The space in between – The other day at the health club I noticed that the man at the locker next to mine was looking at me. Finally, he said: “Welcome to Korea!” I smiled and said thank you in Korean, at which point he said, “Oh, you speak Korean!” and began to ask me a string of questions—all of which I have answered many times before.
The first question, of course, was how long have I been in Korea. I watched his face as I said, “Over seven years.” He didn’t even blink, and immediately launched into his next question. He saw nothing odd about welcoming someone to Korea who had been living there for over seven years. He was just politely greeting a foreigner.
It began with the 1988 Olympics, my wife tells me, when schoolchildren were informed to greet foreigners not with a simple “Hello,” but with “Welcome to Korea,” to make them feel more at home. Seven years later, when I first came to Korea, I was crossing the street in downtown Seoul one day. Halfway across I became aware of a man darting through the crowd with a huge smile on his face. I was surprised when he stopped in front of me, grabbed and vigorously shook my hand with both hands, and exclaimed, “Welcome to Korea!” Then he ran off, the smile still stretching across his face.
“Wow,” I thought. “Koreans sure are friendly.” I have since realized that that man was a very unique individual, and I have not since encountered anyone quite as enthusiastic about greeting foreigners, but I could not begin to count the number of times I have heard those three words of welcome. Granted, the 2002 World Cup somewhat revived the “Welcome to Korea” craze, but even before the World Cup I can remember hearing it.
At first, it really did make me feel welcome, but after a few years I found myself getting annoyed. “What do you mean, ‘Welcome to Korea’? I live here!” That’s what I thought, but not what I said, of course. I always just smiled and said thank you. I no longer get annoyed—in fact, I find it to be rather amusing, and the smile is now quite genuine. I know that those who greet me in this way are using the warmest and most polite form of greeting they can think of in English, and I appreciate that.
Of course, not everyone is so polite. The children are the worst—on any given day I can almost guarantee that some child will point at me and say, “Look! An American!” (I can only imagine how non-American foreigners must feel about receiving the same treatment.) That also annoyed me terribly at first, but after a while you grow numb to it. These days, to keep things lively, I will often point back and say “Look! A Korean!” This usually confuses them immensely and amuses me.
Adults are too reserved to actually say anything, but they stare at me all the time. I’m so used to being stared at, in fact, that something feels wrong when I go to another country (or back to the U.S.) and no one is staring at me. The staring is something I’ve never quite grown numb to, and I have adopted a bored, aloof look as a shell to protect myself—not unlike the lion in the cage at the zoo who pretends not to care just so he can maintain his dignity.
This, of course, is just one the things that makes being a foreigner in Korea challenging. When I began to study Korean at Yonsei University, our orientation included a talk by an American professor at the university. He expressed the challenge like this: we, as foreigners, were like square pegs, but Korean society only had round holes. There was no way we were going to fit into those holes as we were.
People often think that there are two basic solutions to the square peg/round hole problem. The first, which is drawn from what I learned about cultural assimilation in my TEFL/TESL class in university, is to change the peg—to round off the sharp edges so it will fit into the hole. The second is to change the hole, but this isn’t really a solution, as it is practically impossible. This leaves us with the first solution, and it is this sort of thinking that produced the idea of America as a melting pot (which, thanks to Schoolhouse Rock, I will never be able to get out of my head).
There is a third way, however. It took me a while to realize it, but once I did all the pieces fell into place. Koreans have a saying they are fond of using whenever a foreigner exhibits (what they believe to be) a Korean trait: “Why, you’re practically Korean now!” This is meant as a compliment, of course, but it always irked me. I always felt a vague annoyance whenever I heard that phrase, and one day I suddenly realized why: I am not Korean, I never was Korean and I never will be Korean.
I’m sure that sounds like a blindingly obvious statement to some, especially those who have never had the experience of living in a foreign country for an extended period of time. For me, though, it was a revelation. All that time I had been trying to fit in—trying to round off my sharp edges—but I cannot change who I am. I was born an American, and I will die an American, no matter what may happen in between.
This does not mean that I haven’t been changed by my time in Korea. I have been changed significantly, in fact. In some ways I think like a Korean, and in many more ways I act like a Korean, simply because that is what I see around me. You cannot remain unchanged in a foreign country, and resisting this change is like a tree resisting the storm—either you bend or you will break. But it is just as foolish to assume that you can change to such an extent that you will be perfectly assimilated into that society. True assimilation is a myth.
To return to the square peg/round hole problem, the third way I mentioned above is precisely this: to discard the idea that you have to fit into the round hole at all. I have come to realize that I have a special place here in Korea. I used to see myself as the lion in the cage, but I now realize that I am, in fact, outside the cage, while the rest of Korean society is trapped inside.
With its Confucian basis, Korean society can be very strict and stifling at times. To an extent, I am also bound by the social mores that bind Koreans, but there comes a point where I am free from all bonds. I am a foreigner, and thus I exist outside the regular social order. I may follow Korean customs and traditions while interacting with Korean society, but I do have a choice in the matter.
Although I must admit that, at times, I am frustrated by the reality that I will never fully be a part of Korean society, I also realize that it is precisely for this reason that I have a mobility and freedom many Koreans do not have. In a way, I can resist the storm—I am forgiven these minor transgressions because I am a foreigner. I am not fully inside, nor am I fully outside. I exist in the space in between—liminality is, in fact, my life. (see the about page for a more academic discussion of liminality).
If I were a different person—more like the trickster of folk tales and mythology, perhaps—I would undoubtedly abuse this power. But I am not completely free from the fetters of society, and I am constrained to some extent by the knowledge that, while I may not be fully integrated into Korean society, I must nonetheless interact with it on a daily basis. Still, I will admit that there are times when I play the trickster—when I take advantage of my special status for my own benefit. I am careful about when and where I do this, though, because the trickster is never welcomed in any organized society, but chased out when he is discovered.
Ultimately, though, I feel a sense of responsibility (a most decidedly un-trickster-like quality), and I realize that I have the opportunity to use this power for good. As an outsider, yet one who has a good understanding of Korean society, I have a unique perspective on things. I resented it when I first realized that my professors expected me to do comparative literature. I felt as if I was being shuffled off to the side as unfit to do research on “pure” Korean literature, and that comparative literature was a concession. I now know that it is not a concession but an honor—in my liminal position, I am particularly suited to comparative literature. And through this comparison of Korean and other cultures, I can shed new light on old issues, and perhaps even help to advance my field of study in Korea.
Of course, my unique, liminal position has its drawbacks as well. Just as I exist outside of the Korean social order, I have also given up my position in American society as well. Granted, I can always go back, but I don’t think I will ever fully readjust. I now have a home here that I will never truly be able to leave, and I will exist in the space in between the two cultures, moving back and forth between them, but never fully belonging to either. But that’s OK, because I’ve come to terms with who I am and where I’m going, and I can face the future with the confidence I have gained from my experiences.