No Matter How Hard I Tried, I Wasn’t Able to Become a “Korean”

Letter to Koreans Regarding Life as a Foreign Woman in South Korea②

Ji Eungyeong | 기사입력 2022/02/27 [19:03]

No Matter How Hard I Tried, I Wasn’t Able to Become a “Korean”

Letter to Koreans Regarding Life as a Foreign Woman in South Korea②

Ji Eungyeong | 입력 : 2022/02/27 [19:03]

A turning point in my time in Korea came during the World Cup in 2002. It was right after South Korea won against Italy. People were deliriously happy, and seemed to have a lot of pride in South Korea—one of the first open displays of Korean pride that I had seen. A few of us Korean Americans ventured out to a bar to celebrate with the rest of the world. We were at a bar that advertised “buy one, get one free.” As we left, there was a disagreement with the bill that turned ugly. At one point, the owners and staff at the bar accused us of trying to cheat them by hiding a bottle—a bottle that one of us wanted to take as a souvenir, and had put in the bag after our bill had been calculated. During the disagreement, the staff accused us of speaking English to “show off.” It was a way of lording our privilege over others, they inferred. When I tried to explain that a few of us couldn’t speak any Korean, they were no longer listening. We were the bad, ugly Korean/Americans, and we deserved to be punished. Things almost turned violent, and the police were called. The police, whom we suspected had been bribed by the owners of the bar, threatened us with jail time if we didn’t pay a fine AND the supposed discrepancy demanded by the owners. 


Being a Korean American woman in South Korea meant that I had a distinct set of experiences from other foreign women. As part of the “we” of Koreans, I was given special attention, and I benefited from many kind Koreans investing a lot of time to teach me Korean culture and language. In response to my eagerness to learn, Koreans patiently answered my endless questions about language and history, and indulged my insatiable enthusiasm for norebang [karaoke].


▲ On a mountain in Namwon in 1996 ©Ji Eungyeong


I was given opportunities to learn about Korean culture, particularly “traditional” culture, which I was more interested in. For example, a friend invited me to a collective of traditional hanok homes, where I stayed for a month. Another invited me to learn about natural dyeing, while yet another took me to go sledding in Taebak Mountain in the winter. I saw the sunrise in Chiri Mountain and ate samgyupsal [pork belly] in Namwon. I learned poongmul [traditional Korean instruments] in the Cholla countryside. Once, I was given a very special bottle of rare and expensive wild insam [ginseng] as a gift to take to the US. I stayed in Buddhist temples and learned how to meditate. I was the beneficiary of countless acts, small and big, of generosity and inclusion. I will always remember these gifts with fondness and appreciation. Some of the friendships I developed over these years will endure for a lifetime, as the simple inclusion that people gave me made me feel accepted and a part of a family. The connections I made meant it was relatively easy for me over the ensuing years to establish a network of friends in Korea that could help me at any given notice. In a word, I was well taken care of by many good people who appreciated my enthusiasm and love of Korea.


But there was a negative side to being Korean as well. As my Korean language improved, so did my ability to “blend” into Korean society. At times, my Korean fluency disguised my American “origins.” At others, people assumed I had a speech impediment or was Korean Chinese. My ability to blend was both a blessing and curse.


The curse began when I entered my mid 30s and officially became an ajjumma [middle-aged (supposedly married) woman]. As many Korean feminists have written about, being an ajjumma in Korea occupies an interesting space of agency but also asexuality. In my day-to-day life, my ajjumma appearance combined with my occasional slips of language or cultural cues meant that I was often looked at with impatience, condescension (hanshimhan nunbit), and occasionally anger. I did not behave in the way that was expected of me as a typical ajjumma. I was a puzzle and a cause of confusion.


One privilege I had as a Korean American was an assumption of belonging. I was told over and over again that I belonged to the nation of Korea. But the more people told me, the more I questioned my belonging. It seemed I only conditionally belonged through an accident of birth, but my cultural upbringing meant that I had to make an effort to show my Korean pride to others. In other words, I had to constantly prove my loyalty to the idea of Korea. What was confusing was which idea of Korea I was supposed to show loyalty to, because everyone had a different idea of Korea. Korea meant being anti-Japanese to one person, anti-American to another, or a commitment to unification. Korea was about becoming a strong and powerful nation to one person, while it meant a return to ‘tradition’ to others. What was Korean tradition? Was it a hierarchy of male and female, older and younger, or was it something else? A return to farming? A ‘return’ to Christianity? Buddhism? Shamanism?


