I walk around with my children. That isn’t a particularly exciting or interesting thing to most people, but in Korea, that’s attention-worthy. A Caucasian man walking with children, sometimes without the obvious accompaniment of a Korean person? What devilry is this? How could this be?
I typically encounter two reactions.
The Cletus is when someone needs to “point out” my children to others, usually in the stupidest way possible, to everyone around. When I’m at a stoplight waiting to cross the street, people will go into traffic and turn around and stare at my children to get a better look. This isn’t a subtle glance, but a “LOOK MA, WHAT’S THAT HERE THANG?” gawk. My daughter is old enough to know that this isn’t because she’s a precious darling child, but that they are trying to point out something novel and are dumb. She usually doesn’t bother to answer them, but she’s also very shy. If one of these people does get hit by traffic, I hope she never feels responsible for it.
They might try to cover this up with some attempt at a complement, “Your daughter, she’s so pretty,” but that’s just because they got caught staring. I certainly don’t go up to Korean children on the street, approach their children and say the same. Of course children are cute. That’s one of the reasons people have them. If I did what they had done, they’d be offended or weirded out. Why go out of your way to point out something obvious unless you are uncomfortable about a situation and need something to say.
People that come up and speak English to my daughter, and then Korean, then alternate back and forth, as if my daughter needs to pass some sort of language test before they can fit her into a “should I be racist?” rubric are the worst. It’s always followed by the comment, “She speaks [Korean/English, delete as appropriate] very well.” This isn’t limited to people on the street. Aunts and Uncles in my Korean family do this. They think they are paying a compliment, but all they actually do are marking someone as “other”. If I told them they were “quite good at Korean.” Do you think they’d take it as being sincere?
As my wife says, “Of course she does, she’s Korean.”
I usually just glare.
The other group of people I encounter on the street are the people that are convinced that they are on the verge of national fame by deducing something about my family structure while we wait for an elevator. I had a guy literally do a “triple take” looking at me, then my son, then me again, my son, then me in utter disbelief. He was giving me the “Cumberbatch Stare”, trying to run through the scenario where this man has a small infant in a crib, but there isn’t a kidnapping taking place, and he just can’t figure it out. “There is a man here, and he’s pretending to be the father of this infant, but why would a man spend time with his son? I don’t see a woman anywhere. He’s probably already murdered the poor woman and is just keeping his cool. If I stare hard enough, he’ll crack under my glare and admit his crime! Perhaps he’s just out on a stroll to get some fresh air from where he is holed up demanding ransom. If I call the cops, I’m sure I’ll be a hero!”
I’ve never been stopped, but I feel like everyone over the age of 50 has this lingering doubt as to whether foreigners and Koreans can reproduce and want to stop me from walking away with my children. Getting stared at, head to toe, as I walk around any neighborhood with an elementary school is an added bonus. My family crossed a sidewalk after picking my daughter up at her new preschool and the crossing guard looked like he was trying to memorize my face and appearance so he could call in an Amber Alert if a child came up missing later. (What is the Amber Alert equivalent in Korea? As a parent, I’d like to know.)
Do I do ridiculous things that warrant this attention? No, but I am super-sensitive when my daughter cries in public because of it. Every parent in the entire store watches to see if my daughter is going to run away from me. They all tense up, like if they needed to they’d simply drag her away from me and it’d be the end to some national tragedy.
Why I do it?
If you asked me honestly, I do enjoy the attention of parading my family around when I need to go somewhere. If an act of rebellion was as easy as simply walking around it public not giving a shit, you’d do it too. Truth be told, If I had a car, I wouldn’t feel nearly as special. It makes me feel smug to see when people pay attention to me. I get a weird feeling of superiority because I know I am beyond their expectation of a father, foreigner, and man in their neighborhood. You don’t see fathers at home during the day, let alone spending time with their kids, or pushing a stroller. They might be staring not because I am a foreigner, but that we’re a family spending time outside the house.
In my mind, they are looking because they are jealous, they want to be me. They want to have the confidence to walk around and say, “I don’t give a shit about your conventions. I’m raising my family here, and I don’t care what you think of it. My children speak two languages, look cute, and you want to be us. Deal with it.”
However, whenever I see my children encounter this backward gawking, I just want to pick them up and fly away from the ugliness. The fact that they have to encounter any difficulties at all because of their life here is something that rarely happens, but does weigh on me. Right now there isn’t a huge problem, but as my children matriculate through schools, it will be, and that’s one of the largest limiting factors to my long term employment in Korea. If this becomes something they can not endure, we will need to figure it out, because it is unfair to them to have to suffer the stupidity of their neighbors an unreasonable amount of time.