Tuesday, August 11, 2009

So were they American or Armenian?

Yesterday the Chosun Ilbo gave us our daily dose of of white people in hanbok.

With this caption:
Foreigners in traditional Korean costume pose for a picture at the 14th Chicago Korean Festival on Sunday.

Well, they're clearly not Korean, but are they actually foreigners, or just white people? It's Chicago after all, which means that any Koreans in the audience would be, um, foreigners, along with anyone not a United States citizen. Yonhap ran the same picture yesterday, and identified the three girls by name: Alicia, Felicity, and Iris.

In January I posted an article from Korea Journal, and there was some discussion about whether Koreans can actually be 외국인. Here's an excerpt from the journal article:
Another illustration of the same problem [of referring to natives of another country as foreigners in that country] occurred in a Korean restaurant in San Francisco, where I was eating dinner with a young Korean man doing graduate studies at Berkeley. Pointing to a group of non-Asian diners at a nearby table, he remarked, "A lot of foreigners come to this restaurant." It was all I could do to continue chewing my 냉면 without blurting out, "You're absolutely right, Mr. Kim, and you're one of them!" Apparently there is a dissonance between the English word, foreigner, and the Korean conceptual model.

In English, the word refers to an abstract relationsihp, not an intrinstic attribute. Nobody is inherently a foreigner; anyone can become on simply by crossing a national border. Foreignness is a question of context, not essence. Ms. Kwon in Canada and Mr. Kim in San Francisco, for example, fit the English meaning of foreigner, as would a Canadian missionary in Taejon or an American pursuing graduate studies in Seoul National University.

But the Korean-English sense of foreigner is clearly different. It is a category in which neither Ms. Kwon not Mr. Kim could ever be included. It is a category in which a Canadian naturally belongs, as he sits reading a newspaper in his own house in his native town in Alberta. Membership in this category is defined at birth, is completely context-free and is absolutely permanent. One group of people, including Ms. Kwon and Mr. Kim, can never, under any circumstances, belong to the Korean-English category, foreigner, whereas the members of another group are born as foreigners, will die as foreigners and will always be foreigners, no matter where they are. More remarkable still, this second group includes something like ninety-eight percent of the human race.

The discussion in the comments section, and also carried over onto Gypsy Scholar's post on the same topic, centers around mostly whether "foreigner" is an accurate translation of "외국인" and, if 외국인 always applies to non-Koreans, whether Koreans visiting other countries are in fact surrounded by 외국인 when they're amongst the locals.


asadalthought said...

This is a difficult one. When they think about it, Koreans know or at least are aware of the fact that "foreigner" means someone not of a particular country. They also know - if they were to really think about it - that in English usage it could mean anyone from outside any country.

However, the Korean term, to Koreans, doesn't mean outside country person. It means outside Korea person. You have to consider how the character 국 is used in Korea often to understand why. Think of 국사, meaning Korean national history typically, or the 애국가, the love country song, which is only used for the Korean national anthem, or 국어, not so common, but literally meaning national language, although it really means Korean language.

The pattern is quite simple; the subconscious meaning to Koreans of that character is Korea, not country but "The/Our Nation" - Korea. Therefore 외국인 actually means Outside Our Country Person, a non-Korean.

It's perhaps also useful to consider for how long it's really been possible for a Korean to be a foreigner by our definition - not long, Koreans haven't been traveling in great numbers abroad for anywhere near as long as we have.

I think some Koreans get really stumped when they're abroad and are confronted by someone calling them a foreigner. They realise it's correct, but subconsciously the thought wouldn't have occurred to them, they see themselves as inherently different from everyone else in that place, a difference outlined by where they come from.

And after all, if they're only in another country temporarily they don't stop becoming Korean. As to why they don't have an exact equivalent in sentiment if not literal meaning to the English word foreigner, I can't be sure - be interested to find out though!

Chris in South Korea said...

I subscribe to the belief that 'foreigner' simply meant someone who hasn't experienced enough / certain elements of a given culture. A person, with enough experience in a different culture, could be said to have adopted a culture they weren't necessarily born into. It's a word used (by yours truly as an American) to mean someone who doesn't quite fit in or someone who doesn't belong.

Here in Korea, it does seem more of a 'you're one of us or you're one of them' approach - which often explains the difficulty native Koreans have when not born or raised in Korea. The fear of outsiders has run deep for a long time, although thankfully that's beginning to thaw in the younger generations. They either see there's nothing to be afraid of, or never quite saw what the big deal was about 'us' and 'them'.

Brian said...

I certainly think the paper was wrong to call these girls "foreigners."

WeikuBoy said...

I believe the correct translation of 외국인 into Southern/ red-state American English is, "You ain't from around here, are you, boy?"

seouldout said...

Glad to see that foreigner-friendly hanbok are being made so that their tails aren't squished. This will surely lead to the internationalization of hanbok. 'Bout time I say.

t_song said...

