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.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I very much want to go to Korea to teach English some day, but am always dismayed on ESL teaching boards when I see people talking about what is wrong with Korea or wanting to change it. I agree with you; that foreigners are guests in an ancient culture and that we can learn so much from the people. I hope that I can teach, but also remember to learn when the time comes.

  2. When's the next update, Chris!!??!!?!?!?!?!??

  3. I'm half Korean and I went to Korea I loved it!

  4. Don't kid yourself, half American guy. It's funny reading this and realising that for some unknown reason, you think being half Korean in Korea gives you carte blanche to be arrogant and racist towards europeans.
    But I wonder how you would feel if you looked a little more Asian and we're treated with arrogance and racism by europeans. I myself have occasionally given dirty looks at ill mannered asians in my country and wished they would 'shutup and speak English'... try to be a little more humble.
    You were born in a democratic, liberal society remember.

  5. You sure told me! Good job, dude. Hahahahaha. I enjoy reading these, believe it or not. This is the best one I've received yet.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful insights into your experience in Korea

  7. Posted on FB, where you were quoted, but also here to get your answer. Most of what you say seems obvious to me as a non-Korean in Korea, but I fixated on that table thing.^^ . I never do that.. if we have a large group we let the restaurant know and they take care of it. But tonight I was out with a bunch of German speakers (and a few not, including myself) and they did this automatically.
    I'm interested (though I should probably ask the half-guy), Korean come in in massive groups sometimes. What do they do in these circumstances?

  8. Your article mentions things like how non-Koreans will arrange tables so they can all sit together and you say that though normal in America, it's considered rude in Korea. How would those people know? You don't find things strange in Korea because the logic behind things has been explained to you. If no one explains things to foreigners in the language they understand, how are they supposed to know? When you see Chinese tourists speaking at loud volumes in quiet places or failing to wait in line, it's because their tour guide didn't explain to them that they needed to do these things.

    I highly doubt foreigners want to piss off Koreans on purpose. It's just ignorance. Maybe if you explained things to your friend who thought that Koreans through logic out the window, he would understand too.

  9. hi im half korean. did anyone here know about half korean community in korea? i need your help because i just graduated from highh school in indonesia. And i want to get in to one of university in korea. Thanks