Ich bin ein Westerner

Foreigners Gangnam Style(Source: Republic of Korea; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Steve, who is unfortunately leaving Korea soon, has written a short but interesting post about the meanings and ramifications of the terms waekookin (외국인) in Korea and gajin (外国人) in Japan over at his blog Where is Cheongju Again?, and long-timers here especially could do much worse than take the five minutes to read it over their coffee this morning. Overall, he makes a pretty convincing case for Westerners in both countries referring to and thinking of themselves as such rather than simply as “foreigners” (the basic translation of both words), and I’ll be doing so myself from now on.

It may not sound like much, but like I said in this forum, Korea’s (and Japan’s) “bloodline”-based notions of nationalism and citizenship emphasize and exaggerate the differences between natives and non-natives to an extent rarely found elsewhere in the world, and the constant reminders of these quickly become wearisome to anyone who’s spent even just a few months living here, let alone eight years. Also, ironically, constantly hearing the term waekookin in our daily lives probably means that we come to adopt some of the same notions of division and distance ourselves too, and the effect snowballs.

A little cliched? Perhaps. But still, the term is such an immutable fact of expat life here that probably few of us have ever given some thought to it, and it surely can’t harm to do so. Not least, by a grizzled and cynical old timer like myself.

Update: If you found this post interesting, then you might want to check out this thread on Dave’s ESL Cafe too. To those of you not in Korea especially, it gives a good idea of how (over)used the word “foreigner” is here, and just how quickly it can become annoying.

22 thoughts on “Ich bin ein Westerner

  1. Ooooh, interesting. I’ve definitely given this a lot of thought in my 5 years here. I’m from the U.S., and I think of myself as a foreigner, not a Westerner. I’m middle-aged and not a teacher, and I know a lot of other foreigners here who aren’t from Western backgrounds. I think it’s precisely because we’re all Not-Koreans that we have a kind of connection to one another that transcends our national, ethnic, or cultural differences.

    Mayber young people who came here to teach English tend to know more native-English speakers, so they feel their Western-ness more than their foreign-ness.

    I’m raising kids here, so if I see other foreigners here with kids, no matter what part of the world they come from, that connection transcends the “Western” one.


  2. (James: characters corrected, with thanks!)

    Sorry, I’m nitpicking here, since I think it’s awesome that you devoted a whole post to my humble site with no readership, but the character that you wrote for gaijin is off.

    外国人 is Gaikokuji, or foreigner, in Japanese. Same as in Korean, the character for outside (外) is used for the first article. Gaijin is usually shortened to just 外人, and is taken more as an insult than gaikokujin. I’m not sure what 三国人 is (sankokujin – a person belonging to three countries? – I’ll have to look that up when I have more time.)

    I’m great to hear that you’ll start using the term westerner. I’ve been trying to get my friends in Cheongju to change, and I think they are slowly coming around to it. But as you mentioned, it is sort ingrained into us that we our foreigners, and it’s a term that I’ve come to dislike (much like the term native-teacher, but for completely different reasons. Who says that a person has to be native to be an effective language teacher? My high school Spanish teacher was born and raised in Nebraska from Scandinavian parents, and he was one of the best Spanish teachers I ever had.)

    Anyway, thanks again for the link. I really need to check the post and make sure its acceptable. I kind of wrote half of it, left it for a week, forgot my original point, then finished up during my lunch break at work.


  3. Hey. I wrote about this in a special submission for the Korea Herald’s Expat Living back before anybody read my blog. Click on my name to read it — the headline was “The Word Foreigner As An Agent of Exclusion”

    Summary: just as in the ’80s, awareness was raised, and language changed from gender-specific to gender neutral terms like business person and flight attendant, in order to eliminate gender role stereotyping in the work world and empower women, we desperately need to find a word for “foreigners” that acknowledges our contribution to Korean society, and includes us, rather than defining us as if we don’t belong here.


  4. Hello everyone, and sorry I didn’t reply yesterday. WordPress was having issues last night.

    Sandra, you’re quite right. If it weren’t for the fact that English teachers like myself only come from six decidedly Western countries (a completely ludicrous rule like Steve says) then the Western component of my identity would decrease accordingly.

