Let me start by stating the obvious: I am not a movie star. Not even close. And yet, in Jeju my non-Korean friends and I seem to attract attention as if we were walking the red carpet on Oscar night with a second head above a plunging neckline.
While in Seoul non-Koreans don’t even warrant a second glance, here in Jeju we still seem to be somewhat of an oddity. There are reported to be more than 400 foreign teachers in Jeju, plus assorted other non-teaching foreigners, yet we are still by far the minority population. A simple trip to the market can become a minor event, with children pushing each other to say “Helllo!” before running away, and adults openly staring.
One can get used to that. Where it gets really weird is at public events. It seems as if the local media has a mandate to “Focus on Foreigners” at all times, at any event. If there is a TV camera and crew, the foreigners will be herded together and a microphone shoved in their faces, with a demand to tell “How do you feel about this festival/concert/protest?” The immediate thought that comes to mind, as cameras flash endlessly, “Um, like a deer in the headlights?”
At this year’s Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival foreigners were invited to join in the torchlight parade and oreum lighting ceremony. I thought that was a great show of bon amie, until I saw the media, and it dawned on me that our presence was being used to show what a good job Jeju was doing as the Free International City, a haven of peace and one worldness. One foreign teacher, who has long red hair and stands out in any crowd, was randomly pulled up on stage and asked what she thought of the festival. Camera flashes lit up the stage for her 30 seconds of fame. We joked that she was going to be sacrificed to the fire gods.
At the Cherry Blossom and Canola Festival in April there was a large exhibit dedicated to the fire festival and celebrating the presence of foreigners at the “global” event. Although we were a fraction of the audience that attended the festival, the photos gave the impression that the festival was crawling with foreigners. Eating! Singing! Dancing! Carrying torches! We were everywhere!
The absurdity of all this media attention hit home recently when two friends and I attended the Barley Festival on tiny Gapado Island. We were the only foreigners on the island, and so received all the media attention full force. As we strolled up a lovely paved path through the barely fields, we were set upon by a horde of camera-wielding men (always men), who were yelling at us to “walk slowly!” “wave your hand through the barely like this!” and just “stop!” What we intended as a nice, quiet outing turned into a media circus. The next day a Korean friend told us she had seen a large photo of us in a local Jeju paper, waving our hands through the barley like it was something we did every day. Funny, not a single photographer asked for our names. We were just “the foreigners.” The rule in U.S. media is that if someone can be identified by face, they must be identified by name. Not so here.
And that, I think is what hurts. There is an “Us and Them” mentality in Jeju that needs to be bridged if Jeju is truly to become a Free International City. And while Jeju claims to welcome foreigners, it does so in Korean. There is very little information for visitors written in English, particularly at the local festival level. If we do figure out, usual with the help of Korean friends, when and where a festival if happening, we have no schedule once we arrive. For the organizers, it seems to be mission accomplished if foreigners attend at all. We want to be part of Jeju daily life as participants, not just as Jeju paparazzi fodder.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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