The weight of being a “foreigner” in Korea comes and goes. Some days it’s heavier than others. Some days the term 외국인 feels like jab. Like when a co-worker who I’m close to calls me 원어민 쌤 instead of my name. Some days it can start to feel like all I am is my “foreign-ness.”
But then other days I bump into a student in the street and he proudly says to his friend, “This is my 원어민 teacher.” Sometimes I notice that my co-workers speak about me in Korean with honorifics. On those days I feel like it’s a badge of honor.
But either way it means I am alone. Not lonely, just alone.
I know they sound so similar, but I don’t think it’s loneliness that gets to me. I think it’s the alone-ness. Not in the way you would think. Being the only non-Korean person at work doesn’t make me uncomfortable. Looking different from everyone on the bus isn’t weird anymore.
It’s the glance between employees when I walk into a restaurant because they don’t want to be the one who has to talk to the foreigner, aka speak English. It’s the moment that someone realizes that I actually can speak a little bit of Korean, but then continues to not include me in the conversation.
And it doesn’t mean that those things aren’t worth doing. I love being able to speak Korean to the employees who are clearly worried about speaking English. I love when my co-workers find out that I study Korean because it shows them that I respect their country and that their language is worth my time.
I love it here. This has nothing to do with how I feel about living Korea. I’m incredibly happy with my situation. I love my little apartment, my school, my city, and especially I love my students.
But still, on my birthday I found myself, very dramatically, standing up on my roof crying. Properly crying.
Still, when I meet an old friend in Seoul I realize how much I miss the comfort of someone who knows me well.
Still, today I found myself watching a video from Korean Youtuber about his French friends’ last day in Korea. They talked about how sad they were to be leaving and how they would all miss each other so much.
After I finished that video I threw my laptop in my backpack, and decided I wanted to write about being a foreigner in Korea. Because the question I get a lot is, “aren’t you lonely?” And the answer is that I’m not really lonely, I just feel alone.
When I was teaching English in America I remember the incredible joy and privilege of meeting people from all over the world. That first summer with my Japanese friends. Fall with my lovely girls from Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and China. Spring with our group from Taiwan, Brazil, Thailand, Saudi, Korea, and me the American. People all doing, thinking, speaking, and feeling vastly different things but together, cooking the most random assortment of foods you ever saw in your life, it felt like a family.
And like that feeling from the video I watched earlier, I remember crying as we said goodbye. Of all the things that I’m proud of myself for, having been a part of that community is at the top. I’m proud of every friendship, everything I learned, and that it made me a kinder person.
We all came from different countries. We spoke different languages, wore different clothes, prayed different prayers, and ate different food. But I never once thought that we weren’t made of the same flesh and blood. We were just people.
But here I am a foreigner.
(For the record the word 외국인 in Korean just means a person who is not Korean. So any feelings I have with the English word “foreigner” may be a little misplaced. But still, there are a lot of other things I’d like to be identified as besides just “not a Korean.”)
Foreigner is not a term that we regularly use in America. Because most American families were foreigners at one point so the term shouldn’t really apply. The fact that I am American (to me at least) has less to do with my blood than it does to do with my mind.
Whether or not those ideals still hold true in America is another thing entirely.
I find myself asking people all the time if they can recommend some pretty cafe’s for me. Because, for one thing, I know how to have that conversation in Korean, but for another it’s a really easy point of connection. Korea has the most beautiful cafes in the world. And when I ask about pretty cafes, or say that reading in a coffee shop is my hobby, we almost immediately have something in common.
I’m sure there are so many deeper and more meaningful things that we have in common, but all I ever seem to talk about is cafe’s.
This is not a frustration with Korean people, but a fruitless frustration with homogeneous societies. I can’t change the fact that Korea is not a country accustomed to foreigners. No matter how desperately I try to be gentle and kind I can’t change the fact that just my presence can make people uncomfortable. No matter how hard I study Korean people will still be afraid that I might speak in English to them.
The truth, in my mind at least, is that I am not a foreigner. I am a foreigner in Korea, but I am not a foreigner. If I were to try to describe myself I would say things like; daughter, sister, teacher, christian, gentle, reader, coffee-lover, and language learner.
But here my identifier is “foreigner.”
I’m not trying to complain about being discriminated against here. Please don’t take that away from this post. If anything I usually benefit from being a white, female, American in this country.
But I also think that other “longer” term foreigners will understand what I mean about feeling alone even if you’re not lonely.
I don’t have a nice conclusion for this because there isn’t one in real life either.
I love it here. Living in Korea is fun and comfortable and I am very very happy. I just started my paperwork to renew my contract for next year. But there are certain, not so lovely, realities that come with living abroad and I want to make sure I’m giving a clear picture of what my experience is like here.
I had a conversation with a friend about this last night and neither of us were able to decide what the answer is. For now, for me, it’s to continue doing a job that I am happy to wake up every morning for, and to love my students in a way that maybe they will grow up to understand that ‘foreigner’ might describe someones nationality, but we are all still the same on the inside.
Sorry that was so long, if you made it all the way I applaud you. Thanks as always for reading. I hope this finds you well!