Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Foreign Women for Sale

The trouble with only learning the pleasantries of a foreign language is that they are only useful in situations that are, well, pleasant. Should an insult be offered, this leaves you with no language for reply. Personally, the best I could manage would be to harvest from the sparse stock of pleasant, friend-making Korean phrases I've memorized and add "no" to them. Imagine this being the fiercest retort you are capable of making:

Respected sir, do I like you? No! Respected sir, are you fun? No! Are you cool? No! Are you pretty? No!

There are times when such language is not quite strong enough for the situation at hand.

The first time I am mistaken for a whore is on the subway platform at Namdaemun Station. I am wearing blue jeans, a bulky winter coat, a scarf, a backpack. A Lonely Planet guidebook is in my hand.

"I love you," says the man who, at the time, is just a few feet from me. He raises his arms above his head and bends them in the shape of a crooked heart. He shuffles back and forth on wobbly feet.

"Thank you," I reply, smiling. Just the week before, a different man on a different subway platform had repeatedly proclaimed to me that he loved America and loved Americans. I figure this man's declaration is something along the same lines. How nice.

The man moves closer to me. His face is puffy and pink, an old, bloated, babyish face. His bleary eyes are rimmed in red. His breath emits a hazy cloud of soju as he asks, "Where are you going?"

"I'm just going home," I say, still smiling.

"I want you to come home with me," he says.

Again, how nice. He is inviting me back for tea with his family, I think with a naivety that casts its faint glow about me like a halo.

The man opens his wallet.

He's going to show me a photo of his wife and kids, I think.

He pulls out money.

But where are his wife and kids? I wonder.

"This is Korean money," he says, trying to shove a couple of bills into my hand. I curl up my fingers to refuse the money. Confused, I alter my stream of thought, trying to make sense of this unforeseen happening: Could he be a black market money changer? Is he looking for U.S. dollars? I ponder these unlikely possibilities for a minute.

Then, the fog of innocence finally lifts from me.

I am horrified.

And I only say "horrified" because I don't know a stronger word. There is no kind old man standing before me, trying to become my friend. There is only a drunken lech trying to pick up a whore, trying to pick up me.

A Korean woman, standing nearby on the subway platform, watches the entire situation play out in front of her. She is wearing a micro-mini skirt and 4-inch heels, in line with the aesthetics of modern Korean fashion. But it doesn't matter what she wears: She is Korean, so she is pure and well-respected. A Korean man would never offer her money for sex. The woman begins to laugh at me, laughs at the bewilderment and disgust that I can feel myself projecting through every ligament of my body.

My face crumples. I run away to the far end of the subway and quietly cry the whole ride home. It isn't until later that I think about how the wad of money the man had shoved toward me was around 13,000 won. Not only was I considered a whore, I was considered a $10 whore.

The next few times I am mistaken for a whore are also hard on me, although less painfully so, as I can now understand the signals much sooner.

"How much?" a man will sometimes ask as he passes me.

Now, when a man says something like that, I look him dead in the eye and, with unleashed venom, snarl, "You wish."

And then I run away and cry. Because continuity is always a good thing. Right?

{For those of you still confused about the difference between me and a whore, here is a little photo illustrative.}

{what an actual whore wears for a night out on the town}

{what I wear for a night out on the town}

I have a close friend, another foreign woman, to whom I told about these happenings in whispers. She lives in Itaewon, the notoriously sketchy expat district of Seoul, and has never experienced anything like it herself.

This made me feel even worse. Is it just me? And is this how I look to every Korean man, like a whore? Maybe they all believe I'm a whore but some of them simply don't require my services, I think with what may or may not be paranoia.

And up until about a week ago, I never mentioned it to anyone else. I was too ashamed. Finally, last week, after my third "offer" within the course of two consecutive days, I couldn't contain my resentment any longer. I went to a swing dance and polled the three other foreign women there, rather abruptly asking if they, too, had ever been treated like whores.

"Well, only the one time," one foreigner shyly admitted. "But I was dressed really nice, conservatively!"

"Yeah, like every time I leave the apartment," another American woman said.

"A couple of times, sure," confided the third foreign woman.

I want to throw things. I want to throw things at the heads of the men who try to rent my body by the hour. I want to throw (smaller) things at the one or two guys I have since told about it and who counter with jokes. It's not a laughing matter.

I'm writing this because I'm angry and I'm insulted and I'm tired of feeling ashamed. I didn't do anything wrong. There is shame here, certainly; but that shame is not my burden.

I love so much about my life in Korea and the friends I've made here. I have met some Koreans, both men and women, who shine with pure goodness. It can be a truly wonderful country to live in. But not in this regard. This is a side of Korea that is not funny, not cool, and most definitely not pretty.


  1. That's terrible! It happened to me once in Paris, though. I was walking with a friend near Marais on a weekday evening, wearing jeans and a t-shirt (not even heels!) and a guy came over to us to ask "how much" insistingly. I didn't understand a word of french back then, but my friend is fluent. She told me to run across the street to the other side at the count of 3. I only found out afterwards what had happened...

