While riding the metro today, I realized that I really like being where the tourists aren’t. There haven’t been a lot of them since I’ve arrived, other than the huge group I saw at Insa-dong yesterday. I saw a ton of them walking the streets and suddenly felt uncomfortable being around other foreigners. I think it has more to do with the fact that I could be grouped into the classification of people that are generally misrepresented by a few “bad eggs”. Unfair, I know, but when traveling alone, I’m extra sensitive it.
The one thing I find refreshing is that people in Korea don’t give you a second look when you’re a foreigner. I rather like it. Maybe they’re too busy to notice, or maybe I’m a nobody, or maybe it’s just not a big deal. Either way, I like blending into the background and people-watching. I don’t think they know what to make of me since I’m quiet, but quick to flash a smile and a bow. They know I’m not in my 20’s and I don’t look like I’m in my 40’s, but then I’m traveling alone. It’s quite confusing, but I’ve never had a conversation with anyone for them to understand my background. It’s just as well. Can you imagine trying to explain my traveling adventures to people when you don’t speak the same language and all you have to go on is limited universal body language?
The only place I’ve been stared at is in the subway, but the only offenders are the elderly, who watch me curiously. Then again, they can do whatever they like. They’ve certainly earned the privilege. On the subway, there are some seats that are reserved for the ill, elderly, and pregnant, so I always steer clear from those seats, yet people always offer me to sit when one of them opens up, but I always decline with a shake of my hand and a casual bow of my head. I then smile and say in the best Korean possible, “For the next ahjumma-nim,” which they seem to appreciate when another old woman boards the metro at the next stop and I direct her to have a seat. Those old people have lived long lives and deserve to sit down and being a tourist doesn’t mean it’s okay to be culturally obtuse.
I personally don’t think it’s ever okay to expect the host culture to bend and twist for outsiders. I hail from a tourist town, so I know what it’s like to be “on” when tourist are everywhere. It’s not a comfortable feeling to have your lifestyle and your culture on display, while outsiders in general are not particularly sensitive to cultural norms. For me, the old adage, “When in Rome…” is not about doing all things you wouldn’t normally do when in a new city. It’s about observing the norms of the host culture and expanding perspectives, which is on a much higher frequency than “YOLO”.