Why The Word ‘Foreigner’ Is Used So Much In Korea

This is the first post in what I consider to be a slightly new approach for my blog. Essentially, I’m so pressed for time recently that I’m finding it ever more difficult to try and write anything original and of a sort of academic nature about Korea. On top of that I have to wait a long time between postings thinking of a decent topic for the next one. What usually happens is I think of something on the spur of the moment, start writing, get about half way through it and realise it’s going nowhere.

So, having not posted anything meaningful for a while, I’ve decided to try a different tack. Those who have been reading my blog for a while may already know, but one of the things that most aggravates me about writing this blog is that it has no specific focus other than ‘Korea.’ This isn’t enough to write a blog that contributes something new. I’ve had a personal interest in all of the posts I’ve written so far, but the number of people who gain anything from them is very small.

Therefore from this post onwards I’ll be writing instead about things that I believe people living in Korea or thinking of going there will find interesting, might want to know but have never found the answer to, or that could be of benefit to understanding and making the most of life in Korea. I won’t stop doing big semi-academic posts like this, this or this series, but they will be interspersed with posts like this one.

And so, on to the post itself – thanks for bearing with me up until now!

Many people I’ve met who have spent time living in Korea have wondered why they all get “lumped together” under the term “foreigner,” by Koreans. Of course, in the English speaking world it’s far more common to group people by nationality. There are good reasons for this, perhaps most important of all is that we’re all quite different, as are our countries. When a Korean uses the word “foreigner” as a blanket term to cover non-Koreans, although it’s not inaccurate within Korea, it does seem to imply through its prevalence that all non-Koreans are basically the same. (Caveat: Koreans are not the only people to do this, take for example the way Europe is often referred to in the US as a single entity of generally common culture and people – “I’m going to Europe on vacation,” a phrase which doesn’t actually mean anything at all as Europe has about 50 different countries in it.)

Now, this seems like a huge generalisation, and it is, for which I apologise. I’m not saying that all Koreans think all non-Koreans are essentially the same. What I am saying is that their linguistic turn of phrase implies this. It is, however, enhanced by an education which has – until very recently – emphasised the uniqueness and purity of Korean ethnicity. Remember also that Korea was once known to the outside world as the “Hermit Kingdom” – a moniker that was well earned. There was a period when Korea intentionally shut itself off from the world, seeking isolation, and such attitudes do sometimes understandably linger in Korean society. Koreans have a very strong group mentality and a collective will to promote Korean interests. Again, generally speaking, all Koreans are on the same side as each other – the side of Korea. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, although some people have called Koreans nationalistic, that’s not where I want to go with this post as it’s far too subjective a term and quite irrelevant to this topic.

Instead, what I feel is necessary to understanding the all too common use of the word “foreigner” is that Koreans see themselves as a collective, as an “us,” which automatically makes everyone else “other” and “them.” This is reflected linguistically by using a word to cover all “others.” Now, let’s be realistic, the word “foreigner” is also used in English, and when used to describe someone who is in a country other than their home country is perfectly correct. However, I think in the English language at least, the word “foreigner” has generally negative connotations, and rarely if ever can it be used in a positive way.

This, I think, is what attracts the attention of expats in Korea, because the word “foreigner” appears frequently in English language media in Korea, and rarely are terms such as “British,” or “French” used where they would be in English to create a narrower and more unique description of someone. When English speakers read the term “foreigner,” used in their own language but by a Korean, subconsciously the word has neutral or negative connotation, combined with the idea of “they’re all the same,” – one which is rejected in western society. This, however, cannot be said to be the intention of the Koreans who use this term.

Any non-Korean in Korea is certainly a foreigner in the true sense of the English word, and so regardless of whether that would be the word we would choose to use over one such as “German,” or “Canadian,” Koreans writing in a foreign language are not making a mistake if they say “foreigner.”

More important than this reason, though, is that “foreigner” is given as the standard translation of the Korean word “외국인.” If we think about that word, it is composed of three chinese characters which have the meanings of: outside (외), country (국) and person (인). Therefore, the Korean term clearly is not an exact equivalent of the English term “foreigner.” Instead it means “outside country person.” To gain further understanding of this term we must also realise that in Korean, the character “국” is often attributed further meaning outside of the literal “country.” That is, it is often used to mean The Country, or Korea. To give a couple of examples, 국사 and 국어 are both subjects taught in Korean schools, meaning national history and national language respectively. The literal meaning, however, would be country history and country language. Despite this, we know that they are referring to Korean history and Korean language.

