Lifestyles of Different Foreigners Here
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
There are many foreigners in Korea. Because our lives center on exchanging our ideas and feelings with other English-speaking people in Korea, we tend to focus exclusively on those who use English as their main medium of expression. But who are they?
Let's first divide the English-speaking foreigners into two groups: Special Foreigners and Ordinary Foreigners.
The "Special Foreigners" come to Korea as visitors, for business, for duty as military personnel, and for sightseeing. Their stay in Korea is relatively short and limited although exceptions apply and largely confined to their business agenda, tourist schedules, or military-duty definitions, respectively.
The tourist-visitors stay at specific housings like hotels specially provided for them. In most cases, their contact with Korea leaves them with a happy-to-indifferent recollection as they depart from Korea. If they are businessmen, their recollection is largely determined by their business contacts and encounters; if they are military related, then their impression of Korea tends to be marginal but personal; if they are tourists, they determine their reaction to Korea on the basis of their tourist experiences.
It is the second group, the "Ordinary Foreigners," mostly here to teach English in various capacities, that tends to remain actively interested in what's going on and maintain a good-sized cache of knowledge about Korea's politics, history and culture.
In fact, many claim a status of an "expert" on matters Korean and they make up the bulk of those who read the English newspapers in Korea and participate in their on-line exchange and form a face-to-face "community" among them. This is the group that the Korean media commonly refer to as "foreigners" in Korea.
As a general practice, the foreigners from the Third-World countries who come to Korea as contract laborers are almost never mentioned as "visitors," and are described as "foreign laborers," mostly in the problematic nature of abuse, mistreatment, law violations, and Korea's cultural maladjustment with them. Like the native Indians and Amish in America, these laborers remain invisible culturally and virtually nonexistent psychologically.
The Ordinary Foreigners may be further divided into the "native speakers" and "gyopos." The native-speaking foreigners are predominantly white and come from the U.S., Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries. They occupy the front ranks of English-teaching foreigners; they are active in the cultural-intellectual life of "expats" in Korea and normally articulate their feelings and experiences through on-line and personal exchanges that occur throughout the expat community in Korea.
As persons accustomed to the democratic-individualist upbringing of their societies, they are vocal and quick to point out things to their liking or disliking. Their Internet-based exchanges among themselves, for example, quite exquisitely reveal the peculiar nature of their woes and ecstasies, joys and sorrows, and pains and pleasures of working and living in Korea. Some of those who plan to stay in Korea for a long haul marry a Korean and settle here and learn to be the new members of their spouses' extended family network.
While these English-teaching native speakers are here in Korea basically seeking employment, their self-image and standing in Korea are considered quite different from those of the afore-mentioned third-world laborers, such as workers from Bangladesh or the Philippines.
Although both work in Korea under work visas and under Korean bosses, the native speaker displays little of the humility or submission to authority that the Third-World laborer does. English-teaching foreigners tend to feel, only if subconsciously, entitled to a specially-privileged position as they tend to be lighter in skin color, come from advanced nations, and teach a subject in Korea that is exotic and hungered for.
The difference between Third-World workers and English teachers is somewhat like the difference between first-class passengers and lower-class passengers on the Titanic; the former tend to enjoy a higher status and privilege.
But in the end, both face the same fate: the iron laws of reality that apply to all. Few native speakers are ironically inclined enough to recognize this simple absurdity as they expect to be treated differently from those from Bangladesh or the Philippines. As bitter and rancorous about this injustice as they might feel, but lacking in the intellectual and cultural mechanisms to express their feelings, the third-world foreigners keep their feelings mostly to themselves and go about doing their backbreaking work.
Here develops an interesting sociological phenomenon worthy of further thought: The nature of work for the Third-World laborers and for the English teachers. The work that the Third-World laborers must perform is famously recognized as "dirty, dangerous and difficult," something most Koreans shun.
Teaching English, on the other hand, takes place at a corporate office, in a classroom, or at a private setting, somewhat cushy and clean, and certainly not something most Koreans would shun.
But, as is widely felt but seldom acknowledged, English teaching in Korea, especially to the younger kids, is actually one of the most excruciatingly painful ways of earning a living. While there is a genuine exchange of knowledge for pay taking place somewhere, teaching English to always-tired and mostly-indifferent pupils is like pulling teeth. Some teachers find meaning in it with great personal ingenuity and determination, and we hear success stories and happy endings.
But by and large, English teaching in Korea is no fun and games and, in its grueling and uninspiring repetition, is far removed from an ideal employment. As members of the working class performing certain expected functions for their employers, English teachers and Third-World laborers share this miserable fact in common, yet only dimly admitted or recognized by the former group.
Third-World laborers send their earnings home to support their families; English-teachers, basically individualist and ego-driven, focus on their personal enjoyment. Their employers, however, hold the purse string in both cases.
The gyopos, the second group among the English-speaking foreigners, being ethnically Korean, are returning natives who have maintained their connections with their national origin. The connections that they maintain with Korea tend to be extensive and various, covering the economic, emotional, spiritual, political, national-tribal, and cultural-psychological. With few exceptions of those who have basically severed the umbilical cord with Korea, most gyopos remain deeply "Korean" both consciously and subconsciously. They use English like natives but their emotional and personality contents are heavily accentuated with Korean character traits. As such, they are stoutly patriotic (for Korea, although most are citizens of their adopted countries) and are quick to engage in defensive battle for their fatherland when perceived to be under attack by "foreigners."
The division between these two groups of English-speaking foreigners in Korea, the native speakers and gyopos, judged by their Internet-based exchanges is quite lively and candid, and their battle line is often ferocious. Native speakers are of two minds concerning their employer-nation: Some develop great love for things Korean and establish authentic relationships with Koreans on various levels and enjoy their life in Korea; many are openly hostile toward and contemptuous of things Korean.
The attacks and counterattacks between these two foreigner groups, native speakers and gyopos, generally make up the substance of what is considered the cultural and intellectual life for foreigners here and the exciting maneuvers and tactics in the continuing Battle of Korea.
At any rate, by reconsidering these factors and undercurrents, the lives of foreigners in Korea can be understood a little less dimly.