@ya all
asadal--nice linguistic breakdown there. i think you're thinking too hard about it.

i think translating 외국인 as foreigner, doesn't account for all of the nuances of the word, especially in its usage. it's like how koreans take 놀다 and make it "to play," resulting in many aroused and confused foreigner men.

just view 외국인 as it's used: non-Korean.

i'm korean-american, and even though i was born in korea, i immigrated with my family as a young child. i've been back and forth for trips over the years, but my passport is american, i dream in english and i eat hamburgers as often as i eat kalbi. that said, i can't say i've ever been called 외국인--even though by the English definition and usage...I am.

i have to go to mokpo to get a special visa. i can't vote. i can't get a credit card on my own.

i think there's some aspirations for long-term residents of korea to become non외국인 but you can't change your DNA. i'm sure if you're fluent in the language and customs, you'll be told like 한국인 같애 but 외국인/한국인 is merely an ethnic term.

if koreans improperly use 외국인 in english as foreigner, just correct them and say, you mean a non-Korean.

The Sanity Inspector said...

:) I still remember a time when my wife and I were in an Atlanta-area Korean restaurant, and she called the American clientele "foreigners."

Peter said...

I've come to believe that "waygukin" should actually be translated as "non-Korean person", and not "foreigner". Going on vacation from Korea to other countries in Asia, I've often noticed any Korean tourists who happen to be on my plane, bus, etc. referring to the locals as "waygukin" in their own country. For example, to a Korean in Thailand, the Thais are "waygukin". I found it shocking when I first noticed it, but eventually I came to believe that, in Korean, this is the appropriate usage of the word, whereas calling a Thai person "foreigner" in Thailand is obviously inappropriate. As near as I can tell, "waygukin" is an absolute term, unlike the English word "foreigner", which is relative.

mindmetoo said...

Ha Sanity. I was at a Dano festival in Toronto and another whitey I was having mako maego mekeo korean fermented farm rice drink with told me about Dano festivals he attended in Toronto in times past. They were having a draw for a round trip ticket to Seoul. He entered and won. When he went up to accept the prize, he was greeted by some confused sputtering MCs. When he accepted and gave his thank you in Korea he was greeted with more sputtering confusion. The next year he tried to repeat his luck. This time they wouldn't sell him a ticket. He was told point blank "foreigners can't enter".

Canadians, born in Canada, trying to buy a raffle ticket to an event held in Canada are apparently still foreigners.


mindmetoo said...

You're right, of course, Peter. The language hasn't caught up to the reality that Koreans go other places, they just don't sit around and let bad evil foreigners come to them. Koreans need a word for "oh my god that's not another Korean, he's coming right at me, and I'm still shocked and surprised although I'm in an entirely different country that's not Korea and that person is actually a citizen."

t_song said...

Hey peter--great points! sound eerily similar to something i posted right above you. haha.

Peter said...


Haha, yeah, I admit I posted that comment as an immediate response to Brian's post, without reading the other comments here first -- you had already pretty much made my point for me :)

You also got me thinking about something: I've heard of Korean citizenship being granted to people who are not ethnically Korean, though I've never personally met anyone who has done this. As you wrote, these people would still be "waygukin" in the linguistic sense, but I'm just really curious as to how these people are generally regarded in Korean society, where the difference between ethnicity and nationality is a relatively new concept.

b luis grey said...

This is a great article! Quite funny to see how Koreans are in the States. Waegook actually has a very dark meaning if you look up the actual Chinese characters. It means something to the effect of, people not of among us. This is hardly the case as an expat living in Korea. We are right here in the heart of it... among the people of the ROK.

Keith said...

By reading your comments, I've come to realize that the English language is a great language because it evolves for different situations and new times. The dynamism of English has contributed to its being the global language. (Yes, it doesn't hurt to be the language spoken by a former global power (Great Britain) and a present superpower.) I can evolve to meet the challenges of the day, like making the language less hurtful and more inclusive. We try to make the language gender neutral. We don't refer to a person who serves on an aircraft as a "steward" or "stewardess", we say "flight attendant" or "cabin crew member."

Koreans should take note. They should become more conscious of how they use the English language. (They can do whatever the hell they want with their own language. But the suggestion is that they should try to rethink their conceptualization of the world around them.)

At Korean passport control counters, the word "foreigner" should not be there. This may send to the first time traveler to Korea a less than positive message. "Non-Korean" (as t_song has suggested) passport is neutral and less offensive.

When I arrived at JFK last summer, I never saw the word "foreigner" posted for those who were not US citizens or permanent residents. Koreans like copying things from the US. Maybe their immigration people should look how we and other English-speaking countries use the English language for official purposes.

skindleshanks said...

I think the word "foreigner" is a lot less offensive than "alien," which is the other term used occasionally here and more frequently in China and other countries.

t_song said...

At people with Korean citizenship--many SE Asian females have this distinction--would still result in them being called a waeguk. They're not Korean. And this goes for the half-Koreans, too. You are half-Korean and there is a word for that, honhyeul.

This whole argument is such a White conversation though, the feelings of not being accepted into the majority. I don't want to riff too long on this, but you never hear white people complaining that they're not black. So assuming you were like the one white family in an all black neighborhood and you were the only white person in your school, you'd perhaps be accepted, though not completely. If that makes sense.

The translation to foreigner and all the feelings of non-inclusiveness is, frankly, a fact. The fairly direct translation is only a fault of the original translation and the oversensitivity of Westerners in Korea.

You can argue that bi-racial children will challenge the notion of who is "Korean" and who is not, but I think Westerners, in particular, are too quick to classif themselves as "bad" when in fact they're just "different."