It’s a strange feeling to be labeled as a “foreigner,” but that’s what I was. Foreigner. Waegook. In Korea, it’s the all-purpose term for someone not like them. We weren’t considered immigrants, international students, foreign workers or tourists. Or Americans, Europeans or Africans. Just foreigners, lumped together in an easy category. I don’t think we do that so much in the U.S. Perhaps we don’t really understand why a person is in our country, but we at least try to give them some sort of identity.
Ironically, where I’m from, we call white people “haole,” which also means foreigner. This Hawaiian word has evolved in our culture, however, and as local haoles will attest to, it’s just how a person of European descent is referred to. A friend from Virginia once asked if haole was like “honky.” No, not at all. My dad is haole and ever since I can remember, my unofficial ethnicity has been hapa-haole, with “hapa” meaning “half.”
Hawai‘i is a place where the lines between races and cultures blur. Potluck dinners are global feasts, and friends and co-workers have a wide variety of skin tones, with ethnic makeups that often cannot be uttered in a single breath.
Nearly two years ago, I hopped off the plane in Seoul and was suddenly dubbed “waegook.” It was interesting to go from a place that prides itself on its diversity and acceptance to a country where virtually everyone was one race and conformity was the key.
Because I’m half Japanese, many people asked me why I didn’t choose to work in Japan instead of Korea. Honestly, I was a bit concerned that the Japanese would reject me for not being “Japanese” enough. Considering I’m American and only half Japanese, maybe they wouldn’t see me as Japanese at all. No need to have an identity crisis to go along with my culture shock, I decided. If the Koreans did not like me, it would not be the end of the world.
I spent a year and a half in Seoul to add some international experience to my resume, first as an English teacher and later as a writer for a Website. All of my co-workers were Korean, and many days could go by before I saw another Westerner. Venturing over to a busier part of town, I could definitely run into a bit more diversity, but I enjoyed my more “Korean” experience.
Like with any other modern megatropolis, international cultures have a way of finding their way in. Western-style coffee shops were as common a sight as they are in the U.S. and many American chain restaurants could easily be spotted in the city’s larger districts. Because of its proximity to United States Army Garrison-Yongsan, Itaewon had evolved into Korea’s capital of foreign activity, featuring eateries catering to the Western palate as well as Middle Eastern and African businesses frequented by patrons from those regions. The most pleasant discovery for me was the Filipino market and restaurants that opened every Sunday in the area around the Hyehwa Catholic Church in the northern part of Seoul. The warmth and welcoming spirit of those vendors gave me a feeling of home, and their pinakbet and adobo weren’t bad either.
So multiculturalism had managed to make its way in, but what about multiethnicity?
During my first semester at the elementary school, I could have sworn a handful of my sixth graders were of mixed race. One of the girls was definitely, being half Japanese with a Japanese first name. Also there was a boy with lighter brown hair than mine that I was completely convinced was half white, and another that looked part black. There even was a girl that looked mixed enough that one of the other students jokingly asked if she was my daughter. When I asked the other teachers about mixed students in the sixth grade class, none of the teachers could recall any.
I felt awkward bringing up mixed-race students because of the pride Koreans seem to have in the purity of their bloodline. An article written by Gi-Wook Shin, director at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center, explains how this attitude has helped the country to make it through a turbulent history that included multiple wars and being controlled by the Japanese. When the teachers said they didn’t notice these types of students, I wasn’t sure if it was a taboo topic that they didn’t want to discuss or me just seeing traits in students that weren’t there. No one, however, seemed to have problems with me being multiracial (and Japanese, for that matter).
The only time I felt slightly awkward was when a couple of the teachers from my school met my friend Christina, who had light brown hair and eyes that looked kind of blue because of her contacts. After she left, one of them noted that Christina was a “real American.” I knew she didn’t mean I was some sort of sub-standard American, and only meant that my friend had more of the look they expected Americans to have.
The topic of ethnicity came up about as often as it typically would for me in the U.S., which isn’t that often. About the same number of people assumed I was Hawaiian after hearing where I was from, then “seeing” it in my face. A guy waiting with me at the subway guessed I was Russian or South American. Ironically, a former co-worker from somewhere in South America once asked me if I was Korean. And the Russian guess turned out to be a rather common one, with a Russian man even coming up to me and speaking to me in his mother tongue at the Dongdaemun Stadium subway stop, near Seoul’s Russian business area. The only people that seemed to see me as part Asian were Korean Americans, and they always asked me if I was half Korean.
Half Korean. Would the day ever come when Korean nationals would see a person and consider that they might be part Korean? Would they still consider them Korean? I read about the struggles that professional football player Hines Ward had in the country of his birth, being half Korean and half African American. I also read about the work he had done with multiracial Korean nationals, helping them to deal with the prejudice they faced. Would there ever be a day when it would be “okay” to be multiracial in Korea?
Although acceptance may not be there yet, Korean society is slowly becoming more multiethnic. Men have started to marry women from other Asian countries and the younger generation of Seoul women seem more open to the idea of dating Western men, as I observed cross-cultural couples around town. I also spotted some mixed families with young children strolling on weekends in the more popular and ethnically-diverse areas of town.
Korea is taking notice and making efforts to adapt to these changes to its society. In the last few years, the number of social services available in languages other than Korean has dramatically increased. Multicultural family services are starting to pop up around Seoul and other communities where these families are becoming more common, as well as shelters for foreign women when these marriages don’t succeed. Even festivals, a major way that Koreans preserve and celebrate their traditions and culture, are starting to acknowledge multicultural families in their schedules, including the Hadong Wild Tea Cultural Festival, which has featured a special program dedicated to sharing the tea cultures of multicultural families.
From my seat in a coffee shop in Mililani, on the island of O‘ahu, I can see an elderly couple walking past the window. The wife is Japanese and her husband is haole, and they must be in their late 70s. Interracial couples are a common sight here today, but I wonder how things were when they first started out together. Life was certainly different in America a half century ago, even in a diverse place like Hawai‘i. Today no one really takes a second glance at a relationship like that or their multiracial families. And although I really enjoyed being immersed in Korean culture, it’s nice to retire my waegook status, return home and just blend in again.
Angela Kimi Hickman recently returned from South Korea to her hometown of Mililani, Hawai‘i. She has contributed to the Nichi Bei Times and was the managing editor of Hawaii Woman Magazine.