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9 Aug

Us versus them – In a recent conversation (i.e., email) with the Silk Alley Korean, the topic of “uri nara” came up. “Uri nara” means “our country” in Korean and is the term that Koreans generally use to refer to Korea. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Korea will already know this, but those who haven’t might find this (and the following thoughts on it) interesting.

“Why do I react so violently to foreigners attempting to identify Korea as their country?”

The whole “us versus them” thing isn’t anything new, of course, wherever you might be. It just seems to be more pronounced in Korea. For example, most Koreans will not refer to the Korean language as “Korean,” they will refer to it as “our language.” When complimenting me on my Korean (as Koreans who meet me for the first time invariably do), they will often say, “You speak our language very well.” I’ve gotten so used to hearing this that I hardly notice it any more, but it’s amusing if you think about it. The act of complimenting someone usually works to create a bond with that person, but by using the term “our language,” they unconsciously reinforce the boundary between them and me.

I do not take offense at this, of course. Like I said, it is done unconsciously. The “we” or “our” is ingrained in the Korean language, and saying “our country” or “our language” is completely natural. I saw a good example of this on Sunday. While at church, I was reading a flyer for a Walk-A-Thon to raise money for powdered milk to send to North Korean children (my wife said, “Surely they won’t use this to feed their soldiers,” but I wouldn’t put it past them, especially if the food is delivered through official channels). Under the “who can participate” heading it said: “No restrictions (all citizens).” I laughed when I saw that. I’m sure the people who wrote the flyer never even thought of the inherent contradiction. No doubt by including the qualifier “all citizens” they thought they were making it more inclusive, when in fact they were excluding a number of residents of Korea—including me.

The “us” mentality stems in part from the fact that there are relatively few foreigners residing in Korea. According to the 2000 census results (Korean page) from the Korea National Statistical Office (Korean site), the population of Korea in 2000 was 46,136,101. 150,812 of those were foreign nationals—that’s about a third of a percent of the total population. There is no doubt that many foreigners weren’t recorded in the census, but even if you triple that number you’re still left with one percent of the total population. I suppose that, in a way, this highlights the dichotomy of being a foreigner in Korea—you’re either highly visible or you’re invisible.

Homogeneity of the population aside, you also have to remember that Korea has had to struggle to maintain a national identity for most of its history. Even before officially becoming a colony of Japan in 1910, Korea was still located at a crossroads in Asia and had to contend with Chinese and Japanese (and later Russian) ambitions throughout history, not to mention the designs of the Western powers on Asia during the age of imperialism. Hope was rekindled with liberation in 1945, only to be dashed again a few years later with the outbreak of the Korean War and the ultimate (and, so far, permanent) division of the nation. So I suppose Korea deserves a little slack when it comes to reinforcing national identity.

The purpose of this entry, though, is not to discuss why this is so or to criticize or defend it. I will admit that it irritates me at times, but I can also honestly say that it really doesn’t bother me all that much. I have come to accept it as the way things work around here. Far more interesting to me (being the self-absorbed over-analyzer that I am) is my reaction to this state of affairs. An important part of living as a foreigner in Korea (or in any country, for that matter) is figuring out where you fit in the greater scheme of things.

The awareness of the Korean “us” mentality comes in stages: at first you are blithely unaware of it, then you become aware of it and are intrigued by it, and finally you process it and figure out where it belongs in your worldview, and vice versa. In the process of figuring out where they fit in, some foreigners adopt the practice of saying “uri nara,” ostensibly to identify with their current country of residence. I will not beat around the bush on this—I absolutely hate it when I hear foreigners say “uri nara.” It makes me cringe. Hearing a foreigner refer to Korea as “uri nara” tinges my perception of them to an (if I am to be completely honest) absurd extent. They automatically become “people I probably do not want to have anything to do with.”

I must confess that, in the process of learning Korean, I myself uttered the phrase “uri nara” on a few occasions. Each time I jerked back like someone had just stuck a live electrical wire up my nose. The blood rushed to my face and I wanted to rub my tongue down with sandpaper. Adding to the shock was the very fact that my reaction was so violent and visceral. In my email to the Silk Alley Korean, I shared this “distaste” for foreigners saying “uri nara.” Until then it was something I didn’t talk about much. I guess I was embarrassed at having such a negative reaction to such an innocuous phrase, especially when it was said by other people.

As I wrote the email I began to wonder why I reacted the way I did to that phrase. I mentioned that it would probably make a good Liminality entry, and here I am. Why do I react so violently to foreigners attempting to identify Korea as their country? It might be understandable on a personal level, but why does it extend to others?

Let’s start with me and the reasons why I will never consciously refer to Korea as “our country.” Quite simply, Korea is not my country, and I do not belong to the big “we” that populates it—and I never will. I could live in Korea for the rest of my life and still not belong. In fact, I could gain Korean citizenship and live out my life no different from any other Korean in legal terms, but when I died and it came time to write my obituary (assuming I ended up being important enough for an obituary), I would be remembered as a foreigner who gained Korean citizenship (an earlier entry of mine covers the ideas of citizenship and ethnicity in Korea).