As one Korean American friend put it, South Koreans assumed we were a book with blank pages. Nothing was written before (or nothing that counted), and Koreans had carte blanche to write whatever they wanted in it. We were not supposed to discriminate or argue, and accept whatever was written. I was alternately grateful, confused, and later angry by the diversity (and often conflicting) things that were being taught to me. More frightening to me was that the cost of challenging what was being written was not belonging.


My ability to easily switch from Korean to English, similar to my ability to switch from my Korean to American identity, made people uncomfortable. I was not easily predictable. Nor was I particularly useful—in a country where age usually meant one was married, with a stable income, and could therefore pay—I was (and still am) a poor graduate student with little money, so I could not be relied upon to pay the bill. And my English ability was no longer as rare. I was no longer desirable, and no longer “fun.”


Not Korean, Not American


After close to a decade of of living in South Korea, I returned to the US to attend graduate school. A close friend encouraged me to return to the US to come to terms with the anger I had towards the US. ‘If you hate the US, you hate part of yourself,’ she wisely told me. In graduate school, I had the opportunity to study Korea from an academic perspective. I was able to interpret my experiences in Korea through a historical and cultural lens that I did not have while living there. Moreover, I rediscovered the US as an adult, and learned about it through academia as well. I was surprised to discover there were a lot of interesting things happening in the US both culturally and politically. I learned that as much as there were racists in society, there were also a lot of people trying to make society better.


▲ At a rock concert in San Francisco in 2014 ©Ji Eungyeong


Returning to live in the US helped me come to terms with my inability to become Korean no matter how hard I tried. It also helped me be at peace with the US—for all the terrible things that the US did and stood for, it was also my home. I had finally reached a point where I was no longer ashamed of being American, and could embrace both worlds.


It was during these years that I started emphasizing my “Americanness.” I didn’t want people to become confused by my ability to blend when I was an American at heart. Some Koreans took offense. By emphasizing my American identity over my Korean, they interpreted it as betraying the Korean nation. I saw it as being honest with others as well as myself.


One way I was perceived as rejecting being Korean was by not being married. I was over 40, unmarried, and I was not ashamed of my unmarried status. Whenever I visited Korea, I hung out in cafes and bars in Hongdae. I ignored signs outside of clubs warning “Only those under 33 allowed to enter,” and went dancing. I didn’t care that I was now old, fat, and not an ideal Korean woman. I traveled. I dated. I wore age-inappropriate clothing. I was a troublemaker. I yelled at people who called me “mother” in shops. I was an anomaly to others. But most shocking was that I was comfortable with myself and my contradictions. I was not fully Korean and was no longer fully American. I lived on the border of two identities and worlds. 


▲ Second visit to Jeju in 2011 ©Ji Eungyeong


In the last decade, being a foreigner is no longer such a novelty. It seems almost overnight, Korea has become a multicultural society. It is now common to see western foreigners, KoAsians, and even a small but growing population of North Korean defectors. While English is still unfairly important, more people speak it well, and the younger generation seems to have a confidence with English that I never saw when I first went to Korea. South Korea has grown to be a major player in Asia culturally and economically. With all of these changes has come an even greater confusion about what it means to be Korean.


There will always be things that I love about Korea. It is a love that grows along with my knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses. I hope one day that being Korean is not so rigid and can encompass differences of gender, age, sexuality, and identity. We can’t all get married at the same age, have children at the same time, or produce more or less children just because the government says we should. We are not all the same, nor should we always try to be—we move at different paces, we don’t fit into little boxes. Over the years, I’ve learned that the people who are the borders of society, who supposedly do not belong, have the most insight about that society. Please listen to them, for if you ignore what they have to say, you run the risk of losing an important opportunity to make Korea a better place for all Koreans.


Published: September 20, 2015

*Original article:


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