Letter to Koreans Regarding Life as a Foreign Woman in South Korea

On the Border Between the US and Korea ①

Ji Eungyeong | 기사입력 2022/02/20 [16:00]

Letter to Koreans Regarding Life as a Foreign Woman in South Korea

On the Border Between the US and Korea ①

Ji Eungyeong | 입력 : 2022/02/20 [16:00]

I could tell you I went to Korea to find my “roots.” I could tell you I wanted to learn Korean so I could come back to the US and work on behalf of the Korean American community as an organizer. I could say that I went to get to know my family in Korea, and spend more time with an aging grandmother. I could say that I wanted to travel for a year and explore the world outside of the US. I could say all these things and they are all true. But the real reason I went to Korea was because I was looking for a place to belong, because I did not feel I belonged in the US.

 

▲ When I went to South Korea as an exchange student to Yonsei University in 1994, there were few foreigners in South Korea, and we were as much a novelty to the people around us as South Korea was to us.  ©Ji Eungyeong

 

When I went to South Korea as an exchange student to Yonsei University in 1994, there were few foreigners in South Korea, and we were as much a novelty to the people around us as South Korea was to us. Predictably, it was difficult to adjust to a new culture, but men and women in our exchange program had very different experiences. (I want to note that when I am speaking of foreigners, I mean white foreigners or Korean Americans, which made up the majority of our program. There were a few black students, and they had a very different experience that I cannot adequately explain here).

 

In contrast to the casual attire and revealing clothing of some of the Korean American women in the student program, Korean female students were uniformly slim, wore formal clothing to school, and always had perfectly groomed hair and makeup. I remember gawking at the female students wearing formal suits and heels at nearby Ewha University, something that was unheard of at schools in the US, where it was perfectly acceptable to go to school wearing pyjamas and looking like you rolled out of bed.

 

In comparison to these women, I was fatter, did not know how to put on makeup “properly,” and was relatively not well-groomed. The physical standards for Korean women were a palpable social pressure on me and the Korean American women, and despite our best efforts to “fit in,” we always fell short. We did not have the skills, energy, or time to put on full makeup, to dress formally for school everyday, nor did we have the slim body types that almost everyone around us seemed to have. Most importantly, we were not “well-behaved” women.

 

As Korean American women, we were unused to having so many restrictions on our movement and our bodies. One student in my exchange program was slapped for smoking in public, and another was yelled out for having lightly dyed hair. Others were reprimanded for wearing revealing or messy clothing, such as shorts with “holes” in them (shredded shorts). We talked too loudly and laughed too hard. Because of these and the daily judgments about our physical appearance that left us lacking, most of the women in our program felt a demoralized and degraded while we were in Korea. The policing of our bodies was limited to Korean Americans, because we were being compared to Korean women, while the foreign women were help up to different standards.

 

In contrast, the Korean American men in our program had less restrictions on their dress or their physical appearance. While they were subject to some pressures – ie, having clean-cut haircuts and not being able to wearing shorts – they were subject to less judgment about their bodies than the foreign women. A lifetime of eating well and regular exercise meant that they were taller, broader in shoulder, and more muscled than their Korean counterparts. Most importantly, in a country where the feminist movement had not yet reached the mainstream, their liberal attitudes toward women’s rights were welcomed by the many beautiful Korean women who flocked toward them. For example, Korean American men in general did not judge women for smoking or drinking, or having “loose” morals (ie, sleeping with men before marriage). Nor did they police physical beauty or behavior in the way that was commonly practice in South Korean society, because this was frowned upon in the US. I don’t want to claim that the US does not police physical beauty or behavior, which it does, but it is much less openly commented upon than in Korea.

 

For these and other reasons, many of the Korean American men in our program quickly found Korean girlfriends. Some had more than one. All of these women were beautiful – one man bragged to me that his girlfriend was a stewardess -- and pampered them in a way that American women would not. One Korean American male friend said, “Men are treated like kings. I love it here.” Needless to say, I tried not to associate with them while I was in Korea.

 

▲ This is not to say that there were not a lot of privileges to being a Korean American in South Korea. Regardless of whether we were men or women, we were envied for our ability to speak English and access the English-speaking world. (2006)  ©Ji Eungyeong

 

This is not to say that there were not a lot of privileges to being a Korean American in South Korea. Regardless of whether we were men or women, we were envied for our ability to speak English and access the English-speaking world. At that time, the government-sponsored saegyewha campaign had just begun. I didn’t know that this meant that English was vital to pass high school and college entrance exams, to get a good job, and to get promotions – regardless of whether English was necessary for your job. Instead, what I saw were flashing saegyewha [globalization] slogans everywhere, but it wasn’t until a few years later that English Fever reached its frenzied pitch.

 

Speaking English led to economic privilege through my ability to teach English conversation, a lucrative profession. While the money I made was not as much as white foreigners, it was certainly more than dark-skinned foreigners teaching English, and I was definitely paid more than the average white-collar South Korean worker. Because I was an English speaker, and had regular contact with those who could afford expensive English classes, I was suddenly thrust into the world of the Korean elite. I met intellectuals and celebrities alike, regularly received invitations to dine at expensive hotel buffets, and was offered various jobs that I was frankly not qualified for. I did not realize it at the time, but the easy access I had to the English-speaking world, and the power associated with it, was something that others wanted and thought they could get through me. I am still not fully cognizant of how merely associating with me would benefit South Koreans, but the idea was so widely accepted that I was constantly warned to watch out for opportunistic people. Aware of this, my Korean ex-boyfriend decided on his own NOT to ask me any questions relating to English because he didn’t want me (or others) to feel he was taking advantage of me.

 

While it is hard to distinguish what came my way because of the power of English and what came to me because of my personality, the nature of privilege is the tendency to attribute too much to the individual. I know that those foreigners with dark skin and those who came from poor English-speaking countries (such as the Philippines or Guam) had a much more difficult time than I did in Korea. I cannot adequately discuss the terrible treatment of dark-skinned foreigners in South Korea here, or the extreme privileges of white foreigners, but I can say that I was associated with the power of the United States, while they were judged by the color of their skin or the poverty of their countries. What we had in common, however, was that we were judged by something we had no power over—the color of our skin, and the status of the country we came from.

 

The other side to the extreme insecurities that Koreans felt about their English ability was their justifiable anger towards the privilege that English unfairly gave. As with any kind of privilege, there was a dark side to it. 

 

Once, someone started to yell at me in a bar for speaking English with my Korean American friends. When I told them that I was Korean American and my friends could not speak Korean very well, he confessed that he thought we were rich Koreans who had studied overseas and were “showing off” our English ability. This happened to me a number of times, and the consistency of this assumption over the years was disturbing. It also showed the resentment over the inequality that was marked by English.

 

*Published: September 12, 2015

*Original article: http://ildaro.com/7227

 

◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

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