Lost in Translation: Being Korean-American in South Korea

Lost in Translation: Being Korean-American in South Korea | On the Street Where We Live ( aretherelilactrees.com )

In the sixth grade, I won a writing competition on the topic of ‘What America Means to Me.’ I suppose this is the sequel. But I’ll put it simply.

Being Korean-American in America:

“Where are you from?”
“New York.”
“No, I mean, where are you from?”

Being Korean-American in South Korea:

“So you’re a gyopo.”
“No, I’m American.”
“But you came back to Korea. So, you’re a gyopo.”

The difference between being Korean-American in America and being Korean-American in South Korea is the language I have this conversation in.

I crafted my American auto-reply when I was a child. They’d inflect the from and I’d inflect New York. Well where are your parents from? New York. Then, tongue-in-cheek, I’d exclaim, “Oh, you mean what’s my ethnicity…” Once that was settled (whew, what a relief!), they’d stick the landing:

“I knew you had to be Korean!” (Bingo!)
“I would have guessed Chinese/Japanese.” (That’s a fun game.)
“But your English is so good!” (I’m so lucky they let me teach it!)
“North or South?” (You have to be joking.)

In Korea, they have me try on labels (which is funny because most places don’t let you try things on) until they find the perfect fit, the one that forces me to identify as Korean but maintains enough distance for them to feel comfortable.

“But you came back to Korea. So, you’re a gyopo.”
“I came to Korea, and I’ve only ever visited once before.”
“Your parents used to be Korean. So, you’re a gyopo.”

Nine times out of ten, a white American in Korea will chime in to confirm that I am, indeed, a gyopo.

(There are slight variations in the definitions of ‘gyopo,’ but as I understand it, it is a Korean living outside of her native country, Korea. So, to put it simply, I am not a gyopo.)

It’s not so much that the label is offensive—though there is a sense of othering and a negative connotation of having lost touch with one’s ‘roots’—it’s that there has to be a label for them to feel at ease, and that the label is inaccurate. I’ve always felt quite at ease with who I am; it’s odd to me that others aren’t, and that that should matter.

Being Korean-American in South Korea is tightrope walking on a tension of double standards. Though you are but a 외국인 (waegookin, or foreigner), you are expected to walk like a Korean, talk like a Korean. After all, you kind of look like a Korean. You are Korean, and, simultaneously, a gyopo and a waegookin, and also offensive in your gyopo-waegookin ways.

Then there’s the opposite extreme, where you are fascinating for being a foreigner. And it’s particularly fascinating that you look like one of us and can talk like one of us, but you aren’t one of us. Where I fall on the spectrum depends on the day.

I’m not sure if it’s better or worse in the professional setting. Last year, at the international school in which I taught, I was discriminated against for a promotion I was overqualified for because I wasn’t Korean enough (and partly because of my age, but we’ll climb that hill another time). Before being hired for my current university position, I applied to another university whose head coordinator informed me that they do not hire Korean-Americans (only the real, just American kinds).

Such is the plight of a hyphen American (or any other hyphen identity, I’m sure). You don’t quite belong in either, not even in the one you yourself identify with, rather live in this land of limbo, lost in translation, though you wouldn’t have noticed the difference if it weren’t for all their scrutiny. You develop your approach and take it in stride—mine is deadpan sarcasm—and learn about yourself along the way.

If there’s anything I’ve learned living in South Korea, it’s that
I am an American,
and I don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks I am.

And if that isn’t American, I don’t know what is.