Photo courtesy of Alex Dram

IN KOREA, THE WORDS “RUSSIAN” AND “PROSTITUTE” GO HAND IN HAND, a stereotype that has evolved from a recent period of time where droves of Russian women apparently came to Korea on “entertainment” visas. Additionally, white women are often stereotyped as “easy” and “slutty.” Despite the fact that the majority of white women in Korea are English teachers, most of us have been objectified, assumed to be slutty, and mistaken as a prostitute at one time or another.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my own experiences being perceived as a prostitute in Korea, but this week, I interviewed a fellow English teacher who is constantly harassed, due to her tall, thin “Russian-like” appearance. On a snowy day, at a quiet coffee shop, we discussed her experiences being objectified and mistaken as a Russian prostitute, Korean stereotypes about Caucasian females, and how Western women are often hyper-sexualized in Korean society.

 

SS: Why you think white women are hyper-sexualized in South Korea?

I think it’s mainly due to the Western portrayal of us in American Hollywood movies and TV shows. That’s the main connection Koreans have with Western culture, so they assume that’s reality. Also, Western countries are more sexually open in general.

SS: What are some of your experiences being objectified and mistaken as a prostitute in Korea?

There are the standard stories of ajeosshi (middle-aged men) gawking at me, seeming to stare for at least fifteen minutes at a time. The other day I met up with some Korean girl friends, and this ajeosshi walked past and abruptly stopped and stared at me with this half-grin on his face. The girls were like, “What’s he doing?” and I replied, “This happens all the time. Ignore it. He won’t come near us. He’s just having a gawk.” He literally stared at me for fifteen minutes. I’m not exaggerating.

Just this past weekend, a guy, who looked about 50, spotted me in a club. He started following me, and when my friends and I were ready to leave, he waited while we paid, chiming in to translate what the waiter was saying, like we didn’t understand. My friend and I were confused and embarrassed by his presence. The waiter kept glancing back and forth between us and the man, probably thinking that he was going home with us. He walked outside with us and he repeatedly said, “Wait a moment,” and I continually said, “No.” He kept repeating himself, even after I clearly expressed that I didn’t want to converse with him. He followed us until we got into a taxi.

Another time, a guy followed me on my way to school. He looked like he was only in his twenties. He started shouting “Hey, hey, I like you.” and I ignored him. He kept repeating “Hey, hey,” then asked, “Where are you going? How much do you charge?” I started feeling really embarrassed. He was really angry that I wasn’t responding, so he kept saying, “Hey, hey,” even louder. I turned around, looked at him and said, “Fuck off now.” He went away after that.

I’ve had taxi drivers touch me before. One time I was looking out the window and the driver needed to ask me a question. Instead of saying something to get my attention, he turned around, grabbed my leg and shook it. I was wearing a skirt, so he touched my bare thigh. I bailed out of that taxi really quickly.

Things like that happen all the time.

SS: Have most of these guys been older? Or have younger guys sexually harassed you as well?

Most of the time they’ve been older, but there have been some younger ones too.

SS: How did these experiences make you feel? How do you react?

Most of the time I try to ignore it, but it depends on the mood I’m in. Sometimes I’ll get snappy with them.

One time a young guy, probably in his twenties, followed me home. I had a feeling he was following me. He was clearing his throat very loudly behind me, but there were people around me, so I wasn’t too worried. I heard him running behind me, and after he caught up to me, he resumed his normal pace, walking about 5 meters to my left. When I walked down the alleyway towards my house, I turned around and he was peering at me from behind a wall. I ran into my house and locked the door. It only happened once, but it took me awhile to get over that, constantly making sure that no one was following me.

Overall, it makes me really angry. I don’t want to be targeted because I’m a foreigner. I just want to be left alone. I don’t want to be seen as a giant walking vagina; it makes me feel kind of gross. I’m just trying to go about my day, but it’s disgusting when some of these guys are looking me up and down like a piece of meat.

SS: So this harassment happens much more in Korea than in your home country?

Oh yeah, a lot more! It’s weekly here. It might be a really small incident, but sometimes a much bigger one.

