Thursday, September 19, 2013

Charles writes in

Telling me that his comment to my post on Korean hostility toward Korean-speaking foreigners was too long for the comment thread's 4096-character limit, my buddy Charles sent me his full comment by email. I asked Charles's permission to publish the comment as a separate post; he kindly assented, so, for a single post at least, Charles becomes that rarest of rara avis, a guest blogger on the Hairy Chasms.

I came to terms with my place in Korea a long time ago. It used to annoy me when Koreans would say, "You're practically Korean!" (한국사람이 다 됐어요!), because everyone knows that's not true. Now, though, I'm past even that, and just accept it for what it is: an awkward compliment.

As far as actual hostility toward foreign speakers of the language [goes], I am a bit skeptical. My Korean is good enough, and Koreans generally have one of two reactions when I speak Korean: blithe acceptance of something they see as completely natural and expected, or excitement and glee at a foreigner having gone to the trouble of learning their language (and thus saving them the trouble of having to fumble through an awkward conversation in English). I have met Koreans who are reluctant to speak Korean with foreigners, generally because they pride themselves on their English ability, but their reactions are not what I would classify as "hostile."

There is one exception to this rule, though--that is, Koreans who react with genuine hostility toward a foreigner who speaks Korean: Koreans who have lived sheltered lives abroad. For example, a guy is born in Korea, but he moves to the States at a young age. His English skills are poor at first and thus he fails to integrate into the local community, becoming something of a pariah in his own eyes. He spends his formative years shut off from most of the world around him and develops a "persecution complex" in which white people are the aggressors. Though he will eventually learn to speak English just fine, he will always feel that the white people look down on him, and he will resent them for this (whether it is true or not).

Now, take this guy and bring him back to Korea. Now the tables are turned. He may not be open about his feelings, but he relishes being on the other side of the equation, with the white person now being the one on the short end of the language-barrier stick. So when a white person who can speak fluent Korean comes along, he panics, feeling himself shrink back into his persecuted shell. He has two options now: he can retreat or he can attack. But he spent the whole of his formative years retreating in a foreign culture. Now he is on his "home turf" (and I won't get into all the insecurity he feels having missed out on his formative years here), and there is no way he is going to retreat again. If his own Korean is not up to par (which is very likely), he will be even more volatile.

Add to this the fact that, while life can be difficult for foreigners in Korea, white foreigners have many advantages that non-white foreigners do not have. So while life can sometimes be frustrating, the truth is that we (white foreigners) have it pretty easy. Now this guy comes back from a society where white people have the overwhelming advantage, only to find that they have an advantage (of sorts) in Korean society as well. Given all this, it is not that surprising that he feels the need to put the white person in his or her place. Thus he attacks, and you get open hostility.

The above may have sounded hypothetical, but I actually had a specific person in mind when I wrote it. I have run across a number of people like this during my stay in Korea. Their reactions run the gamut from condescension to hostility. For example, I knew one girl who claimed that she just could not speak Korean with (white) foreigners because it was too "weird." It didn't matter how fluent in Korean her interlocutor was, she would reply in (fluent) English. I suspect that, in her case, she harbored some insecurity over her own Korean ability and felt the need to assert herself through English.

My first encounter with such a person left me baffled, but over time I learned to identify these people more quickly. Now I can generally tell right away if I am dealing with such a person, and if so I steer clear of them. Perhaps I am being cynical, but there is nothing you can do to prevent the hostility. The issues are too deep-seated, too ingrained in the person's psyche to be dislodged by a mere acquaintance. The best thing to do is identify and avoid.

In summary, I've had my own issues with language and identity over the years, and the emotions involved are not easy to explain or quantify. But I can say that, while I have run across the rare Korean who does seem to be somewhat uncomfortable speaking Korean with me, the only Koreans I have ever encountered any open hostility from when speaking Korean have been those who spent their formative years in a country (usually the U.S.) where they did not speak the native language well. Koreans who move to the States early enough to assimilate linguistically and Koreans who move to the States after their formative years do not seem to react the same way.

A lot of that is generalization, of course, but it's a pretty good description of my experience.

Thanks, Charles. I'm not sure I've ever encountered the type of Korean you're talking about, but I'll be on the alert for him—the bitter, formerly(?) linguistically incompetent ex-expat who is loaded down with insecurities and resentments—from now on.



Charles said...

Guest blogger on the Hairy Chasms? I have truly arrived!

John said...


It's not the same thing Charles is talking about, but I'm acquainted with two adopted Koreans here in Columbia. Neither speak any Korean. One has expressed an interest in having Jee Yeun tutor her 4 year old (half-white) daughter in Korean. The other (a bartender at my local pub)has no interest in Korea or Korean culture and doesn't seem to appreciate it much when I invariably greet her or order beer in Korean. Which I guess is technically rude on my part, but after a few beers I see a pretty Korean face and feel like I'm back "home".