This is a linguistic and cultural difference. Of course it would seem very strange to teach an English class in Britain or America or any other English speaking country under the name National Language class. Not in Korea, where terms using the character 국 can mean country, or the Korean nation, depending on context. This all means that the Korean word 외국인 actually has the meaning of a person from a country outside or other than the Korean nation.

I think it is probably this different semantic approach (and the lack of recognition of it) that causes confusion sometimes. In the English language one becomes a foreigner by being in a country other than their own. In Korean, one becomes a foreigner by being from a different country to someone else. In the Korean sense, a Korean is a 외국인 to you even in Korea, and you will be a 외국인 to Koreans even in your own country. The problem occurs when the accepted translation is: foreigner<–>외국인, despite the fact that these words are used subtly differently in each language.

In English, distinctions are made along lines of nationality (American, Armenian etc), whereas in Korean they are made according to whether the person being referred to is from the same country (the same “us”) as the person doing the referring (우리 나라 사람, 외국인 etc).

As to why terms denoting nationality are not more commonly used in Korea, I think that’s basically historical and cultural. Some time in the future, after Korea has had more experience of people from different countries coming into Korea, and after more Koreans have been going in numbers to more different countries, there will be an increase in terms referring to nationality, rather than the blanket “외국인” as accumulated knowledge and experience will require it to acknowledge the differences between countries and peoples that may seem obvious us, but not necessarily to others. When I was first encountering this issue in Korea, I had to ask myself a few times, “what reason would a Korean have for assuming I was really fundamentally different from an American, or a French person, or an Irish person?” (I’m British). The answer is, most Koreans would have had no reason to assume there was any great difference culturally, in my appearance or in anything else. That’s not to say they’re wrong to think that, as it’s clearly no different than the ‘westerners’ who don’t understand why Koreans are meaningfully different from the Japanese or Chinese.

16 Responses to “Why The Word ‘Foreigner’ Is Used So Much In Korea”

  1. I'm no Picasso Says:

    The thing that’s really been catching for me, lately, are the phrases “우리 나라” and “우리 말”. They’re sort of the most natural ways to refer to Korea and Korean in Korean, but I’m some how fundamentally locked out of using these expressions — Korea is not my country, and Korean is not my language. Although it’s a small and easily handled tick in the language, I can’t help but feel like it’s symptomatic of something, some way of thinking that Korea is going to have to face and address in the very near future, if it truly wants to be a global country. You can’t be a global country without foreigners, and you can’t have foreigners stick around without giving them avenues into your society and your culture.

    Of course, I’m not really thinking about this so much in terms of English teacher foreigners (who on the whole do not even concern themselves with thinking longterm about “belonging” in Korea), but more in terms of the foreign wives and half/half children who are appearing all over this country. I don’t know enough about it to comment, but I somewhat suspect that the children resulting from these marriages would be, in at least some cases, considered or referred to as “외국인” as well. And this is the problem with basing foreignness on ethnicity. Techncially, even by the Korean definition and understanding of the word “외국인”, these children don’t qualify — they are born in Korea, grow up speaking Korean….

    Again, I’m making assumptions. I’ve never spent time around anyone in this situation, or around Koreans while around someone in this situation. But I’m guessing it’s a good place to look for slightly more complicated issues surrounding this particular word.

    Ee-gads. Sorry for the essay….

  2. Seamus Walsh Says:

    Thanks for the comment, and I think you raise a very interesting issue. It’s certainly something that puzzles a lot of people when they go to Korea, because in every other language I know anything of it’s such an unnatural thing to say.

    I know what you mean about it reflecting a certain attitude whose time has surely passed. I once asked my professor about it, and he believed it was something that begun during the colonial period, which explains a lot if we assume my professor was correct! I’m sure we can all justify having such an attitude then, but what I also really struggle with is why, from the end of the colonial period up until now, there doesn’t seem to have been a single movement or popular sentiment from within that “우리” to put an end to its usage.

    In fact, I’ve discussed this with a few Koreans (not a lot, I’m not trying to say they’re completely representative) and it seems to me that the thought that non-Koreans might feel excluded or offended by hearing such phrases has never crossed their minds. I suppose when Koreans move away to more cultures in bigger numbers, and when they experience immigration on a larger scale and allow non-Koreans to participate more fully in society then awareness of the impact of terms like these must surely increase.

