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May 17, 2015

Foreigners 외국사람

외국사람 or waeguk-saram is usually translated into English as “foreigner.” 외 means “outsider.” We have encountered the syllable 국 (guk) before in country names: 한국 (hanguk – Korea) or 미국 (miguk- America), for example. We also know that 사람 (saram), means “person.”
A small yellow bird looks at three large green birds sitting on the same branch, looking in the other direction
So literally, 외국사람 means person from another country. That’s a pretty close match to what English-speakers would mean by “foreigner.” However, the term sounds a little rude when used in English. It comes across as xenophobic to label people by what they aren’t instead of by what they are.

“Foreigner” has a different significance for people of Korean descent living outside of Korea. I first became aware of this last year, when I attended a Korean cultural event. It was held at a large, public outdoor venue located in downtown San Francisco. I first heard about it through a group that was scheduled to perform there. Trying to confirm the details, I could not find any additional information about the event in English, not even on the event calendar for the location.

I was thoroughly puzzled by this, until I saw an ad (in Korean, without subtitles) on the local Korean TV station. Odd as it seemed for a high-profile venue smack dab in the middle of a major shopping district/international tourist destination, the event was being promoted only to Korean-speakers.

A brightly painted Korean drum or buk, hanging from a vertical wooden frame.This impression was confirmed when I arrived at the event. It was emceed entirely in Korean. The one exception was before the women’s drum dance, which was introduced in English as “a favorite of foreigners.” I realized I was being called a foreigner in my own country, by people who most likely were not themselves born in the U.S. This was startling, but not really offensive. If anything, it seemed funny, and a little surreal.

In this post, a European-Australian man married to a Korean-Australian woman describes a similar experience. I think mihansa readers will find the discussion in the comments on his post highly interesting. Among other things, it reveals the difference of perspectives between Koreans living in Korea, and Korean-hyphenates, not to mention across individuals in both groups. It also reminds us of the hazards of translating words solely for literal meaning, without considering the nuances of cultural context.

A point that isn’t raised however, is that both the blogger and I live in countries where citizens of European descent like ourselves are culturally favored. It’s very easy for us to feel secure in our national identity. So easy that we never have to think about it at all.

I doubt the planners of the San Francisco event had any intention of making non-Koreans feel unwelcome. Rather, I think they were trying to reaffirm a cultural identity that is barely acknowledged, much less supported or valued in their new homeland. If anything, creating an event primarily for themselves in such a conspicuous location was a way of saying “We’re here, we’re Korean, get used to it.” When I found myself perceived as a “foreigner” in my own country, I got a taste of what life is like for them every day.

I attended that event because I love Korean traditional dancing. Happily, I got to see lots of it. A few people were surprised when I turned my brunette head around and showed them my non-Asian face. But no one was even slightly unfriendly to me (nor has anyone ever been, at any Korean event I have attended). It was a far more satisfying glimpse of Korean culture than a Korean-focused event at the Asian Art Museum which I attended around the same time. No doubt this was precisely because it was was targeted for an audience much more knowledgeable about Korea.

But even while the emcee was speaking Korean to Koreans, the American melting pot influence was evident. In between the fan dances, sleeve dances and drum dances, the event featured traditional dancers from many other parts of the world.

And the emcee was right about drum dancers. They are my favorite.

2 comments to Foreigners 외국사람

  • Alexandra

    I understand the need that Korean feel for ethno-centrisity. They have had a terrible time in their history preserving their language and culture. As bizarre or questionable as it might be to “outsiders”, especially to people from the melting -pot culture of the USA, in Canada we are more open to a mutli-cultural identity for our country. We encourage people to keep their traditions as long as possible. Being also of Ukrainian heritage, I personally understand,what it means to be over-run by other cultures.
    Thanks for posting again. Your articles are so informative and interesting.

    • Korea has a reputation as “the hermit kingdom,” which I agree is somewhat unfair, considering the challenge of preserving a cultural and national identity across centuries of Chinese and Japanese invasions. But I think something more complicated is going on for Koreans outside of Korea.

      The generation gap between first generation immigrants who identify with their country of origin and their children who have only known the new country is not unique to Korean immigrants. But in the U.S., at least, it is not as clear cut with Korean-Americans. This is partly because the Korean immigration is ongoing. I have been quite surprised to discover that almost all of the Korean-Americans I have met, who seemed completely American, and who I had assumed were children of immigrants, actually came here themselves as children, teens or young adults.

      The other factor that may be stronger with Korean-Americans is the intense group-orientation of Koreans. Group identification is a stronger cultural factor in Asia in general than it is in European-based cultures, but studies suggest it is most pronounced in Korea, no doubt because of the aforementioned invasions.

      However, when you take that orientation to a new country, along with the high value placed upon preserving group harmony, it is not surprising that many Korean immigrants become rapidly Americanized.

      This national identification works both ways, for people who immigrate into Korea, as well as out of it. KBS World has an interesting series called “Love in Asia,” which is about Korean/waeguksaram marriages. You can find many of the episodes on YouTube. The “foreigners” are primarily women, marrying rural Korean men who are often unable to attract Korean wives from the urban centers that are considered more modern and affluent than the countryside.

      While the wives and their children may experience painful bullying from the man’s family members, schoolmates, or neighbors, there is also a strong expectation that they are Korean now, and their first loyalty should be to their new country. Despite the strong family orientation in Korea (and the fact that many of these women are clearly marrying outside their countries to help their families at home), their husbands often complain if they retain too much affection or allegiance to their birth families.

      Being a first-generation immigrant must be the most difficult thing, never truly of the new country, but also losing ties with the old as it grows on without them. I have noticed that Korean-American culture, and even the language maintained by less Americanized elders, is often out of date (T.K., the Ask a Korean blogger has also commented on this).

      That bridge generation sacrifices the sense of belonging for the rest of their lives for the sake of future generations. My own ancestors were Irish coal miners, who came here at a time when people of their nationality were despised and maligned. I wish I could show them how things are for Irish-Americans today. The U.S., Australia and Canada are all countries of immigrants, something that we don’t think about often enough.

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