    To a large extent spending time with mostly with other Westerners is a fact of expat life anywhere, but a couple of peculiarities in the Korean case reinforce it. One is that, amongst English speakers, young(ish) teachers and middle-aged engineers and their families are by far and away the largest groups out there, and just the age gap would mean that aren’t inclined to spend much time with each other, let alone the lifestyle gaps and so forth. And the gap between us and other groups like Russians and/or Indian labourers is huger still.

    The other factor is our position in Korean workplaces. 99% of teachers here are at the lowliest position in the companies we work for, and can never hope for promotion or advancement in any form. This is also ludicrous, but it does mean that we can largely ignore all the office politics and so forth that our Korean colleagues have to go through. Combined with our usually comparitively better pay and conditions, at least for those in their early-20s, then the lifestyle gap is huge again and inhibits integration. And of course, on top of that there’s the language gap too!

    Steve, you’re welcome for the link, and I’ve been very surprised at how popular this post has been, giving me a new record in my stats overnight. Had I known, I would have been more careful with the Chinese characters! I was smart enough to check the JFK quote before using it – I’d always thought it was “Ich bein Berliner” myself – but I was too tired to think too hard about “gajin” when I cut and pasted the first thing I saw in an online Japanese dictionary. I’ve studied hanja on and off for years, and once I had my coffee I realised that of course “三” is “three”…sigh, it made me look very amateurish. Thanks for pointing it out, and no need to apologise for doing so.

    Roboseyo, thanks for the link, and I would have mentioned in the original post too had I know about it. I’m not sure that I agree that “expatriate”, say, is better than Westerner, but I admit that there are alternatives and good and bad points to each. Unfortunately its very easy for us to criticise “foreigner” but the question of what is a completely satisfactory alternative is quite problematic. Not that enough Koreans have thought about it, but it would quite understandable if they did and decided to keep using the term regardless…it certainly is easier, and usually no malice is intended.


  5. I like the part about not following the rules because we are westerners. I remember when I was first here, with an colleague John (also westerner). We had been to the HOF a few times drinking pitchers of beer. One night, we were drinking at a bar when an English teacher came in and chatted with us. He mentioned that he would pretend to not know the HOF rule about ordering anju with his beer, and they always let him slide because he was a westerner. My colleague and I just looked at each other – we had not been trying to break the rules, but had truly been ignorant.

    James: I thought of myself, a middle-aged engineer, an oddity here in Seoul. You’re saying there is a large group of us somewhere? Where???

    -Chris “The Stumbler”

    p.s. I don’t break the HOF rule anymore, except at one place where I know the owner and she doesn’t mind me doing it from time-to-time, say if I’m just waiting for a friend to arrive to go to dinner.


  6. Chris, I guess that maybe the engineers I refer to are yet another sign that all my present-day opinions of Korea were really formed back when I was living in Jinju!

    Jinju is a city of about 350,000 people in South Gyeongsang province, and when I was there in 2000-2003 I estimated that there were maybe 80-100 foreigners living there at most, and quite evenly split between teachers in their early-twenties and engineers in their fifties. For reasons like I said, the interaction between the two groups was virtually zero. Since I left there’s been a lot of development south of the city, and so there’s probably far more engineers than teachers now.

    Most of the engineers actually lived and worked outside of town, and only came into the city occasionally, so I guess their relative absence in Seoul isn’t all that surprising.

    What kind of engineer are you by the way?


  7. I am still impressed about the Pakistanis in Gimhae. Some are Koreans now doing their business. Their children are Moslems attending Korean schools. They are multilingual, they have distinctive opinion about Korean men. They just do it. And the beginning was that they were contract workers years ago. From this side, Korea will maybe change more (not only by by numbers) than through the influence of oreign language teachers or engenners staying one or two years.


  8. yeah, I dont know if expat is the best replacement word, but there’s the article as it was printed.

    when I brought my article into a conversation class, one of my students suggested “weiguk-oo” instead of “weiguk-in” — “outside country friend” instead of “outside country person”, a shift in tone that was recently done in the Korean word for “handicapped” (oo instead of in – friend instead of person) to humanize that group of the population.

    Frankly, I’d take it.


  9. I don’t like the idea of 외국우…that implies a closeness that I won’t have with the vast majority of people who would use it and just because you’re calling me a friend rather than just a person, doesn’t really change the fact that you’re making a distinction based on me coming from an ‘outside country’.