SS: And do you think it’s because of the way you look?

It’s definitely the way I look. I get asked if I’m Russian all the time—not just by guys—by EVERYONE, including ladies, real estate agents, and taxi drivers. I dated a Korean guy for a bit who originally thought I was Russian—not necessarily a hooker, but maybe an exchange student. Apparently some people legitimately mean it in a good way. If an ajeosshi’s saying it, probably not, but if it’s a younger guy, they might just think you’re tall and beautiful.

Before Korea, no one had ever called me “Russian.” Because I’m tall, skinny and pale-skinned, they might think, “She’s not American, she must be Russian!”

SS: Yeah, but there are Americans who look like you, too.

Yeah, but you know how many Koreans stereotype foreign women. If you’re tall, skinny and pale, you must be Russian. If you’re short, fat and tan, you’re an American. There is no in between.

My previous co-worker—who is actually a really cool guy—went to San Francisco once. At a staff dinner, he got really drunk and was talking about San Francisco saying, “All the girls there, they had the biggest boobs, the BIGGEST boobs! I couldn’t get over it!” But I guess that’s their impressions of Americans.

SS: Well, a lot of American girls do flaunt their cleavage, so I’m sure he did see lots of boobs.

Well, I think all foreign girls occasionally get harassed, but I definitely get it more than most.

I have another friend who has blonde hair, blue eyes and really pale skin, so we jokingly call ourselves the “Russian hookers.” When we’re with Korean friends they will translate things that people around us are saying. She was walking with an English male friend one time, and she was wearing a red dress because she was going out. A young Korean guy said to his girlfriend, “Look at that guy with his Russian hooker.” She was with a foreign man! A normal reaction would be, “Look at this guy with his girlfriend.”

SS: Have you ever had casual or serious relationships with Korean men? How did they perceive you? Did they perceive white women with the same stereotypes as the random men on the street who assume you are a prostitute?

I’ve only had a few casual relationships in Korea, and they haven’t lasted long. I feel like the men probably have stereotyped me at first. I’ve definitely had guys approach me because they think I’ll put out much quicker, which is kind of ridiculous because from the sounds of it, Korean girls put out at about the same rate Western girls do. Korean culture just isn’t as open about it happening.

I’ve started using this dating app on my phone and, I swear, five out of every six guys that contact me will quickly revert the conversation to dirty talk. I’ll start talking and they’ll quickly change the subject, asking, “Have you been to a couple jimjjilbang?” I’ll think, “Oh my god, you pervert. We haven’t even met.” Or they’ll immediately ask if I live alone.

SS: Do you ever feel like you are giving into the stereotype by having sex with Korean men?

Yes. I kind of hate myself for it, because I feel like I’m perpetrating it for other girls, but you know, we should be allowed to do what we want. If I like a guy and I want to have sex with him, why should I pretend that I want to wait around just because I’m a woman?

SS: What actions should be taken to change the way Koreans perceive and sexualize Western women?

It isn’t even about the way Korean men perceive white women; it’s about the way they perceive all women, Korean women included. Koreans need to strive for gender equality, and they need to start a feminist revolution, because they never had one. Korean women and men are all entering university at the same rates, yet for every one women who is hired for a job, four men are. They’ve gotta stand up for themselves, and to be honest, they’ve gotta cut out the baby crap [called aegyospeaking in a high-pitched baby voice, pouting their lips, and making cutesy hand gestures to portray themselves as cute and innocent.]  Aegyo is used as a kind of proof as to why girls are inferior to men and wouldn’t be able to handle man jobs or man responsibilities. I think Korean men believe that women act like that all over the world, because sometimes they’ll ask, “What do you call aegyo in English?” and I’ll say, “We don’t have that, because when women speak like that, we say, why are you acting like a child?” If some girls want to do it they can, but they need to know they have options. They have options not to quit their jobs when they get married. They have options to choose any career they feel like. They have options not to be objectified by men. This way, all women can gain more respect in Korea.

 

If you’re still interested in this topic, there’s a thread on waygook.org, where expats have discussed their thoughts about safety and harassment in Korea. Read it here.

 

-Text by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.

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