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?
Last 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.
But 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 microagressions, or 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.