    Ultimately, it is necessary to think about how you want to be distinguished from the Koreans. In the simplest form you could differentiate between 한국인 and 비한국인 (not sure if 비 signifying ‘not’ is the possible here) or 서양인 or 양국인 (meaning person from a western country)

    Alternatively, you could make very complicated and say something like 주한외출생인 meaning someone born abroad and living in Korea.

    You could differentiate between Korean and non-Korean citizens saying something like 무시민권인….

    And finally, you’d probably need to have different words to differentiate between the guy who comes to teach here for one or two years to clear his student loans and the guy that comes here settles down and effectively becomes naturalised….

    The possibilities are endless.


  10. Too tired to go over most comments now sorry, but Daeguowl, oooh, well spotted! The former will be first, assuming present stats levels continue, and just between you and me I have very big changes for the blog in the works that will go into effect on that date. All shall be revealed soo…well, in two weeks exactly I guess.


  11. surin2sayan,

    long time no hear, and you’re quite right, people like those you describe will have far larger impacts on Korea than the 99% of English teachers and English teachers who stay for only one or two years at most. Still, Koreans tend to lump all of us under the rubric of the largely negative “Waegukin” regardless, and are often quite perplexed and unsettled by especially Caucasians who don’t fit into those groups. Certainly there’s no other word used to distinguish us yet (as Daeguowl points out), which can be quite galling and frustrating sometimes.

    Roboseyo, I’d have to agree with Daeguowl: I don’t think I would take “wae-gook-oo” (외국우), as it sounds very forced and insincere. You might be interested in this post at KoreaBeat by a disabled person who thinks much the same of “jang-ae-oo” (장애우) for disbaled people. And like he says, the possibilities and problems of each are endless.


  12. Interesting post that warrants another couple hundred pages. I bought “Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics, and Legacy” a couple weeks ago based on yoru recommendation in an earlier post, but haven’t cracked it open yet. Still working on “Under the Black Umbrella,” “David Copperfield,” and the other dozen half-read, half-attempted things I have around here.

    (James: 2nd half edited for being off-topic. Sorry!)


  13. Brian,

    Oh you did? It’s #2 on my own pile, and I’m going to try and finish the last third of it next week. I seriously think it should be required reading for Koreans; they’d be shocked at how mutable, artificial, forced and exploited their often dearly-held beliefs about Korean “bloodlines” have been.

    I’ll reply to your comment about the test and translations in a seperate email soon. I’m not angry or anything, and please don’t take offense at the edit(!), but after having some issues with trolls (and starting to get a LOT of comments on some posts) I am trying to keep comments on topic as much as possible these days.


  14. Interesting post. Years ago I got to know several migrant workers, and so was always well aware of the different ways foreigners in Korea are treated based on where they’re from, or especially their skin color, so ‘westerner’ always seemed to make more sense to me.

    Did you see this Korea Beat post translating a post that disparages the use of the word ‘native speaker’ at anti-english spectrum? A commenter there notes that when Koreans travel abroad, they often refer to the people in the countries they visit as 외국인. I remember reading about a Korean store owner (obviously not a traveler, but a resident) in New York complaining about the 외국인 customers. It makes me wonder about the connotations of 외국인; perhaps it’s taken to mean something more akin to ‘outside Korea people’.

    The “Ethnic Nationalism in Korea” book sounds interesting. I’m reading “Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919” by Andre Schmid at the moment, which looks at how early ideas of Korean national identity were formed in newspapers at the turn of the century, and how Shin Chae-ho almost single-handedly combined the concept of the minjok with a bloodline stretching back to Tangun, in order to make the ethnic nation the subject of Korean history instead of the court, which had lost its power to Japan. Fascinating stuff, the consequences of which are still felt today, a hundred years after Shin published his book.


  15. Bulgasari: That’s why I hate the word “외국인” — its dictionary meaning is “outside country person” but in usage, it’s used to mean “non-Korean” — as such, it seems able to apply to non-Koreans living in Korea, or outside Korea, and can even mean non-Koreans, as referred to by Koreans who are visitors, guests, or immigrants (actual 외국인) to a country — it’s a clumsy word that should be split into three or four different words for the different contexts where it’s used, the way that in English there are the words “immigrant” “tourist” “foreigner” “local” (for when I’m traveling in China, and I deal with Chinese, for example, rather than calling the Chinese a foreigner even though she’s in her own country) and then a whole slew of hyphenated descriptions “Indo-American, Chinese-Canadian” etc.. –English has the language to make those distinctions without starting to name nationalities when we don’t know them (which is also annoying: this Canuck hates being assumed to be an American), but Korean seems only to have that one word for all non-Koreans, and the language would be better served (especially in global dealings) to add more subtlety in the way they treat non-koreans.