    Another thing that was interesting to me was something that happened when I was studying in one of the big Korean language schools. My teacher, who was generally very keen to learn about the places her students came from and to learn about them, asked us what we found strange/unusual – but in a good way – about Korea, and she suggested use of the word “우리” as an example. When someone didn’t exactly know what she meant, she explained about 우리 나라, 우리 말, 우리 학교, 우리 엄마 etc etc in such a proud way, and she seemed to think that we’d all be really impressed by this.

    I know what she was getting at, she thought we’d surely be impressed at Korea’s unity, togetherness and patriotism, but I think actually that’s not how it comes across at all when terms like that are used. The fact that she couldn’t see how we might actually view the term “our country” as exclusive, unwelcoming and unfriendly shows that something is lacking in her education. By education I don’t just mean what she learnt at school, but also from the media, from the government, from society as a whole. To not understand that being on the outside of “우리” isn’t something people are too happy about, especially when they’re constantly reminded of it, means something must be lacking. And to think it’s something to be proud of that Koreans think like that to the extent that it is represented in the language seems to me like the sort of thing that gets mentioned in schools for non-educational purposes, a bit like this: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2010/04/05/41/0302000000AEN20100405005700315F.HTML

    • garrettrathke Says:

      My wife is Korean and I speak fluent Korean. When I first started learning the language, what really threw me for a loop was 우리 아내and its counterpart 우리 남편. I had to stifle more than a few chuckles, but now I’m just used to it.

  3. saharial Says:

    “you will be a 외국인 to Koreans even in your own country”

    this is so true. Here in the Uk my Korean friends at church, and particularly the older generation, use ‘foreigner’ as a method of defining who I am. I tease them about it though and ask, when they think i might not like something, if its because i ‘m a foreigner 😉

    • Seamus Walsh Says:

      Hi Saharial, thanks for the comment.

      I’ve seen you at London Korean Links (I presume you’re the same person?!), and I was just wondering if you actually live in London? You don’t have to give me your address or anything, it’s just that I’m in a different part of the UK, but somewhere where there’s also a small Korean community, many of whom I know and who go to our local Korean church.

      • saharial Says:

        hi, 🙂 yeah, I’m the same saharial as LKL. I lived in London until about 2 years ago, but i still commute there for work every day and the korean church on sunday 🙂
        are you north or south of the uk?

      • Seamus Walsh Says:

        I also used to live in London, but now I’m in Yorkshire. I lived quite far away from the Korean community in London so I never really got to know it.

  4. 박준구 Says:

    Jumping on this post pretty late but I just stumbled upon it today. Good post and something I’ve thought about a lot since coming to Korea. I just had a few comments I wanted to add.

    “…the character “국” is often attributed further meaning outside of the literal “country.” That is, it is often used to mean The Country, or Korea. To give a couple of examples, 국사 and 국어 are both subjects taught in Korean schools, meaning national history and national language respectively. The literal meaning, however, would be country history and country language. Despite this, we know that they are referring to Korean history and Korean language.”

    The Chinese character 國 (국) means ‘nation, country, state’ and it is also used in Chinese and Japanese in the same way it is used in Korean. It is slightly incorrect to say that 국 “is often used to mean The Country, or Korea.” Yes, it is often used to refer to Korea, but it doesn’t have the sense of ‘The Country’, it is can almost always be translated as ‘Nation/National’ and it functions in exactly the same way.

    For example, If I’m on a US News program and I mention the ‘National Economy’ I don’t need to specify which Nation’s Economy I’m talking about because the context makes it clear that I mean the “US National Economy’. However if I’m on the BBC talking about the the same subject I would need to say ‘US Economy’ instead of ‘National Economy’ because it would be confusing otherwise.

    This is why within Korea you can talk about 국사 and 국어 and everyone knows you mean Korean History and Korean Language but if you’re in another country talking about Korea, or for some other reason the context isn’t clear, you need to say 한국사 and 한국어.

    To further illustrate, 국사 (國史 / 国史) and 국어 (國語 / 国语) are also taught in China and Japan except that they refer to Chinese History and Chinese Language or Japanese History and Japanese Language depending on what country you’re in. Perhaps more interesting than Japan or Korea where you have an undisputed national language spoken by everyone, is Taiwan where you have a widely spoken indigenous dialect but 국어 (國語) refers to Mandarin Chinese.

    “…it would seem very strange to teach an English class in Britain or America or any other English speaking country under the name National Language class.”

