Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Outlook of Being a Foreign Woman in SK

Lola O. asks:

I wanted to ask, if you would write a blog entry about your outlook of being a foreign woman in SK, as far as safety, discrimination, and anything else you can think of.

I would like to hear what you think, and I am sure others would appreciate that.
This topic, I feel, is very important to address. But I also feel that I need to be cautious of passing feminist judgments on to the people of South Korea. I intend to answer this question solely based upon my own experience as a woman in South Korea. This experience is based upon surely several factors including my appearance and status. I am a 28 year old woman with a small frame and average body weight. Often times I have been called beautiful but I am not trying to point this out in an arrogant way. I don't wear make up or dress up in high heels or other fancy stuff. I tend to lean towards casual dress.

As for my status I am an English teacher here in South Korea. I have a Korean boyfriend.

The following is my analysis of what it is like to be a "foreign woman" in South Korea. Bear in mind that everyone has a different experience.


I would have to say that being a woman in South Korea is generally easy and not difficult. Meaning I can get around easily, shop and do regular life things without facing any major hurdles.

This is because the streets of South Korea feel safe most of the time. I lived in San Francisco for a few years and felt at times threatened due to being a woman. This would come from walking down unsafe streets with drug dealers and homeless people. There were times when strange men would approach me either on the street or on public transit.

Young women are doubtless the target for men who feel the need to take advantage of them. These type of men are prevalent in any society whether they appear out in the open or stay hidden. In San Francisco they were out in the open, but in South Korea I don't see their presence. In other words I don't feel threatened here as much as I did back in San Francisco.

Keep in mind I am not out late at night or walk the streets drunken. I feel if I were to do that more often my safety would be more of concern.

To make sure I fully understand the concept and meaning of discrimination I am going to do a brief wikipedia look up.

Discrimination is a sociological term referring to the treatment taken toward or against a person of a certain group that is taken in consideration based on class or category. The United Nations explains: "Discriminatory behaviors take many forms, but they all involve some form of exclusion or rejection."[1]
 Have I been excluded because I am a White American Woman? The answer is No. I have never once felt myself excluded from an activity or place due to my appearance.

However, I have felt that my appearance has rewarded me with staring, and oddball questions. It is my opinion, that if you live in a country where your appearance drastically differs from the native appearance around you that these people cannot help but notice you. How they react is an individual decision made upon that person's lack of or bountiful experience with people like you.

Someone's reaction can thus be considered as discriminatory, depending on the degree to which they react.

But I feel the question about discrimination here is not entirely about my race but my sex and whether or not being a woman means that I have been discriminated.

The question is then: Have I been discriminated against due to being a woman in South Korea?
The answer is that I have been treated differently than what I feel a man would be treated like here.

The accounts I am speaking of relate to that I have been treated like I am delicate and dependent. For example, I am often offered the more comfortable seat at restaurants. One time at JH's office his coworker gave up his comfortable desk chair to me. Is this because I am a woman? I think so because it connects with other similar experiences. I don't think a man would be treated in such a way as being "delicate" instead I assume they would be treated as "strong" and "independent".

Is this discrimination or just people being nice? I think the line is crossed when people start to treat me like I am ignorant and subordinate. That my ability to lift heavy tables or chairs are hindered because I am a woman. Or that I my opinions are somehow less important than a man's.

Woman have a subordinate role:
I think we all have to understand what is going on here, which is that South Korea functions socially in a different way from the west. The dynamic in South Korea is that woman are generally placed in subordinate role and that we as "foreign woman" are also being placed into this. At work I tend to feel myself in this position and also observe the woman around me acting out these roles.

My Korean woman coworkers seem use to it and are okay with being put at a subordinate level. Indeed, the one one male teacher at my old school was made to do many of the sport and activity organization duties due to that he was the "man" at the school.

Therefore you can see that as a foreign woman who is use to being put at the same level as men in their western society will find themselves integrating inside a different social environment and coda.

Often times my head strong independent woman self comes up against this social barrier set for women here in South Korea. It is often times aggravating and depressing. But this is 2009 and many changes have been made to Korean society and woman nowadays are taking on more responsibilities and claiming their place in society here.

Therefore as far as discriminiation goes I cannot help but feel I am treated differently because I am a woman. In addition, I consider that I am also treated somewhat differentially because I am a foreign woman.

Although, no accounts of discrimination have been painful or severe, rather they are mentally mind boggling and exhausting.