This is why it is amusing when Koreans try to compliment me by saying things like, “You’re practically Korean.” Perhaps, but the divide between practically being Korean and actually being Korean might as well be the abyss between heaven and hell. I am OK with this now, though. There was a time when I wasn’t so sure, when I was trying to find my place in this world, but now I am not only at peace with the knowledge that I will always be an outsider, I revel in it. My position as an outsider allows me to see things in ways that most Koreans can’t, and this is a good thing.

Thus it is only natural for me to reject the idea of “our country” to describe Korea. What really puzzled me, at least until I started writing this entry, was why I reacted so negatively to other foreigners using the phrase. The answer hit me quite suddenly a few paragraphs ago. Perhaps it’s obvious, and maybe I just never wanted to admit it. You see, there is no more “we” for me. I am not part of the Korean “we,” and I am no longer fully a part of the American “we.”

I don’t want to be misunderstood—I consider myself fully American and I love my country dearly (perhaps more now than when I actually lived there), but I am painfully aware that I no longer feel at home there. I go to visit family and friends, and that’s great, but that’s exactly what it feels like—a visit, not a homecoming. No matter how much I look forward to seeing my family and friends, and no matter how difficult it may be to leave them again, when I come back to Korea I am coming home.

For a long time I thought this meant that there was no “we” for me. After all, I don’t fully belong in either my native land or my adopted land. But human beings are social animals, and despite my introvert tendencies, no man is an island. I may not be part of a national “we,” but I am part of a smaller “we”—the expat community in Korea. For some strange reason, though, I have tried to deny this. I personally know relatively few foreigners here, and although I don’t think I’ve actively avoided other foreigners, I certainly haven’t sought out expat companionship.

This might have something to do with my early years in Korea, when I more or less chose to isolate myself as a means of learning Korean and adapting to the culture. But I suppose that’s not really the reason, just another manifestation of it. I will admit that I do have fun on the rare occasions when I do hang out with other foreigners. Not too long ago, some of my wife’s students invited us over for dinner. Our hosts were an Indian couple, and the guests included two French guys and their wives, a Chinese and Japanese. We had a few beers and had a grand time talking about politics and the state of the world in general. At least the two French guys, the Indian guy, and I did—our wives formed their own clique and talked about whatever it is that women talk about when among their own kind.

So why do I balk at meeting other expats when I usually end up having a pretty good time? I’m not sure, but I do know that it touches on something fundamental to who I am. Maybe it is the fact that I am basically an introvert. Or maybe it goes even deeper than that—maybe I shy away from expat companionship because I want to embrace the loneliness of being without a “we,” because it’s harder to get hurt that way. I don’t know how to express it, or even if that’s the right answer, and honestly I don’t really feel like digging any deeper today. This touches on some nerves that I am not too keen on touching right now. Maybe next time.

Whatever the case, I cannot deny that I am a part of the expat community. That is my “we” at this point in my life. And I think that’s why I react so negatively to other foreigners saying “our country.” We’re supposed to be a community, and here they are pretending that they’re not a part of us, that they’re a part of a “them” that will never accept them. Laid bare like that it sounds pretty awful, I guess, but that’s the way it is. The tight-knit nature of the Korean community guarantees the isolation of those outside the community, and if we don’t bond together then we disintegrate as a community. At least, that’s the underlying fear that fuels my neurosis.

Wow. Now that I’ve gotten it all out and plumbed the depths of my fears, I’m not sure if I actually want to post this. After all, I did what I set out to do. I discovered why I react the way I do to a certain stimulus. I’ve turned the magnifying glass on myself, and boy has it gotten warm. But I can’t really think of a good reason not to post this (right now the only reason is fear, and that’s never a good reason), so here goes.

Post-script: This entry has gotten more than the usual response (i.e., crickets chirping, the sound of pins dropping, etc.), and I thought I’d post a couple of interesting observations. Cathartidae mentioned this entry and linked to a very insightful article entitled “The Politics of Uri”—definitely worth a read if you’re interested in this subject. Eclexys also has some thoughts on the subject, starting with a brief discussion of his own expropriation of “uri nara” and continuing on to discuss the avoidance of other foreigners. Meanwhile, the BigHominid even has a nifty acronym to describe our condition:

The author seems to be describing my own problem: the Get Out of My Adventure Syndrome (GOMAS). I've suffered from GOMAS ever since I first went overseas alone-- in 1986, to France, as a high schooler between junior and senior years. Seeing other Americans was a disappointment to me: I wanted to be alone in my adventure, revel in the specialness of my situation, and not be reminded that what I was doing wasn't unique. GOMAS has hit me many times in Korea as well, and it may be one of the reasons why I can't stand going to Itaewon unless I'm invited by someone else: too many damn foreigners!

I’ve never thought of it that way before, but it does make perfect sense.

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