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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.