Foreigners and Foreignness in Korean Eyes
Brian Deutsch, over at his blog Brian in Jeollanam-do, asks an interesting question about the Korean word for "foreigner": 외국인 (wei-guk-in).
Can wei-guk-in ever refer to a Korean?The question arises because we non-Koreans expats here in Korea receive the impression that wei-guk-in refers only to non-Koreans. Brian cites a passage from an article by David Kosofsky, "Exploring Korean Culture Through Korean English," which appeared in Korea Journal nearly 20 years ago (Volume 30, Number 11, November-December, 1990, pages 69-83). Brian directs our attention to page 75 for Kosofsky's experience with the Korean concept of "foreigner" (transliteration and translation added):
[I]n a Korean restaurant in San Francisco, . . . I was eating dinner with a young Korean man doing graduate studies at Berkeley. Pointing to a group of non-Asian diners at a nearby table, he remarked, "A lot of foreigners come to this restaurant." It was all I could do to continue chewing my 냉면 (naeng-myun, i.e., "cold noodles") without blurting out, "You're absolutely right, Mr. Kim, and you're one of them!" Apparently there is a dissonance between the English word, foreigner, and the Korean conceptual model.Kosofsky then adds:
In English, the word refers to an abstract relationship, not an intrinstic attribute. Nobody is inherently a foreigner; anyone can become on simply by crossing a national border. Foreignness is a question of context, not essence.The implication here is that Koreans consider foreignness an essential quality of non-Koreans. This sounded plausible, but I wondered if it were true, so I asked the first two native speakers of Korean that I could find and posted the results in a comment at Brian's blog:
I asked my wife and daughter about this, and they insist, as native speakers of Korean, that 외국인 (wei-guk-in) can refer to Koreans, too.I therefore left Brian's blog and emailed a couple of Korean friends. First, I asked Dr. Suh Ji-moon, noted translator and a professor of English at Korea University about this, and she replied (parenthetical details added):
Some Koreans might have intellectual difficulties with this concept of Koreans as 외국인 (wei-guk-in), but I admit to calling various Europeans 'foreigners' while I was in Europe -- usually, but not always, as a joke.
I think that this is more an issue of provincialism than of semantics, for if my wife and daughter are correct, then 외국인 (wei-guk-in) can refer to a Korean outside of Korea.
Perhaps we need to ask more Koreans about this.
As for your query, I myself would never refer to an overseas Korean as a 'foreigner' (외국인, wei-guk-in), except as a figure of speech, so to say -- for example, 'why, he's almost a foreigner' (i.e., "almost a wei-guk-in"). But of course . . . young people may have a different concept of the word.I therefore also asked a somewhat younger professor at Korea University, Dr. Moon Hi-Kyung, also of the English Department, and she wrote (transliterations and other parenthetical remarks added):
About your query -- an intriguing point. I would say that 외국인 (wei-guk-in) is a term which is used ambigously and could have two different meanings: it is used mostly to indicate a racial difference, so even if you (i.e., meaning not ethnic Koreans) are Korean nationality, you would still be a 외국인 (wei-guk-in). But of course in a stricter sense and when one is talking about nationality, then we talk about 외국인 (wei-guk-in, i.e., outside-country-person) and 내국인 (nae-guk-in, i.e., inside-country-person). But the former (i.e., racial) category is more usual in everyday conversation, I think.Meanwhile, back over at Brian's blog, the discussion had continued. The learned Gomushin Girl wrote (referring to me in her comment as "HJH"):
Etymologically, it breaks down thusly:I note in passing the connection between being "foreign" and "going astray" -- but this is a point peculiar to the original Chinese term (and observe the irony that 외국인 (wei-guk-in) is a foreign term, borrowed from the Chinese language). Gomushin Girl's main point is that the term 외국인 (wei-guk-in) does not intrinsically refer to a non-Korean.
外/외/wei/outside (same as in 외출: outing and 외도: go astray/wrong course)
The question is whether the 國 component should be seen as possessive, as "my country" in reference to the speaker. In that case, then yes, calling all non-Koreans "foreigner" would be the correct way to use this word. However, I'm inclined to agree with HJH in that this use is unthinking and provincial, and not intrinsic. There are Koreans who are linguistically cautious and avoid using the word indiscriminately, and then there are Koreans for whom it works for any non-Korean, anywhere, anytime.
The equally learned Sonagi, however, differs a bit on this point (transliterations and translations added):
Your wife and daughter are correct that the dictionary definition allows for this usage, but I have only ever heard or read Koreans using the words 외국인 (wei-guk-in) and 외국사람 (wei-guk sa-ram, i.e., "foreign person") to refer to non-Koreans. Even ethnic Korean residents and citizens of foreign countries are usually distinguished as 한인 (han-in, i.e., Korean person), 한국계 (han-guk-gye, i.e., "ethnic Korean"), 교포 (gyo-po, i.e., "overseas Korean"), and 동포 (dong-po, i.e., "overseas Korean").Sonagi may be correct about my wife and daughter, but I have also asked my class of about 25 students at Ewha Womans University, and these young native speakers agreed that 외국인 (wei-guk-in) can refer to Koreans as well as to non-Koreans, so the younger generation might hold more flexible views. (Or they might have been telling me what they thought that I wanted to hear.)
Unlike English speakers, Koreans will refer to a non-Korean as a "foreigner" even when the nationality is known. While retelling experiences abroad, Koreans have called Australians, Canadians, and Americans "foreigners." The Koreans knew these people were locals. An English speaker would refer to a German, a Japanese, or a Mexican as such and never use the word "foreigner" to refer to specific person of a specific nationality. Koreans will, too, but they will also call specific persons of a specific known nationality "foreigners."
The general Korean worldview can be thought of as a Venn diagram. In one circle are ethnic Koreans with Korean citizenship. In the other, are non-ethnic Koreans with foreign citizenship. In the middle are ethnic Koreans with foreign citizenship and Korean citizens with partial or non-Korean ancestry. Because your wife and children are part of a multicultural family, their worldview is probably not representative or typical of Koreans.
Language use reflects how people think, I suppose, and while many (perhaps most) Koreans may still speak as if "foreignness" were an essential quality of non-Koreans, the term 외국인 (wei-guk-in) can be used more flexibly (as the Chinese linguistic roots demonstrate) and is perhaps coming to be used to refer to Koreans in some contexts . . . but more investigation is needed on this intriguing point.
I lack the Korean linguistic skills for this sort of research endeavor, but I think that a good, concrete question to ask individual Koreans would be the following (composed with the help of my daughter, Sa-Rah):
Could you, as a Korean visiting a non-Korean country, say, "이 나라에서 나는 외국인이다" (e nara-esuh na-nun wei-guk-in e-da, i.e., "I am a foreigner in this country")?With appreciation to my daughter Sa-Rah for the Korean sentence, apology to Korean experts for my poor transliteration, and appeal to everyone interested for their additional insights on this vexed cultural-linguistic issue.