At the English Club I went to last month, one woman took the opportunity to speak to an ethnic Korean (me) who was also a waegukin (westerner) for a little insight, with a pointed question:
Tell me something — why are foreigners so arrogant?
“How do you mean?” I asked her.
Well, they’re just so, um, moji (she searched for the right word) I mean, stuck-up.
Last week two foreign men were so rude to me…x and y here are the only nice foreigners I’ve met…
I explained how people often thought I was rude but how in my country I’m considered pretty thoughtful and polite, and how poor the cultural training was here upon arrival, and how often I just don’t know I’m being rude.
I also explained how we spend the majority of our days with nobody really communicating with us, so we live in a little isolation bubble that becomes second-nature. I explain that we’re surrounded by a language we don’t know, and we just tune it out a lot so we don’t become overwhelmed.
But they’re still stuck up…
“Are they really?” I ask. I tell her: Remember why they are here; what their jobs are. They are being paid to be consultants on the language that comes naturally to them. It’s ridiculous, really. Most have no credentials. To make a living here they have to act like they have something special. We are only getting paid for what we give away freely where we live. We have to make what we know seem valuable if we want to live here. And Koreans bring us here and pay us for that but don’t want the other things we can teach aren’t interested in learning about our culture or anything else we could teach. And Koreans don’t really take the time to share their culture with us or show us they want to be friends or care about us.
Actually, you create us.
She nodded thoughtfully at this concept. I look at the “only nice foreigners” she’s met, and yes, they are nice enough. And kind of goofy dorks. (added: they’d be the first to joke and admit that) That can’t make money in America; that have found a niche here, or created some trumped-up expertise here. (added: that would include most of us waygooks here)
I wonder to myself — how many foreigners has she met? I am a waegukin, but because I have a familiar face I am neither as feared nor sought after as my Caucasian peers. I know I won’t be counted in that tally of foreigners met, just like I won’t be counted as a Korean.
In the classroom, the translations fly at amazingly fast speed. Occasionally a student does something a little disrespectful and gets admonished, which I gather translates something like, “give the foreign teacher a break and stop being rude.” I hear wonnami sung saeng nim (teacher) A LOT. “What does wonnami mean?” I ask. I am told it means foreign.
For the morning t.v. broadcast, we have to cover the question, “Where are you from?”
I explain how this can be offensive in America.
I’ve taken it upon myself to also be teaching about western culture, multiculturalism, individual respect, sensitivity training, personal politics, etc. I ‘m kind of slapping everyone silly here, as I don’t think anyone here has any idea that America is not what is portrayed on MTV or Sex in the City or FOX programming: they see these shows and they think we’re all hedonistic, superficial, self-centered morons with no values…
Where are you from = You’re not from here = You must be a foreigner = YOU DON’T BELONG HERE
There were some barely audible gasps in the room, and the co-teacher was nodding her head like she’d seen the light for the first time. It seems they’d not thought of calling some one a foreigner means telling them: You don’t belong. They call people foreigner all the time. To them, it simply means — not Korean.
I told them that it’s really hurtful to be called a foreigner. In America, YOU CAN’T ASSUME someone is a foreigner, simply because they look different, because everyone except Native Americans are immigrants. Especially in America, it’s really rude to ask someone where they are from, when they might have been living there all their life. Or maybe their family has been living there for three generations. In the future, Koreans won’t always be able to tell who is Korean and who isn’t Korean. To call someone a foreigner is an insult. It makes people feel BAD. Instead, we call people new or visitors.
I hope, just like all the students now call me Ms. Leith, that they also stop calling visitors to this country foreigners. And I hope, I hope that Westerners coming here start realizing that Koreans don’t know they are alienating people. And I wish, I wish Westerners would show Koreans a better face than is presented via cable t.v.
Someday, I’d like to stop being embarrassed that I’m a rude American and that I’m an unfriendly Korean.
But as an adoptee, I’ll always be both.