By Robert Neff
In the late 19th century, the Western population in Korea was very small and the average Korean, especially those living outside the large cities and ports, rarely had the opportunity to see a Westerner. Thus, when a Westerner traveled into the interior he often became, much to his aggravation, an object of interest.
Ensign George C. Foulk, an American naval officer attached to the American legation in Seoul and one of the first Westerners to travel extensively through the Korean interior, found that even his most intimate acts were subject to intense scrutiny by his Korean hosts.
“If I appeared outside the door of my room, a great stampede took place. Across the court, 70 feet off, was the water closet, a rickety shed with a hole in it, the ‘seat’ formed by some ‘squatting stones’ on the edge of the hole. If I went to the water closet, one or two soldiers must go along with me, and some others set up a dismal howl to clear the way for the Tai-in (great person). Nearly every time I went there somebody got kicked, so that out of sheer pity, I hated to go at all finally.”
When Dr. William Hall moved his family to Pyongyang in 1894 they were greeted with a great crowd of curious Koreans who wanted to see not only his wife but their baby as well.
Hall tried to accommodate them by allowing small groups to come into their home and for a few minutes to stare at his wife and baby. But the crowd grew so large and impatient that they knocked down his courtyard wall and Hall was compelled to bring his alarmed wife and child out into the open so that they could be observed much easier by the masses.
The indomitable Isabella Bird Bishop, an elderly but spry English writer, traveled extensively through Korea in the mid-1890s and declared that Korean inns were cursed by the “ill-bred and unmanageable curiosity of the people.”
She noted that “a European woman had not been seen on any part of the journey, and (she) suffered accordingly.” At one inn:
“All the paper was torn off the doors and a crowd of dirty Mongolian faces took its place. I hung cambric curtains, but long sticks were produced and my curtains were poked into the middle of the room. The crowd broke in the doors, and filled the small space not occupied by myself and my gear.”
A Korean who often traveled with foreigners in the interior acknowledged that his foreign employer was always “distressed and frequently irritated at the crowds of curious strangers that thronged the inns. But apparently his employer was unaware of the profit being made at his expense.
“Frequently the Yamen runners would announce to the curious crowds that the foreigner liked eggs and chickens and all who contributed liberally would be permitted for an instant to put their eyes to holes in the paper doors for a glance at the strange creatures. By such exhibitions the Yamen runner would make a handsome sum. The people understood the squeeze (a means of obtaining money in a questionable manner) but felt well repaid.”
He concluded that his employer “seemed to be exercising great self-restraint, and from his standpoint it was not perhaps unnatural to become frequently rude as he did not understand the innocence of our (Korean) curiosity.”
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.