Saturday, October 12, 2013

Being Half Korean in Korea

I've lived in Seoul for four months now, and it wasn't until I moved here that I gained significant insight on what it's like to be living in Korea as an American of Korean descent.  Generally, there are two types of Koreans from foreign countries living here.  Those who are of a mixed racial background, and those who are full-blooded.  My newly discovered knowledge is a result of living amongst, and interacting with numerous full-blooded Koreans who were born and raised in America and Canada here in Seoul.  Koreans call them "Gyopos."

From my experience, regarding Gyopos, I usually associate the word with Korean-Americans or Korean-Canadians, because they seem to be the most common nationalities that I have come across, and have interacted with.  They also come from numerous other countries.  I've met Korean-Mexicans, Korean-Argentines, Korean-Brits, and even Korean-Brazilians.

Although one of my best friends in Gwangju was a gyopo from San Francisco, it was rather rare to come across them there, so I was rather taken aback by how numerous they are in here in Seoul.

In Gwangju, the Koreans that I grew accustomed to interacting with were the ones who are native to Korea.  These are the Koreans who act Korean (Obviously.  They are from Korea after all.)  These are the Koreans who call me, "Ca-dee-su," instead of calling me "Chris."  These are the Koreans who say, 'Sek-shi,' instead of 'sexy.'  These are the Koreans who say "stu-rain-jee," instead of "strange."  So, at first, it's rather strange (no pun intended) to meet a man who looks Korean, and dresses Korean with a stereotypical  Korean hairstyle, and hear him ask me in a stereotypical American accent and tone of voice, "Do you know where I can get some fish Tacos?"

And it's funny hearing a girl who looks Korean, and dresses Korean with a common Korean hairstyle say in an aggravated tone with a stereotypical American accent, "I'm so over it..."

Many of the gyopos that I've met are like me in that they grew up only knowing English.  A lot of them grew up in multicultural societies such as America or Canada, and had parents who didn't want their kids to be at a disadvantage.   Numerous others were put up for adoption by their biological Korean parents as infants, and were adopted and raised by non-Koreans.

Gyopos come to Korea for numerous different reasons, but when they get here, many of the ones that I've known seemed to have a difficult time adjusting.  Upon arriving, Koreans seem to notice that these people have Korean faces, but they don't dress like a Korean.  Their skin is tan, instead of the preferred fair skin.  They don't have Korean hairstyles.  They don't have Korean mannerisms.  Many Koreans mistake them as Asians from other countries, which, in all actuality, they are.  They are American/Canadian/British/Etc.

Then they eventually manage adjust, but still, they struggle to fit in, because of the language.  Koreans will try to speak Korean to them.  Many of them are unable to answer, and many of those who are able to, do so with an American accent, so the funny looks continue.

On a plane from San Francisco to Seoul, I met a gyopo lady who was a Korean adoptee raised by white parents.  Like me, she grew up trying to fit in with white American society, and one day, became suddenly fascinated with her biological Korean heritage.  She came to Korea excitedly thinking, "I'm going back to the mother land." 

She described how fitting in in Korea was rather difficult, and this is how she described her predicament, "Since I look Korean, a Korean person will look at me, and automatically expect me to know how to speak Korean.  Once they speak to me, and realize that I can't, they look at me like, 'Who is this idiot?'"

I, on the other hand, being half-Korean and half-white have it rather easy.  I look white.  I dress white.  I have a white American hair style.  I act like a white guy.  Naturally, Koreans don't see me as a Korean.  In terms of first impressions, they see me as a white American.

I'll never forget this.  Back when I was a boy back home in America, one of my mother's Korean friends told me, "Chris, you don't look Korean.  You look more like a Mexican."  My feelings weren't hurt, but I was taken aback.  Around my mother's Korean friends, I wanted to look like and be a Korean.

My Korean is rather unsatisfactory, and when Koreans hear my feeble attempt to speak, they don't give me the same strange looks that they give full-blooded gyopos.  With me, they give me a big smile, and sometimes laugh, and say in a strong Korean accent, "Oooooh!  Very good!!"

I realize that I don't speak Korean well.  I only know 'survival Korean,' and I don't consider that to be "very good."

Usually, being that I am an American, I am able to set a strong first impression among Koreans, so when I tell them, "Naneun omaga Hanguk saram imnida (My mother is Korean)," they are usually really surprised.  Some of them brush it off, and act like I am this American who can recite a sentence in Korean without actually knowing what it means, because I couldn't possibly have Korean blood, because I don't look Korean.  But when it actually registers in their minds that I am indeed of Korean heritage, their opinion of me almost always increases favorably, because now they sort of see me as one of them.  The favorable impressions will probably be stronger when I learn Korean.

I've accepted the fact that Koreans see me as an American, but sometimes it annoys me when the Korean waiter at a restaurant goes to the kitchen to bring me a fork.

The longer I am in Korea, the more American I feel.  After all, it's only natural, because I am one.  I mentioned in a previous post that before coming to Korea, I would have cheered for Korea, if Korea was playing America in a sporting event, or if a Korean was in direct competition with an American in the Olympics.  Now, I unabashedly cheer for the American.

