Janhavi asked: I will be studying abroad in Korea next spring. I was wondering if you could tell me about your experience as an Indian in Korea, since I will be in the same position once I get there. Thank you so much!
First off, hi Janhavi and thanks for the question and comment! I’ve been meaning to write more about my trip to Korea but (as always) am distracted by a million other things I want to write about first. That actually struck me as something interesting about myself: As much as I LOVED my trip, I can really, truly love Korean on just a pure intellectual level. I don’t crave the need to be surrounded by it to really enjoy it.
Anyway, I digress! You brought up a valid question and it’s my pleasure to answer, but with the requisite caveats! These are some things to keep in mind before you read too deeply into my answer:
- I only visited Seoul.
- I stayed only for 10 days.
- I didn’t get to visit all the different parts of the city.
- I traveled with someone else who was Asian but not Korean.
- I spoke primarily in Korean with no difficulties.
- I went to a lot of touristy places.
That being said, my experience as an Indian in Korea was…. well, rather unremarkable! I don’t think there was ever a moment, either in a positive or negative sense, when I felt like oh, such-and-such is happening because I’m Indian.
One thing that I want to emphasize is that whenever I had to communicate, I always initiated the conversation in Korean and the conversation always continued in Korean. I think in general, this puts a lot of people at ease, especially if you go into small shops and restaurants that may not be used to dealing with foreigners. For example, the S.O. had his hair cut at a really fancy-pants salon in Cheongdamdong and none of the stylists spoke English. Needless to say, I probably would have had a very different experience had I tried to get an appointment there without knowing any Korean, but whether or not my ethnicity would have contributed to that experience is hard to tell. Some shop attendants at the smaller department stores avoided us or tried to use sign language, but the instant I spoke in Korean, it was all warmth and politeness. Knowing some Korean and having a sense of cultural awareness can make yourself feel confident in a foreign environment as well!
You’d be surprised by the number of Indians you might catch sight of in Seoul. I definitely noticed a handful young South Asian professionals (mostly men) at various subway stops. I ran into an entire salwar-and-kurta-wearing family from Dubai at the Trick Eye Museum in Hongdae. (Beware that people like that can forcibly try to befriend you just because you’re a fellow brown person. Heh.)
If you wander around Sinchon and Hongdae, you can find young people of all different ethnicities! That sort of diversity is more like what I’m used to since I’m from the U.S., so I didn’t feel out of place or anything.
I’ve heard some secondhand stories of racism and prejudice in Korea, so I think a part of me was bracing myself for something like that. But honestly? Nothing of the sort happened to me. We were treated with nothing but graciousness wherever we went.
There were just two incidents where Koreans made direct references to my Indianness. One was a guy at Migliore (a fashion mall in Dongdaemun) who was saying stupid stuff to try to get me to look at the stuff he was selling (“Hey, you look Indian! You’re Indian, right? If my guess is right, you have to talk to me!”). The other was a sweet saleswoman at Lotte Department Store who said I had really beautiful, wide eyes (and then she gave me an extra nice discount on the Beanpole clutch I was buying haha).
That’s really all that comes to mind on my end. The greatest joy I had out of my trip to Korea is getting to enjoy normal day-to-day things that native Koreans would do in Seoul – speaking in Korean, reading random stuff in Korean, taking the subway, eating Korean snacks, hanging out at a cafe…. and I was able to do just that just fine.
Happy studies in Korea, Janhavi!