    I really wonder - do these men actually expect to get a positive response? Do they really get lucky some time?

  2. It happens here, too. On at least 3 occasions that spring to mind, I've been mistaken for a call girl. Like you and Katherina, I wasn't dressed provocatively on any of those occasions. It's not about what we wear or the way we carry ourselves. Maybe we need to toughen our "street faces" so we look more unapproachable?

  3. @Katherina and Deb -- Thanks for coming forward and mentioning the same thing has happened to both of you. I don't feel so bad when I know it's not just that there's something wrong w/ me.

    It actually took me a long time to talk and write about this because I found it so upsetting. But now I also think it's important to bring this problem into the open. In situations like these, I feel like women's rights are just an illusion.

    While I certainly wouldn't blame you, Deb, if you put on a tough "street face," it's not something I want to do. I get a lot of really nice strangers who approach me (with GOOD intentions) because I smile a lot. Personally, I just want to find a way to publicly shame these prostitute-seeking men. Just not sure how to do so effectively.

  4. Like that's the worst Korea has to offer.

    I mean it. It's absolutely nothing. Korean males can do much worse than that. (I won't elaborate on the gory little details of how far they can go, for your sake.) But then, this isn't all Korea has to offer either. Morons and idiots live everywhere - it just happened that you stepped on one of them.

    But then, these dumb Korean males (usually deep in their 40's and 50's) disgust me to no end as well. You have my sympathy.

    1. Women's rights in Korea are but an illusion - that's a very keen observation.

    2. Seriously, you should post things like these to a media that can reach much farther than just at some personal level. I am very certain, if such things happen, some anti-American sentiment will boil down from Korea. (They are stupid for a reason anyway...) Who gives it a flying f***? Nothing works better than public shame for stupidity of this magnitude. And what's grander than national shame?

  5. I haven't had anyone ask me if I'm a whore in Asia, but I have had some guys assume that because I'm Western I must be easy. (ven though, like you, I'm usually wearing a lot more clothes than most of my Asian counterparts.
    But, man, I was propositioned about a gazillion times when I was in Morocco. I wore long pants and sleeves the entire time and often covered my head, but I was still constantly assaulted with cat calls and offers. I didn't really know how to deal with it, and, honestly, it's made me think twice about visiting the Middle East on my own again. (Especially since I've heard Morocco is relatively liberal compared to other countries.)

  6. When I lived in Japan I was asked if I was a topless model on 3 separate occasions. This was usually followed by some kind of lewd staring and attempts to touch. I still don't know whether I look like some well-known glamour girl (unlikely) or whether it was just because I have large breasts. Either way, it's not nice to feel so violated when you have done nothing to deserve it (like you, I was totally covered-up on all of these occasions).

    Sadly I think the 'Western Woman = Loose' attitude still exists in much of Asia.

  7. Oh my god! I had no idea this happens to foreign women in Korea! I just moved to Suncheon, in the south, and have three friends live here for a year each and have never heard of such a thing. How terrible. I am so sorry this is happening to you! I really hope it gets better for you.

  8. Wow, that is awful. You're very brave to talk about it. Why are men so terrible? (And I'm not a man-hater, but seriously!) In Japan, women get groped *all* the time; happened to one of my friends, as a matter of fact. And they actually have women-only cars on the trains b/c it's so bad. Apparently in Thailand they have women-only buses.

    I want to punch them in the face for you. Bastards.

  9. Oh Melanie, I am so sorry you have had to experience this variety of seediness. How disgusting. Hold your head high and stare them down. Don't even acknowledge their offer. Just glare and make them feel the shame that they so ignorantly force onto you! I am right beside you, angry too!

  10. i'm very sorry you had to go through that. but as a korean woman who has lived in several different countries, i'm going to go ahead and tell you that this type of phenomena exists worldwide.
    this is more attributable to the male sex than in it is to a specific country.

  11. I'm sorry to hear that this keeps happening to you. It has nothing to do with you. If I was to take a guess, it probably has something to do with the way they portray foreign women in marketing and the media in South Korea. The United States is guilty of doing the same thing as well but reversed. I hope things get better and this doesn't ruin your time there.

  12. A couple of days ago this was exactly what a friend and me where talkig about. She has a friend who is often mistaken for a whore. And both suspected (and it was confirmed by Koreans) that it has something to do with having long blond hair. This girl explained to me that Russian prostitutes are often blond. Her friend thinks about dyeing her hair.
    It's still ridiculous, but at least it would be some kind of explanation.

  13. omg. go on about korean males. this is not a korean male thing. MEN ARE PIGS WORLDWIDE. there are even some in the states. just cuz you didn't experience it there, it doesn't mean others didn't. you happened to be part of a white majority that didn't get treated like 'minority'. which often means getting treated like whores, servants, things to walk all over, etc.

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