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.