How To Define A Gyopo

How To Define A Gyopo

While living in Korea, I’ve heard countless introductions and I have introduced myself countless times. The most frequently asked question I hear is “Where are you from?” or “Are you Korean?”

I have noticed that what I say next greatly affects how I will be treated.

I can respond with “I am Korean, but I have lived abroad for a long time”, or I can say “I am a British Gyopo”. One response suggests that I am more native Korean, while the other suggests that I am a foreigner.

Every now and then, I encounter native Koreans who get confused, and some say ‘Oh, so you’re not Korean?”. It’s a difficult question because I am Korean, but not necessarily a native Korean to some standards. Many gyopos living in Korea have probably experienced something similar.

How We Define OurselvesI have had my own identity denied to me (3)

Some gyopos identify as an American, Canadian, Australian etc, while others identify as fully Koreans, who have only experienced or lived in another country.

Second generation immigrants, who were born in another country and have never lived in Korea identify as a citizen of their birth country. Gyopos who have lived their significant years in Korea or were educated in Korea, may identify as Korean.

A gyopo may never be confronted with problems with their identity if they stay overseas, however when living in Korea and interacting with natives, your ethnicity and nationality may be questioned.

How We Are Defined By Others

The decision isn’t always up to the gyopo, sometimes, it is up to the other party to judge for themselves where a gyopo stands on the spectrum of native Korean and foreigner. The three most important indicators seem to be,

  1. Legal nationality
  2. Race and Ancestry (aka appearance)
  3. Culture and language

I have had my own identity denied to me (2)Legal Nationality

While the order of importance may change depending on the individual, most overseas Koreans seem to be judged on this spectrum. Their legal citizenship is the ultimate decider as it is evidence of how long they have lived in a country and the birth place.

However, when meeting someone for the first time, their legal nationality is not identifiable, so some people rely on more obvious factors to decide.

Race and Ancestry

Physical characteristics are a big giveaway for most. For instance, a Korean-Canadian who looks like a native Korean, may experience less problems fitting in. Having two Korean parents and being raised by them also shapes how some people judge how Korean someone is.

Culture and Language

For most gyopos, it mostly comes down to culture and language. How much of someone’s lifestyle and habits have been shaped by absorbing from a country’s culture can be the final decider.

There are native Koreans who don’t enjoy mainstream media and don’t follow popular opinion, but they are still respected or at least their unique taste is acknowledged. However, if a gyopo does not follow mainstream ideals, then more often than not, their international background is seen as the cause.

For instance, I know Koreans who can’t eat spicy food at all, and they are just seen as having a specific personal preference. However if a gyopo does not like spicy food, they are ever so slightly judged for losing touch with their Korean heritage.

If you are  fluent in Korean language, you could be seen as a native Korean. Language seems to be the most obvious signal, as accents can give away your background. Some may consider advanced Korean to be good enough to pass as native, while others may say it is slang and phraseology which truly signifies someone who has been immersed in Korean life.

Who Am I?I have had my own identity denied to me (1)

My citizenship is British (although initially I was Korean), but ethnically I am 100% Korean. Nationality denotes the country in which you were born, so I should have a Korean nationality as I was born in Seoul and my parents were both Korean nationals at the time of my birth, but South Korea has recently changed the laws so an individual cannot have a Korean nationality without a Korean citizenship; therefore legally my nationality in the eyes of the Korean government is the United Kingdom.

Considering that I have lived in England for exactly 92% of my life, and I have a British passport, it would make sense that I embrace my British identity. However, due to my appearance, family influences, the culture I consume and language skills, I want to be accepted as a native Korean too. I like having elements of my identity shaped by both Korea and England, but I don’t like the powerlessness of being defined by others.

Always A Foreigner

A part of me doesn’t want to be considered a foreigner in Korea because I was considered a foreigner in England. This is the reality of a third culture kid; unable to fit in both countries, as the child of immigrants. As I deliberately make an effort to connect with Korea, when I am labelled as a foreigner, it disregards my efforts or at least questions my abilities.

Will Standards Change?I have had my own identity denied to me

Isolated countries like Korea and Japan have been reluctant to truly accept outsiders as their own, in
comparison to the US, which was built off of immigrants. While attitudes towards foreigners are changing for the better, it is unclear if these changes have also correlated to overseas Koreans.

Getting your appearance and language skills judged to see if you qualify to be accepted in your mother country is always a sensitive topic. Everyone wants to feel welcomed deep down. Many are too nice and polite to disagree, but from my personal experience, I have had my own identity denied to me by others.

As South Korea grows more international and as the number of mixed-race and overseas Koreans rise, popular opinion will undoubtedly change. The question is when and how long will it take? And if these changes do occur, will it also affect Korea’s close-knit sense of patriotism?

