Culture Shock Redux (part 2)
Afterwards we went to Itaewon, the foreigner enclave in Seoul where much of the US Army spends its downtime as well as a number of people from Africa, South Asia, and every other conceivable place. Now I get into Itaewon about two or three times a year, and for the most part I live in a 100% Korean world, where even the people I deal with on a day to day basis don’t speak English. Most of the Americans in Itaewon live in a world where they are as sheltered from actual Korean culture as much as possible. They are more likely to see a Korean in a traditional palace uniform on one of their outings than they are to see a typical Korean in his or her own natural environment.
Anyway we get to Itaewon at abou 12:30 and it’s sunny and hot with not too many people around. Miyoung and I go to Starbucks and hang out there for a while. I feel some sort of strange vibe around us. Perhaps, I think, I am giving off a weird feeling because it’s so odd for me to see so many foreigners. I don’t give it too much thought and we leave to go shopping. We hit the Columbia store and Miyoung buys me youthful looking pants that I am slowly growing accustomed to. back on the street I catch one or two guys looking at me funny but it doesn’t really register. I assume it’s because I am clearly not in the military.
Anyway we walk to the geographical end of Itaewon and cross the street to loop back in the other direction. Miyoung and I are walking fast and pass a short black guy and a short tattooed black woman walking together. I hear the guy say as we pass “That guy was checking me out. You know that guy?” and I assume he means I’m sizing him up or giving him the stink eye or something. I wonder to myself why that guy thought I would want to fight him on the street.
Miyoung and I get to the subway station and go down. As we walk onto the platform we walk past a seated couple, this time a white guy and a tattooed white girl. The guy turns to the girl and says “Check out that guy’s shirt!” and suddenly it dawns on me: I’m wearing a pink shirt. A pink polo shirt in Korea is an extremely common thing to see. I actually own two pink shirts. I hadn’t thought a thing of it all day, and I had been walking around catching looks from people who I now realize thought I was gay.
After we got on the train I explained to Miyoung why I could never wear my pink shirts in America, but she didn’t quite get it. “Why would they think you’re gay?” she asked. I explained that it’s not that they’d think I was gay, it’s that it’s just not done in the US, unless I’m mistaken or something big has changed in the last few years. Somehow I had let this get away from me, and so yesterday I made the mental note: de-Koreanize my wardrobe before I return to America.