I woke up Saturday morning and opened my closet, ready to throw on a green shirt and head to the St. Patrick’s Day festival in Seoul. An army of unironed shirts (I hate ironing) hung there and I leafed through them like they were pages in a book, trying to find the right color. “Shit,” I thought, scratching my head, “I don’t have any green shirts, do I?” It wasn’t a terrible assumption that I’d made, that somewhere in my closet there would be at least one green shirt. I hadn’t even pictured the shirt being nice or looking good on me, or on anybody for that matter. I only thought that one would be there.
But no, one wasn’t. So I wore a nice brown shirt to the festival. “That’s good,” I thought. “I’ll be different. Who wants to be the same as everybody else? This brown shirt will be a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom. And it will also symbolize that I don’t own any green shirts and I don’t have the time or desire to buy one.”
With that, I was off.
Recently, I had a conversation with one of my Korean friends and we started talking about stereotypes. Just like anywhere else in the world, there are plenty of stereotypes here in Seoul. Students have their own stereotypes, as do women, as do men, as do just about everyone else. Foreigners included. I asked her, curiously, what the stereotype was for a foreign man living in Korea.
“Do you really want to know?” she asked, blushing and putting her hand over her face in embarrassment. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s good to know what your own stereotype is.”
She took slightly more egging on before finally breaking out a list. Always drinking, loud, disrespectful, flirtatious with the Korean women, criminals, violent, dumb and undereducated. Then she clarified, breaking things down into two camps. There were the foreign teachers – like myself – who were drunk, loud, disrespectful, flirtatious criminals. The other camp was the US Military, who were the dumb and violent ones.
Even though we were talking about negative stereotypes, with the implication established that these things weren’t true, the word ‘dumb’ poked me in the side a little bit. It made me want to say something childish like, “Oh yeah? Well maybe Koreans are dumb!” Then my friend asked me if the stereotypes bothered me and what my reaction was.
“I’m not offended by it or angry or anything like that,” I said, ignoring my gut reaction. “I’m happy to be aware, so that hopefully I can show the people who believe those things that they aren’t really true.”
“We should’ve dressed like leprechauns,” my friend Pierre said. The St. Patrick’s Day festival was in Sindorim this year, taking place in a small area with an outdoor stage and a circular bowl of seats. People played Irish music, there was face painting, and everyone except me and Pierre wore green. My group of friends hung out on a stairwell off to the side of the festival, drinking beer and smoking.
“Don’t you think people would be pissed off if we dressed as leprechauns?” I said.
“No,” Pierre said. “Why? I think they’d love it.”
“I dunno, it’s kind of a stereotype. Or a mockery of Irish people a little bit.”
One could argue that the whole place was kind of a mockery of Irish people, though. All the green and the beer drinking and the shamrocks everywhere. People weren’t even drinking Irish beer. We were drinking Cass bought from the 7-11 across the street (the 7-11 eventually ran out of beer around 4 o’clock).
“That’s cool,” I said. “We could toss people little bags of cereal.”
“Screw bags. We would throw handfuls of cereal at people.”
“Awesome. Shower people with freely thrown Lucky Charms.”
There’s a real tightrope one usually walks when it comes to race and nationality that widens immensely on St. Patrick’s Day. In truth, it probably would’ve been a big hit if we dressed like leprechauns. People jumped around by the stage, doing their best Irish jigs, and everyone seemed to be having a marvelous time. All the drinking wasn’t playing up a stereotype, it was honoring one.
That’s a worthy notion, and I drank to it.
It was about ten at night and my buddy TJ pointed to a grate in the sidewalk down a little alley. We were in Itaewon, where we’d continued drinking since leaving the festival. “Go down there and puke,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”
“I don’t wanna puke,” I said, lying through my teeth. My head felt okay and I was very aware of everything, but my stomach was a mess. I felt nauseous and bloated, like a pregnant woman or like Rush Limbaugh coming home from a big night out at CiCi’s Pizza. Throwing up in the gutter might’ve been a good idea, but I chose to go home instead.
Leaving Itaewon, TJ and I noticed two Korean girls staring at us awkwardly on the subway platform. They were holding plastic bags with food inside, and they came over to us. “Hello,” one of the girls said. “Are you laughing at us?”
We were. The way they were staring was odd and comical. “Of course not,” I said. “What do you have in the bag?”
The conversation died shortly after. We all got on the subway. TJ and I went and sat down while the taco girls stood about ten feet away. “I should’ve used the tacos as a conversation starter,” I said. “It would’ve been the worst attempt to pick up a girl ever.”
“Say, are those crunchy tacos you have there or soft?”
“Hi, I was wondering if those tacos are chicken or beef? And what you’re doing next Friday.”
“Hey, I couldn’t help noticing those tacos you have. Did you get hot or mild sauce for those? Also, what’s your phone number?”
“Man, those girls just want to talk to white guys. You should go over there and give her the taco routine.”
I laughed. “That’s kind of embarrassing, dude, doing the taco routine.”
“Come on! It’ll be funny. Go over there and do the taco pickup bit!”
So I did. I walked up to the girls and started asking questions about their tacos. “So, who those tacos for?”
“Oh, that’s really sweet of you to get your mother tacos. Are they crunchy?”
At some point, it became somewhat apparent that other people on the subway were looking at me. I was pretty noticeably intoxicated, talking to a young Korean woman about her tacos in a rather cheeky fashion. Drunk. Loud. Flirty. I had, really and truly, turned into the stereotype. 100% completely. If one goal in being here in Korea was to prove the stereotype wrong, I had utterly failed. I started asking the girl about how she planned to reheat the tacos, and why she didn’t get tacos for her dad, and with every question I sunk my people – foreign teacher living into Korea – further down into the stereotype rabbit hole.
The subway reached our stop and we all got off. At the transfer point, one of the taco girls headed in the other direction. She was gone, walking away from us, and as she left, walking quickly with her bag of tacos, another white gentleman approached her and started talking.