    I agree that it would be strange because the name sounds strange, but really that is exactly what English classes are in the UK or US. Just because there is no natural sounding equivalent expression in English doesn’t mean that the Korean concept is strange. In English we have National Flowers (국화), National Anthems (국악), National Flags (국기), yet we say ‘official language’ (공용어) instead of ‘national language’ (국어). In the UK this may be because of their colonies; could you really have said that English was the ‘national language’ of India? Indians may have been offended. And even within the British Isles tempers may flair a bit if English were referred to as the National Language. So my guess is ‘official language’ became a way of hedging a bit and weakening the term. Anyway, I think the reason ‘National Language Classes’ sounds weird in English is just a quirk of the English language and it shouldn’t be held against Korean because in this case the Chinese/Korean/Japanese is certainly more consistent than the equivalent English.

    I’m curious though how the Japanese referred to the Korean and Japanese languages during the occupation period and whether this changed when they made teaching in the Korean language illegal towards the end of the war.

    Also, these terms with 국 in them are definitely related to the building of national identity that happened for the Japanese during the Imperial period, for the Koreans in the post war period, and for the Chinese in the Communist period.

    Illustrative of this trend for using 국 a lot for nation building purposes is that after liberation Korean Elementary Schools (초등학교) were changed from the Japanese Occupation era ‘심상소학교’ (which means something like the Emperor’s Citizen School) to ‘국민학교’ (which means something like National People’s School). It was changed to 초등학교 in 1996. Also it’s quite common for Chinese people born in the 50s-70s to have 국 in their names as it is very patriotic sounding. Maybe most famously actor Leslie Cheung (張國榮, in Korea known as 장국영).

    Regarding 외국인, I prefer it to the Japanese 외인 (gaijin) which would be just ‘outsider’. In Korea I feel like I can be a 외국인 and yet still have a meaningful role in society and be accepted by Koreans, that is, I may be from a foreign country but I am not excluded from other aspects of Korean life. With 외인 it feels like I am outside of everything and will always be an outsider and never be accepted. To me, 외국인 is a more factual expression whereas 외인 is more emotional. The difference between “You’re not from here so you don’t understand” and “You’re not one of us so you don’t understand.”

    I have a question, how would you like people to refer to you in Korean? Do you prefer 외국인 (foreigner) or 백인 / 흑인 (white person / black person) or 서양인 (Westerner)? Are there any others? These are the only ones I’ve heard before…

    Personally I prefer 백인…I just think it sounds good.

  5. osangjin Says:


  6. ‘Foreigner’ (외국인) and its Use in Korean Society | Fathoms : Korean and English Says:

    […] (외국인) and its Use in Korean Society Posted on July 26, 2010 by Galinaros Seamus Walsh wrote, albeit some time ago, about the use of the word ‘foreigner’ (or 외국인) in Korean […]

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  10. LB Says:

    This is an old blog, but I feel the need to comment anyway 😉

    1) I’d say for the past ten years at least, the word ”foreigner” has had negative connotations also.

    2) In addition, the question ”what do foreigners think about xyz?” (a frequent question) does not fit your above explanation. The word foreigner IS used to lump everyone together and stereotype. To which I answer, ”I have no idea. There are more than 100 countries outside Korea, and more than 6 billion people. Even people within a culture have different opinions.” I don’t care about what the asker thinks of me afterwards.

    3) Korea is now a multicultural, multi ethnic country. For example, a child who is born to two American parents (both Caucasian, for example) but has Korean nationality, speaks Korean as their first language, identifies with Korean culture and has lived in Korea all/most of the lives is NOT a foreigner, yet they are referred to as such. These children are hurt when they are referred to as a ”foreigner” because they are not one, and they looking different seems to confer them being a ”foreigner”, an ”outsider”. Another example, Koreans think ”black” people in Western countries are foreigners there and come from Africa. Therefore, ”foreigner” does not just mean ”from an outside country” it also means anyone who does not have Korean ethnicity or an ethnicity that is not ”indigenous” to a country (with the exception of North America, Australia, New Zealand and South America). The definition of ”foreigner” in Korea needs to change.

    • Martin Roberts Says:

      LB: “Therefore, ”foreigner” does not just mean ”from an outside country” it also means anyone who does not have Korean ethnicity or an ethnicity that is not ”indigenous” to a country (with the exception of North America, Australia, New Zealand and South America).” This is a great point. “Foreigner” is basically a nativist term i.e. related to the idea of being indigenous to a particular territory. On that score, any non-indigenous person from a settler society (including North and South America, Australia) would be considered “foreigners.”

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