    Anybody know if/how that kind of hyphenation is used in Europe?

    James: as for the word 외국우, I don’t have much attachment to it; just thought I’d toss it out as a conversation starter, but the fact remains I’m crying out for language that creates more distinctions than the current is Korean/is not Korean oversimplification.


  16. Discussed this with my friend at the MOJ and she said that they had wanted to refer to us as 이민자 in official government documents but that this was rejected because it was thought that it would not be possible to differentiate between emmigrants and immigrants which are the same word in Korean.

    How about something along the lines of 래한이민자 or 주한이민자…..? (Immigrants coming to Korea or living in Korea.)


  17. Just a note. The meaning of “Japanese” has been explicitly non-racial since the Meiji constitution, long before the Americans wrote the current Japanese constitution.

    There has been talk in Japan of a “single bloodline”, but it is just that, and has never had legal standing. During the period of the Japanese Empire there was a strong understanding that “Japanese” was a neutral term, and meant that one was a citizen of a multi-racial Japanese empire. Japanese in Japan were referred to as 内地人 (pretty much meaning “mainland people”). 

    Generally terms like 民族 (race) do not appear in Japanese textbooks, but from the Korean textbooks I have read, there is a strong focus on it. Also, the term 単一民族国家 (single race state) is completely rejected, while in Korea it is explicitly accepted.


  18. I lived in Gwangju, Geollanamdo, for a year, and I was only ever called ‘miguksaram’ or ‘miguk’. I’m not even American but all strangers would use this word, kids, the elderly, university students.


  19. Hi James, I’m a 3rd year Korean Studies student, British, and I just got back from a period in Korea. It’s my first time reading your blog, and it’s kept me awake for hours, you seem to hit the nail right on the head more often than almost anyone when it comes to Korean social observation.

    Personally, I feel the biggest problem with the term 외국인 is also shared with “westerner”; and that is that it classifies a huge number of people into one group, and then excludes them from the society they are in (in the case of the former).
    Speaking from a British perspective, I live in London, arguably one of the most cosmopolitan and multi-racial places in the planet, and it’s becoming something of a typical trait of non-ignorant people here to be able to distinguish where people come from and how they might class themselves. Of course, if you are going to divide people into groups it can never be perfect, but I see no problem with identifying people as coming from the country they come from. That is to say, a Brit should be a 영국인, a French person a 프랑스인 and so on, where it is possible to ascertain.

    Having lived in Korea, I know many Koreans who clearly know where I am from, and yet I know that they will never stop thinking of me as simply a 외국인. My issue is not just with the fact that this term excludes non-ethnic Koreans, but more that it shows an attitude that you are either a Korean, or “one-of-them”. Clearly there are so many billions of people who fit into this second category that it can’t possibly be a category.

    It is my view that Westerner refers to an ideology as well as a geographical origin, and has a usage as such, but to me an American is an American, an Australian an Australian, and so on, and it surely can’t be beyond the limits of Koreans to pick up a similar system.

    sorry this comment was so long!…


    1. Seamus, just a quick note to say thanks for your comment, and I’ll reply to it properly after a good night’s sleep. A screaming baby in one hand is taking up most of my rapidly depleting energy as I type this sorry…

      (9: 36am). Not quite as good as I’d have liked…zzz…but here I am! First up, thank you for your compliments, and no need to apologize for the length of your comment: it’s not actually that long for my blog, and even if it was I’d still be happy to receive it. Secondly, apologies if you’d like some incisive commentary in reply, but then I completely agree with all of it! Just one point though, is that considering that non-Koreans still make-up as little as 2% of the population here then one can understand the lack of concern and subtlety in Koreans’ attitudes to this; even in decidedly more multicultural New Zealand in the 1990s before I came here while I intellectually rebelled against the tendency of New Zealanders to label all Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans and so on as merely “Asians”, I have to admit that I didn’t have the same sense of discomfort and mild outrage about it as I would now. But just like New Zealanders’ will surely have improved in that regard in the 8 years since I’ve lived there, by dint of the wave of Vietnamese and Filipino bride immigration at least Koreans also are slowly but surely being forced to reassess their feelings about us “foreign country people”.


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