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  1. 1

    Only just come across your website……..and alot resonates with me because I am a British born Korean. Interesting to find that you feel like a foreigner in the UK, when 99% of the time, I am not treated like a foreigner, but due to my lack of Korean language skills, I am treated almost like a complete foreigner in Korea. Having said that, every effort I put into my language skills in Korea is greatly appreciated and I find that really encouraging. Almost like a desire, from native Koreans, to see a gyopo become more Korean.
    I’d also say that in terms of how I see myself, has been dependent on my age. As a kid, my parents didn’t actually talk to me much in Korean. As a teenager, I rebelled because I was confused over my identity, so I became far more English, because my parents were working so hard. In my twenties, I was living away from home and not surrounded by Koreans, instead focussing on my work. In my thirties, I became more interested, but life was too hectic. Now I’m 40, I’ve completely re-attached myself to wanting to learn about Korea and am planning a series of trips to Korea to learn the language and understand the way of life out there.
    For me, I’d love to connect with other gyopos. The gyopos I know, we all find alot in common, mainly dealing with “Korean parents” in a western society!!! Usually creates alot of laughs when I do meet other gyopos.
    Good luck with the blog………it’s a really interesting read.

    • 2
      Nicky Kim

      Thank you so much for your insight. As I am living in Korea and 90% of my friends are native Koreans who can’t speak English (and have never the country), they always remind me of my western traits. I completely understand everything that you mentioned, and I think that our efforts will be all worth it in the end. Thanks again for reading and have a lovely day!

  2. 3

    We, gyopos, are cultural hybrids. Nothing wondering why we do not fit standard normals as we represent peculiar fusion of our multilayered backgrounds, resulting into a completely new quality. We all have a story. For instance, I was born in a Korean family, which has been residing in Russia for about century, since my ancestors had to leave their homeland during colonial time in 1920. My parents speak no Korean, so now I have to learn it as my third language using English, which also is not my native tongue. This makes me a complete foreigner in Korea, despite my origin immediately centers everything in this country. Korea has always been a mystery to me. However, I have to experience deep alienation and confront rejection of the natives due to my cultural foreignness in Seoul. This makes me to think that gyopos represent kind of alternative, transcultural and translingual Korea distributed worldwide, but this is our reality and it constantly challenge our identity.

  3. 4

    I’m a German Gyopo, meaning that I was born and raised in Germany and only visited Korea in the holidays till now. I’ve graduated school last year and came to Korea for my year abroad. While I was sometimes judged by my outward appearance in Germany, some people here in Korea (even part of my relatives) say that I look like a ‘Gyopo’ – whatever it means… .I’ve also only acquired my German citizenship last year and I have to say that this decision wasn’t easy at all. Never did I feel either Korean or German but always felt like I was split apart. This thought was troubling me a lot in my puberty phase but now I’m glad to be a ‘Gyopo’. Being the way I am, I was able to grow up with two cultures and a more open mindset to how we define ourselves…it’s not about your race or background – it’s just simply yourself.

  4. 7
    Daniel Lim

    Thank you for your well written article. As a Korean American gyopo I’m looking to find that peace of mind middle ground when it comes to my heritage and identity. But my case however may a bit more unique as I have lived in three different countries and not by my choice. You see I was born I in Korea and immigrated to Chile with my family when I was 3 years of age; due to my father getting scouted by the Korean embassy in Chile we left Korea and that was 1983. So I grew up in South America and spoke Spanish like a native. However, in 1991, due to family matters, my parents decided to move once this time to New York. I was 12 years of old and did not like the idea of leaving all my friends behind. Fast forward I lived in New York for 26 years. Then just like many gyopos dealing with identity issues and needing to resolve them, or at least finding some kind of resolution, I moved to Korea in the summer of 2015; and have been living here ever since. To be honest Chile and Spanish people are still the ones I relate and feel comfortable the most, even though I spent the majority of my life in New York. It was even more evident when I came to Korea because I cannot relate to native Koreans at all. I’m sorry to any natives reading this but they seem so narcissistic and condescending a lot of the times. I’m from New York where we are known to be rough and straightforward but I think NY’s got nothing on Korea. Anyway, when I thought coning to Korea would somehow resolve some of my inner conflicts with my identity issues it only further re-enforced the idea that I truly belong to a sub-sub-culture group, meaning, a little bit Hispanic, a little bit American and a little Korean; probably mostly due to my love for soondae. I guess it was more an acceptance of what I was rather than some kind of resolution. If given a choice to go back in time and never have left Korea perhaps I would take that choice. I suspect most people would choose the multicultural experience route and in some ways I would encourage it. But for me feelig that sense of belonging to a specific group has always been that gold pot at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps it will change as I become older, or perhaps not. Well, it was nice getting it out of my system. Thanks for reading. It would be nice to talk to other gyopos in Seoul.

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