A Koreanless Korean in Korea

I blame my family and friends.

“Wow, finally!,” they joked upon learning of my new job in Korea, “You will blend right in and look just like everyone else! You’ll be lost in the crowd for the first time ever!”

I chuckled along with them.

“Yeah, it will be weird,” I replied, anticipating my 2010 year abroad.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was truly buying into the idea and really anticipating this “blending in” for the first time in my life. Based on their comments, I developed an expectation of a seamless transition into Korean culture. A full acceptance into my birth country, despite the huge chasm of cultural differences, language barriers, and completely different social norms. Needless to say, things did not turn out that way, and I was left reeling in this foreign country, wondering what had gone wrong.

At first, it was mildly amusing. I would go out with my American co-teacher friends and all of the restaurant staff would assume that I was the group’s translator. They’d run up to me, spouting off questions, and I really perfected that “deer in headlights” look. They’d realize I had no idea what they were saying and laugh at my English and run off giggling. In a crowded Seoul Station, filled with thousands of people at any given time, I would always be the one asked for directions or the time or which subway line to ride. The awkwardness would be palpable. I quickly learned the word gyopo 교포 (a Korean who has moved/lived overseas) because ipyangin 입양인(adoptee) always spawned one of two distasteful responses:

  1. pity (sometimes tears) or
  2. an immediate leach (“call me unni, I will care for you like an omma you never had!”)

But the fun can’t last forever and by the time I was two weeks into my year-long stay, I just wanted to go into hiding. I was so annoyed every single time I walked out my door. No matter how low of a profile I fought to keep, I would always somehow be “outed” as the weirdo. I learned not to make eye contact. To never speak English in public. To never answer phone calls. To sit as far away from the Americans as I could because I didn’t want to be identified with them.

Despite my low profile, I would always be outed as the weirdo.

I vividly remember one particularly traumatic experience. I was walking home through some back streets from my teaching job. I was in a pretty good mood because it was Friday and I had plans with friends that evening. One of them called to verify our meeting spot and I stupidly answered. “What’s up?,” I said in English. As soon as the words left my mouth, I heard shouting behind me. An ahjumma 아줌마 (older Korean woman) heard me speaking English and absolutely flipped. She began chasing me down the street with her broom, swatting at me. “I don’t want to hear your English,” she screamed as we ran through the alleyways, “You are Korean! You’re in Korea! You need to speak Korean! I don’t want to hear your English!”

I realized then how ridiculous my thinking had been coming into my Korean year. How in the world could I have been so naïve? The complications of being a Korean-less Korean in Korea know no bounds. There are no “easy days.” I became uncharacteristically withdrawn and ashamed. I hated who I was. Why couldn’t I be like everybody else and fit in? For the first time in my life, I felt discrimination, which is so opposite the experience of most adoptees who grow up with grade-school bullies. Maybe that’s what made it so difficult. Or maybe it was my unrealistic expectations going into the experience. Either way, it destroyed me.

“You are Korean! Speak Korean!,” she screamed after me.

Strictly as a means of survival, I began devouring Korean language books at an absurd rate. It became an obsession and I pulled all-nighters, trying desperately to understand the difference between chondaemal 존댓말 and banmal 반말 (honorific/casual language used according to the speaker/listener relationship). It became unhealthy. My fellow (white) teachers were so complimentary, “Whitney, you are doing so great! I haven’t even learned Hangul yet,” they’d laugh. “Hilarious,” I would think, “You don’t have to make any effort to even attempt to learn Korean because of your twisted white privilege in MY BIRTH COUNTRY!” It was difficult. I loved my friends and wouldn’t have survived that year without them, but I began holding them in disdain because of this basic reality, which was 0% their fault.

The time spent in Korea and then my subsequent return “home” to the US made me really understand how “caught” I was in-between two completely separate worlds. When in Korea, I am identified as “the American,” because I am certainly not “Korean enough.” Once I returned to the States, everything felt totally different because suddenly I felt not “American enough.” At “home,” I was “the Korean.”

When I visit Korea now, 6 years later, I still become a different version of myself. I immediately retreat into the safety of the crowds and do all I can to not draw attention. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t speak English in public. I constantly (rudely) hush Lee, “People will stare!,” I snap. I have had to work through what felt like this second betrayal by my birth country, but it still stings and each visit back, I am reminded of how much of a foreigner I am.


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12 thoughts on “A Koreanless Korean in Korea

  1. I could absolutely relate with this! I thought I’d “blend in”, but I actually felt more foreign than ever before. Every year of the three years I spent there changed my perspective on identity. When I returned to the US for a month, I felt even MORE foreign than I did in Korea! I’m currently in Japan and nobody bothers me about why I look Asian and don’t speak Japanese, whereas I was interrogated in Korea. I feel more comfortable here. I don’t feel awful about not speaking Japanese (I studied a lot of Korean because it interested me, but also because I felt somewhat obligated to do so).

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  2. Wow. Thanks for sharing your experience. I still look forward to my eventual trip back to Korea but will have to be prepared for being even more out of place than usual.

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  3. Wow, thanks for sharing, Lianne! We have often wondered if it is a Korea-specific thing or if it is just an Asian norm. A number of people have mentioned that their several-year-stay in Korea had the same effect as you — that each year was totally different and formative and unique from the others!

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  4. Thanks for reading, Jae! Pleeeeeease don’t let this dissuade you from visiting! Korea is a beautiful country that needs exploring, but it is just a bit complicated for adoptees 🙂

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  5. What an experience… Although not unheard of. I have many Korean-American friends who experienced similar things even when they were just visiting. You’d expect after all these years, Koreans would be more open minded about these things. However, Korea is still very much dependent on such homogeneous mindset. I’m sorry to hear about your encounters. 😦

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  6. Thanks so much for your kind words! Yes, it is really difficult for gyopos or adoptees to return and be treated this way. It’s hard though, because some of the traditional ways of thinking are my favorite things about Korea! But of course in these instances, it is one of my least favorite!

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  7. Thanks for sharing your story with us! I’m rather shocked at the people that confronted you about your English speaking. When I visited Korea with my family, my sisters and I often spoke English to one another and no one had said anything to us. We are also Gyopo.

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  8. Hi, just happened across your post. I am korean born in america. I went to korea this past summer and i felt something similar to yours. My korean is near perfect so culturewise i was fine. But my body shape did not fit. Im average size in america but in korea i was chubby compared to everyone else. So i get the outsider feeling. Keep working on ur korean!! Its not impossible!! Keep our country Alive and proud!^-^

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