On Being a Foreigner in Korea

It’s obvious in many places that Koreans don’t look at the word 외국인 (“foreigner”–literally “outsider”) as a relative term. There are 한국인 (Koreans) and foreigners. It’s an obvious and rather well-documented “us and them” mentality that, I’m told, exists in other Asian countries as well, though I’ve never experienced it in my travels to Japan and Taiwan.

What’s strange about it is the constant need Koreans seem to feel in pointing out and addressing the fact that I am not a Korean. A few months ago, as I was walking home at night, an old man, drunk, fell down in the middle of a side road. There was a taxi approaching, so I held out my hand to stop it and assist the passed-out older man. As other passersby gathered and assisted I explained what happened and could hear them saying (in Korean): “The foreigner helped him…etc.”

It’s strange because, yes, I am a foreigner, but it seems like such a distant way of talking about someone. He might as well have said: “The human over there helped him… etc.”

Anyway, its their culture.

But, something came to my attention this week that was another head-scratcher. I came upon a Korean grammar book published by Yonsei University Press. Yonsei University is one of the top universities in Korea. Here’s a pic of the cover:

The title is: “Korean Vocabulary Practice for Foreigners: English Version”

Why in the world is it necessary to point out “foreigners”? Obviously, if the book is an English edition it will likely be used by non-Koreans. Why would a major university press create a title like this? It doesn’t bother me using a book like this, but using that word in this way is just another instance of Korea promoting the “us and them” nature of their culture.

Today, I saw my Korean co-teacher has an English grammar book, written in Korean. I snapped a picture of the cover:

The title of the book (in Korean) reads: “Advanced English Grammar Explained”. Nowhere on the cover does it mention 한국인, that it’s for Koreans. Why not? “Advanced English Grammar Explained for Koreans”? Of course it doesn’t need to be, just as it doesn’t need to be pointed out on the English text.

It’s an oddly frustrating thing about this place. Just another observation.

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One Response to On Being a Foreigner in Korea

  1. Pingback: On Being a Foreigner #2 |

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