Still, I am half Korean.  I've heard American friends talk about numerous things that Koreans do that drive them crazy, and because of that, I've found myself being rather critical of the expat community here.

I've always felt almost as much at home here as I do in America.  I've never experienced the culture shock that most expats have experienced, so sometimes, I don't understand their perspective.  When I first moved to Korea, a foreigner who was a Canadian of white descent asked me, "What are some of the weirdest things that you have seen here?"

I couldn't give her a good answer, because, honestly, nothing was really that strange to me.  

With very few exceptions, I've always understood why Koreans do the things they do, because being a middle child, I am naturally adaptive, and most of the time, I can be rather empathetic.  It's kind of funny how I am that way with the Korean community, and not the foreign community.  Another reason why I've always seemed to inherently understand how Koreans act is, while growing up, Korean culture was a significant part of my life every day in my home.  In some aspects of my life, I have a Korean mindset and a Korean perspective.  One of my Korean friends once told me that I have the inherent humility that Koreans have.  I took that as a huge compliment

I'm ashamed to say that when out and about by myself, which I find myself being quite often, I avoid foreigners like the plague.  In my workplace, and in my church, that is not the case.  My best friends here are foreigners from church, and foreign coworkers.  But on the street, I've preferred not to meet other Americans and foreigners.  I've always wanted to meet and interact with Koreans.  It's something that needs to be changed, but my mindset has been, if I want to be around Americans, I should be living in America.

Westerners, particularly Americans, can be seen as extremely loud and boisterous in public here in Korea, and I see the dirty looks Koreans give them when they act that way.  Koreans can be rather loud sometimes, but many of the people from the older generation have something against hearing English spoken loudly in public places.  My mindset here has always been that of a guest, and that I should abide by the cultural norms, and wishes of the natives here.  I believe in standing up for myself, but I also believe being courteous keeps you out of unpleasant situations that are avoidable.

I get so uncomfortable when in a restaurant or a cafe with a large group of westerners, and they proceed to take it upon themselves to rearrange the tables in order to accommodate themselves with total disregard for how Koreans are perceiving them.  In America, such a practice is completely fine, but in Korea, I've seen some really awkward looks from Koreans.

I've heard numerous Americans say to me without realizing who I am, "Koreans throw logic completely out the window."  It's been said to me numerous times, and I get so annoyed whenever I hear it.  Those things contribute to my willful avoidance, and I've recently found myself being rather unforgiving, when I should be more empathetic.  After all, I am a westerner myself.

The other evening, while on the neighborhood bus that shuttles me to and from the subway station, I saw a white foreigner, who looked to be an American, and looked like he could have been a nice guy.  It's rather rare to see foreigners on that particular bus route, moreover, it was the first time I had ever seen one there.  I know it was the same for him also.  I can say that, because he looked right at me.  I made eye contact with him, but I acted as if it were completely normal to see another American on the bus, and I immediately looked away, and completely avoided contact.  I did it in sort of a haughty manner, and for that, I am ashamed.

I could tell he wanted to talk.  Maybe he was having a difficult time, and needed another foreigner to talk to.  Maybe he felt alone in this strange country where people "throw logic completely out the window."  Maybe he could have been a friend, so looking back on that interaction, or lack thereof, I felt bad.

I should make myself more available.  I should also be more forgiving, and I shouldn't allow my critical feelings to get in the way of being more outgoing and helpful.    

Again, as a half-Korean, despite my attitudes towards some Americans here, the longer that I am in Korea, the more I see myself as an American.  At the same time, I've always understood Korean culture, and their way of life.   All my life, I've always been accustomed to being around Koreans, and hearing a language that I don't understand, so being here has always felt rather normal.   Not to mention, I've always loved Korean food.

I realize that I can't speak for other halfies, because numerous factors can determine the quality of a person's experience, but for me, living in Korea as a half-Korean is a good life.  Being in the middle of two cultures, and feeling at home in both can be rather comforting.  I would highly recommend it to any halfie that is at home considering moving here.

Being Half Korean in America

My full name is Christopher Choi Polk.  'Choi' is my mothers maiden name, and my two brothers have it also as their middle names.  I am from a suburb of New Orleans, Lousiana, called Slidell.  I remember on numerous occasions having to correct white and black teachers on the first day of school on how to pronounce the name 'Choi.'  I remember hearing them say things like "Chow," and "Troy."
In high school, my brothers and I played football for Slidell High.  I remember our friends giving my older brother the nickname, "Bok Choi."  I became "Baby Bok," and my little brother was "Brussel Sprout."  

My mother is an amazing cook, and she used to cook Korean bar-b-que for our teammates and friends.  My brother used to joke, and tell them that my mother was cooking dog meat, and we used to tell them that the reason we had our dog, Annie (God bless her soul.  She recently died at the age of 16.) was to fatten her up for a future bar-b-que.  But they knew we were joking, and it would get a laugh, because some of our teammates that didn't know us as well as our close friends would actually believe us.  

