Culture Shock Redux (part 2)

Yesterday Miyoung and I went to our friends Idan and Namheng’s wedding. It was similar in substance to our own.

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.

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~ by Joshing on July 1, 2007.

3 Responses to “Culture Shock Redux (part 2)”

  1. definately a case of “you know you’ve been in Korea too long when…” 🙂

  2. I think you could pull it off if you were in an east coast city. Maybe people would think you’re gay but they wouldn’t give a shit. What you described is kind of comical. Like you were walking by people and they were stunned by a, gasp, “homosexual”. I feel many times that I am sheltered from that type of stuff in my little enclave of liberalness.

  3. Jeff, isn’t ‘pulling it off’ synonymous with people not assuming I’m gay? The bottom line is, and you clearly agree, that in America a man in a pink shirt is assumed to be gay, whether or not people outwardly react. The thing about the people who were reacting is that they were for the most part in the U.S. military, a relatively conservative institution. The kid who pointed me out in the subway, however, looked to be a young suburban or urban college graduate. This leads me to believe that a man in a pink shirt can expect the same reaction from almost any segment of the US population, whether or not anybody outwardly reacts.

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