m not saying I don’t get annoyed at times, I most certainly do. But if you’re not being forced to live in a foreign country and you can’t handle things without misdirected anger, then why are you still here?

      Nobody’s spoiling my paradise. This isn’t about me. It’s about giving some pissed-off expats a much needed kick in this ass. If you’re experiencing racism, call people out on it. If you’re upset about things, talk about it. But bitterness and anger aren’t productive for anyone.

      If you can’t handle expat life, go home. What’s your other option, Victoria? To be miserable to everyone around you?

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