July 24, 2024

If you’d asked me just five years ago if South Korea was a tourist-friendly place for visitors who don’t speak Korean, I probably would’ve said no. But today, I’d answer much differently. Oddly enough, I’d say it can be more beneficial if you don’t look Korean and don’t speak the language.

Over the past couple of decades, the global rise of Korean pop culture — known as the “Korean wave” or “hallyu” in Korean — has gradually turned South Korea into a prime tourist destination. Even once-empty landmarks like Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace are now teeming with tourists, some of whom can be seen strolling around in rented hanboks (traditional Korean clothing), seemingly living out their K-drama fantasies.

Once-empty landmarks like Seoul's Gyeongbokgung Palace are now teeming with tourists, some of whom can be seen strolling around in rented hanboks.
Once-empty landmarks like Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace are now teeming with tourists, some of whom can be seen strolling around in rented hanboks.

In response to this growing influx of foreign visitors, South Korea has recently stepped up its efforts to welcome them and cater to their K-culture obsessions. K-drama-themed tours allow participants to visit the filming locations of popular Korean TV shows; cute cafes blast K-pop music; and K-pop exhibits have cropped up all over the country.

Seoul, in particular, has become a “K-pop-inspired shopping paradise for tourists” in many ways, as I’d predicted in a 2020 Rolling Stone essay. Last year, Korean cosmetics retailer Olive Young revamped one of its Seoul locations into a store geared toward foreigners, citing that 90% of the branch’s clientele were customers from abroad.

This is all great news for international travelers eager to explore the birthplace of K-pop, K-dramas and K-beauty. But curiously, I’ve noticed that I, a Korean American, don’t usually receive the same special treatment afforded many other visitors who obviously look foreign. On my trip to Seoul and Busan last October, I experienced firsthand how my Korean background could actually be a disadvantage in an increasingly cosmopolitan South Korea.

At a well-known fried chicken eatery in Seoul, I attempted to flag down a server to ask for some ice for my soda while waiting for my food. After failing to get any attention from the staff, I walked over to an employee and, speaking in Korean, asked her for ice. She took my cup and returned a few moments later with it filled not with ice but with water. Puzzled, I told her I’d asked for ice. She simply stared at me and walked away without saying a word, leaving me utterly baffled.

Then I saw a group of white patrons enter the restaurant. The employee who’d misunderstood me immediately rushed over to greet them and began chatting with them — in English. It was at that point that I realized the employee wasn’t Korean but likely a Southeast Asian server who was tasked with greeting foreign customers, which might’ve explained our miscommunication over ice.

I felt a tinge of jealousy when I saw the group of people who clearly appeared to be tourists being served their food and drinks — with ice — and happily munching away on their chicken long before my order arrived.

Later, while in Busan, I strolled into a coffee shop. The staff immediately told me I had to order using one of their self-service kiosks, which were accessible in both Korean and English but didn’t display the full menu. Meanwhile, a trio of backpackers, who appeared to be Arab men in their 20s, walked in and were greeted with smiles at the counter.

One of the baristas saw me approaching the counter and, her smile quickly fading, hurriedly instructed me to use their kiosks, simultaneously gesturing as if to shoo me away. When I complained that the kiosk didn’t show the items I wanted, she directed me to line up behind the backpackers even though I’d arrived at the cafe first.

As I waited in line, I noticed a couple of Korean patrons who, upon entering the cafe, were also ushered to the kiosks. One of them glanced at the tourists still ordering at the counter and, with a disgruntled look, blurted, “Is this cafe discriminating against Koreans?” This is when I knew that my frustration was justified.

Incidents like these have made me wonder if, in its race to be viewed as a foreigner-friendly country, South Korea might be overcompensating in some areas — to the point that places in tourist hotspots often treat their international patrons better than they do local ones.

And so, I had to investigate. First, I decided to reach out to Seolran Won, a Korean friend based in Seoul who works in public relations, about what I’d experienced.

“I think Korea is particularly friendly to foreign tourists,” Won says. “It seems as if Koreans don’t want our country’s image to be ruined in the eyes of foreigners. And we love to see foreigners liking and praising Korean food and Korean pop culture.”

As I processed that, I thought about how technically, as someone who was born and raised in the United States, I’m a foreigner, too. Shouldn’t I be allowed to order at the counter like other foreigners?

