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 Ourselves
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,
- Legal nationality
- Race and Ancestry (aka appearance)
- Culture and language
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?
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?
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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