mostly foreign

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.

9 thoughts on “mostly foreign

  1. nice post.
    i think it’s awesome that you’re in a position to help people understand these concepts…and you do.

    rightly or wrongly, i often get the impression my attempts to bring clarity to similar concepts are dismissed because i LOOK foreign. but man, i actually feel “called” (for lack of a better word) to be in korea and so long as i am, i wanna see korea improve in whatever ways it can.

    there’s no reason for korea’s “public image” to be what it is other than ignorance. some of it is willful but most of it is just a genuine lack of exposure.

  2. “Where are you from” is a perfectly polite way of initiating conversation with someone who is a complete stranger, since everyone is “from” somewhere. Consider the alternatives: “Do you have a family?” “Well…I just got divorced.” “What do you do?” “Well…I just lost my job.” “Where are you from?” avoids the pitfalls of other questions. Notwithstanding your scorn and contempt I will continue to recommend it as a polite way of talking to strangers.

    It is true that “where are you from” can become an offensive question if it is repeated after an acceptable answer (such as “New York”) has already been given, as if it were not possible for the other party to be from the place already stated. But this is a separate issue. Your attempt to turn “where are you from?” into a question that is offensive in all circumstances without exception must itself be deemed offensive.

    Nor is their anything inherently offensive in the word “foreigner.” A foreigner is simply someone who is not in the country of his legal citizenship. Except for dual nationals, everyone is a foreigner everywhere but in one country. There is nothing wrong with having a word for this state of affairs. We disgrace ourselves and poison our language if we try to turn it into a word that is to be deemed offensive in all contexts utterly without exception.

  3. “rightly or wrongly, i often get the impression my attempts to bring clarity to similar concepts are dismissed because i LOOK foreign. but man, i actually feel “called” (for lack of a better word) to be in korea and so long as i am, i wanna see korea improve in whatever ways it can.”

    I get this. Everything you’re saying.

    There’s so many misunderstandings to clear up – it’s quite engaging. And, the biggest misperception to crack is that westerners are just being critical jerks. I mean, I WAS at first… critical… and a jerk …but as you get to understand this place more and care about it, you just want to help out as much as possible.

    Actually, I think the exposure to multi-culturalism – person to person – one relationship at a time – is doing wonderful things for Korea, as long as the westerners who are here conduct themselves with some decorum and respect the culture here.

    (I like your blog, btw – must visit more often)

  4. Mockingbird:

    I said it CAN BE offensive. I, personally, never ask anyone “Where are you from?” because I don’t want them to feel unwelcome. As a person of color, I have too often been singled out as being an “other” with this question. YOU can risk this if you want.

    There are other, more interesting ways to strike up conversations with strangers than these cliche questions.

    And you missed the whole point of this post, which was to point out that Koreans use of “foreign” is not meant to be as harsh as it sounds, but that at the same time they have limited knowledge of westerners and need more and better exposure.

  5. // has a whole section on interactions between Koreans and expats.
    Scroll down a tad for the info.

  6. I don’t think it’s necessarily rude to ask someone where they’re from; but I will add that every. single. time. someone asks me where I’m from, I hope that they will accept my answer – Seattle – and brace myself for “No, you know… Where are you really from?” Like many things I think this question is all about context and maybe you should wait to ask someone until it comes up in the conversation or applies for some reason. I’m glad you’re bringing it up to your students in Korea. Why are people so defensive when issues like this are brought up? I don’t think you showed “scorn or contempt”… it’s always hard for me to see how angry people get when the status quo is challenged.

  7. Once again, Sara, you think things through better than I do, because actually, that’s how I respond to the question too.

    While it’s not necessarily always rude, it IS an avoidable dilemma: a dilemma that the privileged never have to experience. There truly are more and better ways to strike up a conversation with a stranger and there are more imaginative ways to find out information about a person.

    The keepers of English are especially virulent about these challenges, as their livelihood depends upon it. Multi-culturalism and racial sensitivity are just as valid reasons for changing our approaches to language use as any other reason.

    It’s also been my experience that people from mono-racial/cultural countries NEED to be introduced to these concepts because there has been no need to consider other race’s perceptions before.

    I’d rather err on the side of them not offending anyone, than to have them innocently incite anger in someone offended.

  8. This seems to be a common dilemma even in a diverse place such as here (Silicon Valley, CA). I basically try to keep my mouth quiet (hard for me!) unless I hear a clue that they are a recent visitor or in the odd case such as a new young colleague at work that while he is Indian,

    I knew instantly that he grew up near Philly because that is where I am from. And that is how I tend to see him. Being from the ‘hood.

    When I have spent time in more homogenous cultures such as Japan, I am quite sure I come off as goofy. Something I hope to change as we begin to spend time in Korea. And in that regard, your writing has been more helpful than anything else I have read or heard.

  9. Great post, I can totally relate to you, although I’m not a foreigner in Korea, but in Taiwan. And I’m an obvious one. I try really hard not to offend anyone and it’s really hard. I may be overly sensitive sometimes, but I don’t wanna offend someone without even knowing it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s