Yet I suppose that my Korean face automatically relegates me to the type of foreigner that many Koreans don’t really care for, or at least don’t feel the need to impress.

Jae-Ha Kim, a Korean American journalist and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, shared an anecdote with me about her trip to South Korea last year that backed my speculations about how ethnic Koreans (Koreans with foreign nationality) are often treated differently while visiting the country.

During a visit to the Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that separates North and South Korea, she asked to take a picture with one of the soldiers, but he declined her request. He then proceeded to take photos with other tourists.

“The other tourists weren’t models or celebrities,” Kim says. “But they were white. I don’t know if that made any difference, but it seemed to. It felt like he felt comfortable being rude to me because I was Korean enough to ignore.”

It’s an upsetting story that I, and probably many other members of the Korean diaspora, can relate to. Neither foreign enough to be treated like royal guests nor Korean enough to fit in with the locals, we’re caught in a murky space between the two extremes whenever we venture to the motherland.

“There seem to be two Koreas. There’s a foreigner-centric experience where they build experiences to cater to hallyu fans and visitors because it’s profitable,” says Sylvia Choi, a Korean American marketing professional based in Portland, Oregon, who also visited Seoul and Busan last October.

“And then there are quiet pockets of ‘locals only’ areas, which feel less like gatekeeping and more like safeguarding — trying to create spaces for their community to gather without having to perform or be studied.”

With this dichotomy growing increasingly pronounced, it feels like South Korea sometimes doesn’t know what to do with those of us who don’t fit neatly into either of those two categories. For example, during my trip last fall, I saw many foreigners ordering in English at cafes without any issues. However, whenever my turn came and I tried to order in English, I’d invariably receive stunned stares, as if Koreans couldn’t fathom that someone who looked like them could speak English like an American. So then I’d switch to Korean.

But cafe menus in South Korea are full of loan words — a hodgepodge of English, Italian and French terms spelled out phonetically in Korean. So an iced caramel macchiato is still called an “iced caramel macchiato” in South Korea, but enunciated much more slowly and with a thick Korean accent — something that I struggle with to this day because I’m so used to pronouncing such words the American way. Even after switching to Korean, I’d often have to repeat myself a couple of times before the cashier finally understood what I was trying to order.

I realized that nowadays, a customer who isn’t ethnically Korean can have a much easier time ordering in English at certain places in South Korea than someone like me, who looks Korean but isn’t quite Korean. And, in a sense, it seemed only natural, considering the sheer number of foreigners (of non-Korean descent) I saw at every cafe I went to in Seoul and Busan.

“As I return to Korea every year, a good part of me wonders what history will be left,” says Mindy Song, a Los Angeles-based Korean American singer-songwriter who fronts the group DA1SY DØØM.

“When I sit down at a KBBQ restaurant in Hongdae and notice more foreigners than Koreans around me, I wonder what will be left of Korea and its traditions. Just as I had to fit into school growing up, whitewashing the way I talk and dress in order to be accepted, it seems Korea embraced Westernization and commercialization so rapidly that a lot of heritage and culture were lost.”

I have to admit that watching parts of South Korea transform into a haven for tourists has triggered in me a growing sense of frustration and alienation, since the country that I thought I knew so well now feels less familiar and, in a way, more difficult to navigate as someone who doesn’t look like a “typical foreigner.”

When I lived in South Korea from 2007–2008, it almost felt like a second home: a place where I felt I could fit in with others who looked like me and that seemed to welcome any and all well-meaning foreigners, including those of Korean descent like myself. I’m not sure I can say that about South Korea anymore.

That said, there are certainly many upsides to South Korea’s fast-changing landscape, too. It has undoubtedly evolved into a more fun and exciting country to explore thanks to its booming tourism. And with a declining population (South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world), it needs to continue attracting foreigners — and convince them to stay — so Korea as a whole won’t go extinct.

But for now, I just hope South Korea won’t abandon its traditions entirely or forget that some of us gyopo (overseas Koreans) like to visit as well, because one of my starkest realizations from last year’s trip was that the country today can be a far more enjoyable place if you have no ties to the country at all. And for someone whose family roots can all be traced to Korea, this feels rather isolating and disheartening.


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