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The Invisible Truth

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

I was thinking the other night, as I was falling asleep, about how living in another country forces you to think about the country you were raised in more carefully. In a way, you learn more about your national identity when you’re abroad than when you’re in your home country. Of course some people in these days of the globalization of culture have grown up without a mother/father country, moving frequently. As an urban Canadian, I have realized here that our multiculturalism is both unique and thorough.

While there are certainly bigots in Canada, the mainstream ethos, especially in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, is that the idea of a “foreigner” is itself foreign. There are very few people of European descent in Korea, especially in Masan where I am living. There is a section of Seoul that is primarily American, a leftover military village from the Korean War, but other than that, it is a little unusual to see a Caucasian. Whenever it happens, and your eyes meet, there is a curious, inquisitive moment where you are both wondering the reason for the other being there. Usually, among people of my generation, it is teaching English that brings them to Korea.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t see the people here as intentionally trying to make me feel like a foreigner or an outsider. But they do treat you different. Overwhelmingly, it is usually different in a positive light. They come up to you and say hello, hoping to practise the little English they know; they put extra stuff in your shopping bag or give you a discount to try to give you a good impression of Korean culture, or perhaps because they try to imagine the difficulties of being a foreigner. Alternatively, they can guess why I am here, and because Korean culture places such a huge emphasis on education (it is not unusual for high school students to be up until midnight studying), I get treated with respect because I am a teacher, a sung-saeng-nimh, a term they also use for elders.

All this pampering has made me reflect on the lack of mutual respect I often felt back home. One effect of Canada’s intense multiculturalism might perhaps be an erosion of hospitality. Not that Canadians are inhospitable, but perhaps because the idea of a foreigner is foreign to many of us, we don’t feel the need to go to such great lengths to assuage the difficulties of being a foreigner. Just a thought to be considered more…

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