Keeping Your Head Down

April 19, 2011

stand out from the crowd, welshwitch36

One of my biggest pet peeves about living in Asia is the attention one receives as a foreign resident. Not even necessarily kids yelling “HELLO!” in a crowded area. It comes from adults as well. I’ve had cashiers struggle with the English to explain the cost of something when I’ve asked them in their language. When traveling with friends who are often loud to the point of obnoxious (by Asian standards), we draw stares from everyone in the vicinity.

My point being, everything about me, from my hair color to my manner of speech, is lit up like Christmas tree in the middle of a dark night, comparatively speaking. English is a rather coarse language compared to Japanese and Korean, and anyone speaking it, whether it be me or someone trying to talk to me, draws stares. Likewise, foreign behavior, as a generalization, is arrogant by making oneself the center of attention. We do like to stand out, don’t we?

Unfortunately, the opposite is usually the case for many Asian countries: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” Individuality in Japan is frowned upon. I learned to alter my American behavior and speech in an effort to be as Japanese as I could. The one thing I could not change was my appearance. As this was the first thing many Japanese noticed about me (and indeed, all foreign residents), I could never get past the guest mentality posed to me: “You use chopsticks very well… you speak Japanese very well… when are you going home?… where are you from?”

Behaving such a way for so many years (well… two) makes it difficult to change back. Even upon my return to the states, I did my best to lay low in public, never shouting, and speaking in a even-tempered tone. I carried this with me to Korea, where I thought I would have a head start over first-timers negligently yelling at bus drivers, and speaking English when their poorly pronounced Korean wasn’t understood (I still don’t understand this cross-cultural compulsion… no one can understand you if you speak slower in a different tongue).

So that’s what I did: I kept my head down, my feelings to myself, my behavior a mystery to the elderly residents of my little fishing village. And, for the most part, I don’t regret it. I learned the basic Korean necessary to politely state my requests for food and drink. I don’t make a spectacle of myself by loudly banging on my own door at 3 AM drunk on soju. In a small town where gossip is everything (even without Twitter), I was nothing but a blip, just the way I wanted it to be. The only exceptions were the few Couchsurfers visiting my area; I have no doubt the cashier at my supermarket must have thought I had quite a few girlfriends. And my running. No one else, as far as I have seen, is as big an outdoor runner as me in my part of Korea. When I show up in tights and a headband requesting soymilk and carrots, it tends to leave an impression.

Still, my image in Bugu, as I believed it to be, was quiet and respectful. There wasn’t too much other information out there about me. Conversations went like this (in Korean):

(Entering the store)



(Buy food)

“That’s 2,950 Won.”


“Would you like a shopping bag?”



“Thank you.”

Now I’m not so sure I made the right decision. As their faces become more familiar to me, I started seeing these workers around town under different circumstances: the friendly old man running the neighborhood bathhouse taking a soak in the same bath as me; the kid who speaks decent English working out his upper body at the Energy Farm gym; the Nong Hyup bank teller remarking she had seen me running past her house the other day.

By keeping to myself and establishing my image as someone to be overlooked, I had squandered months of what could have been education: awkward education, but learning experiences nonetheless. I could have been more inspired to improve my Korean had I heard that cashier commenting on my run my first week. I could have asked the old man what he thought of this bath, and what’s the best place he’s ever taken a soak?

All these opportunities wasted because I didn’t want to be one of those nails sticking out. I know there’s a balance between the two: being prudent and inconspicuous when the time calls for it, but when friendly people chat you up, even in the middle of a crowded store? I should have just ignored what others might have thought, set aside my modesty, and tried my best to stand out, my head held high. “YES! I was running over there yesterday. It was quiet beautiful…”

2 Responses to Keeping Your Head Down

  1. Amy on April 19, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Such a cool revelation! Squander no more!

  2. goodandbadjapan on April 19, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    I think there is a difference between being quiet and respectful and being someone ‘to be overlooked’ but I know what you mean. I live in a small town and am very conscious that my behaviour is noticeable and noticed. I’m sure I moderate it more than I would in a big city like Tokyo. And when strangers do speak to you there is often the doubt as to whether they are just being genuinely friendly or being nosey about the foreigner. Sometimes it’s both. I have turned down social opportunities a few times because I was sure I was being invited just as a token foreigner. The people barely knew me, had no reason to invite me and I felt a bit awkward. But who knows, maybe those occasions would have led to interesting conversations, further outings and even friendship. Hard to tell.

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