Separation of the Sexes:
Woman over here and men over there.

On some occasions I have been separated from men. Take for example this past weekend spent with JH and his friends. The men were not allowed to sleep in the same room as the women. If this were a similar party in America no one would give a hoot whether the men or women slept together, unless possibly it was some ultra conservative group. But generally the feeling that I was 14 again and had to go to my "room" so not be around the guys felt a little odd.

Again, however there really is no harm in this treatment. It's just as I have said a little confusing considering that we were all adults and it's the year 2009 and not 1945.

Generally though as a woman in South Korea you will encounter experiences where you are to be seperated from the men. However, in public you can hang out with guys and it is fine.

South Korea is generally a non hostile place to live. Underneath the glamour and modern aspects of society here there still remain codes of Neo-Confucianism that govern how a woman is treated here.

As a foreign woman you can survive here without having to fear walking down a street. Yet you will find yourself in situations where because you are a foreign woman that your appearance affects the people around you and how you are treated.

Traveling the world is a great opportunity to see how other cultures function and treat each other. As a global citizen you must be willing to understand what you see around you and learn from your experiences. In addition, as a woman traveler it would be important to keep in mind that most cultures still follow codes that treat women not as equal to men. But it is not something we should point the finger at and partake shame, rather it is best to come to terms with these factors and try to understand their origins.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that as a woman we travel not only with our appearance but with our way of thinking and functioning in society. With that said it is a good idea to make female friends of the foreign country and have discussions about these differences.

Therefore, my response of being a foreign woman in South Korea is pretty much clean of any horror stories. Bear in mind, though that I have heard accounts from other foreign women of having nasty experiences here in South Korea due to being women. In conclusion, no matter where you are in the world you are still a woman and men are still men.

Please comment with your thoughts or any corrections you would have towards my accounts here. Certainly I am not the carrier of truth and would like to hear what others have to say whether you are a man or a woman.


  1. Awesome post. Thanks for responding so quickly. You've confirmed a lot of what I have thought and read when it comes to being a foreign woman in SK.

    It was nice to hear your story. I do think the staring thing might be more prevalent for me since I am African American but then again everyone's situation is varied.

    As far as the women vs men dynamics I have had a fair share of that being from the Nigerian culture. Women are definitely seen as "delicate, subordinate, and in need of guidance," more than the men in my culture.

    I tend to be very independent though so that might be a frustration I might encounter. I think having a heads up on what to expect will lessen any misunderstandings.

    I guess it all comes down to being open-minded and accepting that this is a country where things are done in a way that might be different from the one I am used to.

    Thanks Joy:)

  2. I think it matters what kind of foreign woman you are. We are white American women. If you are Black, other kinds of Asian, or middle eastern, you might not have the same outlook. Anyway, I don't have experiences in that realm, obviously, so I can't make many judgments on that aspect of life in Korea. I can tell you though, that if you are not a thin, white American or Canadian, you will not be hired at my old hagwon. That's fairly standard at many private schools. I was recently reading one woman's blog, and she believes she's having trouble getting a job because of her weight. Though, I'm having trouble too and I fit the white american ideal, and I have experience, so that might not actually be the reason that woman is having trouble finding a job.

  3. It is hard to accept that our appearance and racial background is the cause for not getting a job in this country. This matter is definitely a form of discrimination and should be addressed politically within the system.

    Anyways glad to have answered this as I am sure people want to know what it is like before they come here. No matter what though when you experience culture shock try not to be reactionary at first. It's hard but can be done. ^^

  4. Thanks for your post.I have a Korean boyfriend and he wants to bring me to Korea. I'm having second thoughts about this because I'm a foreigner.He says I can get a job there teaching English but I'm still undecided. I'm thinking about going to LOndon to work and study.

  5. Thanks for your post.I have a Korean boyfriend and he wants to bring me to Korea. I'm having second thoughts about this because I'm a foreigner.He says I can get a job there teaching English but I'm still undecided. I'm thinking about going to LOndon to work and study.

  6. Yen I guess just talk to him more about it. Maybe suggest just coming here for vacation instead of long time.

  7. When I lived in Korea, I got stared at all the time. The red hair and freckles did not help me blend in much. LOL!

  8. Thanks for the suggestion Foreigner Joy. I also want to go to Korea only for a vacation to see and experience it's culture....Moving there is a totally different story. He's very open-minded anyway and it's not difficult to explain things to him...


Leave Your Thoughts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...