Some of my first memories were eating kimchi and rice for lunch at the dinner table with my brothers and my mother.  I remember my mother licking the red pepper off of the kimchi, so it wouldn't be too spicy for a little boy such as the one that I was at the time. 

According to the Korean consulate, there are around 4000 Koreans living in metro New Orleans, so my mother has always had a lot of Korean friends.  As a little boy, I called each of them "ajumma."  When I got older, I called them Mrs. So and So.  

My aunt and uncle live near my mother, so between them and my mother's numerous Korean friends, hearing conversations in Korean in my house was a daily occurance, but I was never taught it, because my mother wanted us to be Americans.  Many of my foreign friends here in Korea get upset when we are hanging out with a group of Koreans, and they speak Korean to each other.  It never bothers me, because hearing a different language without understanding it is quite natural for me.  I am quite comfortable when that happens, and many times I will find myself listening and nodding along, as if I am a part of the conversation, even though I don't know exactly what is being said.  

At school, I never really saw myself as Korean.  I've always identified with my white friends, and saw myself as such, because my brothers and I never had any major problems fitting in with our white peers at school.  I was kind of a nerd/dork in elementary school, but it wasn't because I was of Korean descent, it was because I am naturally a little quirky.  I began to hang out with the popular crowd in middle school and high school, because I played football, and also because my older brother was always popular, and well liked.    

I've always looked just like my father, so people in school used to ask me if I were adopted, upon seeing my mother.  

It's ironic that I grew up calling my Korean mother, 'Mom,' and my American father, 'Appa,' which is the Korean word for dad.  He is from a town in south Mississippi near the Louisiana border, called Picayune.  He speaks with a thick southern accent, and I never realized that I spoke similarly until I heard my Canadian, and American friends not from the south tell me that they like my accent.  I am proud to be from the south, and proud to be from greater New Orleans.

Growing up, my goal was to be as white as possible, so I could fit in with my friends as well as possible, and I believe I did well, because I never had problems making friends, but despite that, fitting in with the popular crowd was difficult, not because of my Korean descent, but because of my inherent quirkiness, and the fact that, during high school, I was self-conscious of it.  

One day, as a young professional working in sales in the cellular industry, being the young single man that I was, I suddenly became interested in what Korean female celebrities looked like.  I can't explain exactly what spurred that curiosity, but I suddenly became extremely fascinated with Korean culture, and my roots as a Korean.  Throughout my academic life, I tried so hard to be white, and to suppress the Korean in me in order to fit in with my friends, and at a point in my life when fitting in was no longer necessary, I developed a strong fascination with the my Korean descent, which led me to embrace my Korean heritage.

Anyway, on a random night on the sofa with my laptop in my lap, sitting with my roommates, coworkers, and friends while relaxing, and watching a random NFL football game on the big screen at the house we shared in Baton Rouge, LA, I googled, "beautiful Korean celebrities."

Kim Tae Hee, and Song Hye Kyo were the two most prominent Korean celebrities that appeared in Google Images.  There is no denying that they are both gorgeous.  Any man would think that, and I was no different.

I was back home, and working in sales in America when Kim Yuna won the gold medal in women's figure skating at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  I was also home during the World Cup in South Africa, as I openly pulled for the South Korean team, who was rather competitive.  At the time, I would have pulled for them against America had they played each other.  And in the Olympics, I would have pulled for the Korean athlete if they were in direct competition with an American.  

A few years before that, I remember being secretly disappointed when Apolo Anton Ohno controversially won the gold medal against a Korean in short track speed skating during the Winter Olympics.  Ohno was seen sort of as a hero among Americans, but I never saw him as such.  To me, the Korean would have been, had he won. 

Kim Yuna and the Korean World Cup soccer team helped fuel my intrigue.  I began to look deeper into the blogosphere about Korean culture, because I had a strong desire to know what life was like over there.  I became addicted to learning about the culture of modern South Korea.  My hunger for info became almost insatiable.  

During the period of my fascination with Korean culture, my father, who works in the oil business, had an opportunity to accept a job in Malaysia.  My mother soon followed him, and they lived there for over a year.  While they were living in Malaysia, they suggested that we meet them in Seoul for a vacation.  My brothers, my sister-in-law, and I would fly over from America, and they would fly up from Kuala Lampur.  To say that I was extremely excited was an understatement.  It's funny how the timing of things sort of works together.  I don't believe any of it was a coincidence.  Moreover, I don't believe in coincidences.  

We spent one week in Seoul, and three days in Jeju.  When it came time to fly back to America, I didn't want to go back home.  I loved being in Korea.

Again, it's kind of funny how things work out.  Looking back, I believe it was the hand of God who blessed my desire to come to Korea, because around the time that I returned home from my vacation, I lost my job in sales.

I began to look for ways to return.  I quickly found out that teaching English was the best way to do that, and I had no problem finding a job.  I accepted a teaching position in Gwangju, and to say that I was excited when it was time to fly over the Pacific ocean for the second time in my life would be quite an understatement.

And now, here I am.

In my next post, I will discuss what it's like living in Korea as a halfie.  Stay tuned...