Perhaps I was a little naive last June in thinking that my foreignness trumped my gender identity. As the months have worn on, I’ve learned a lot about how my gender is read in Korea–and what power or peril such reading puts me in. Below is Part II of what will probably be a three-part series on exploring gender in these first few months of travel in East Asia. You can find Part I here. If nothing else, it’s been interesting.
It began like this:
A hot June evening. I’d just sent my friend Suzanne back to the US, and after a few days in Sokcho on the East coast, I went back to Seoul to the welcoming, open doors of my homestay sister, Boyeon. Boyeon lives in a rooftop apartment, and she cleared my staying there with her elderly landord (a halmoni (grandmother) who lived a few floors below) and with her roommate. Boyeon and I’d met up at the bus stop nearby, and she showed me around the neighborhood and apartment and gave me a key.
The next night, I came home after dark and made my way up the stairs. I ran into the halmoni on the third floor landing.
“Who are you?” she asked in Korean, an edge to her voice.
“Uh, I’m staying upstairs with my friend,” I answered, also in Korean.
She looked me up and down. “You have a key?”
“Yes, she gave the key to me,” I said.
She nodded and waved me off up the stairs.
Boyeon was out with friends so missed halmoni’s call that night. But when she called back the next morning, she got an earful. The conversation started like this:
“YOU HAVE A MAN STAYING AT YOUR HOUSE? YOU SAID A FRIEND, NOT A BOYFRIEND. I ALMOST CALLED YOUR MOTHER! I AM SO ANGRY!”
They evidently have that kind of relationship.
Boyeon explained, laughing, that I’m a woman. When I ran into the halmoni later that day, I made sure my voice was sufficiently high, that I was binder-free, that I looked as womanly as I could muster so she wouldn’t kick me out.
“Ah, you’re a woman,” the halmoni said. “I really thought you were a man.” (She would proceed to tell this story of mistaken identities to every new person she introduced me to.)
I’ve been explaining myself ever since.