Being an expat is fun. Being an outsider is tough.
It’s been ages since my last post. I lived in Europe for a few years, and returned several years ago to the same town in Korea, where I’m now raising a mixed-culture family. Now that we’ve got that out of the way… Let’s get down to brass tacks: cultural barriers, making friends (?) and “being foreign” in Korea. At the beach this weekend, I took a picture of the barbed wire fencing, which stretches its way along most of the country’s coastline — a big fence to keep some people out and make others feel safe while keeping them penned in together. It seemed like an apt metaphor for cultural barriers.
Exactly a decade ago, I read that expats living in Korea will always be viewed as foreigners. As soon as I read it, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want it to color my experience in Korea. But many years into living in Korea, I can’t deny its truth. I know two women who have lived here for decades, speak fluent local dialect, married Korean men and have Korean passports. I attended a speech some years back given by one of the women on notable female figures in Korean history. A couple members of the local press approached nervously, not knowing that she was the keynote speaker, and asked her politely what brought her as a foreigner to the event. Despite actually being Korean, she will always be a foreigner.
Why is Korea called the Hermit Kingdom?
According to the infallible Wikipedia, Korea was first called the Hermit Kingdom by William Elliot Griffis’ 1882 book, Corea: The Hermit Nation.
We can’t even rely on our trusty Wikipedia for information here because Koreans are so bent on keeping their history shrouded in the rosy imagery of popular historical TV shows that Koreans troll Wikipedia vigilantly and mercilessly edit anything that might reflect poorly on their country. (Keep reading the above link to the Wikipedia article and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s like China’s secret service, only the Korean government gets the services of its vigilante “netizens” for free.
Let me state clearly that I want North and South Korea to be peaceful as much as anyone and more than most. I live here, after all, and I sincerely love many Korean people and aspects of Korea. But a fuller appreciation of the peninsula’s history and commonalities is not always easy to find online, which is why I’m writing this. Other than my initial irritation at the defensiveness of Korean netizens about their country, I hope that I do not offend anybody with this blog. In fact, it’s an interesting subject. My understanding of the truth is that olden Korea (the Joseon dynasty of 100 years ago, say) in fact seems to have had much in common with modern day North Korea that is not generally made public. Continue reading