Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The real F-word

I hate the word foreigner. In Korea, there are two kinds of people: 내국인 (inside-country-person, naegukin) and 외국인 (outside-country-person, waegukin). Or, more precisely, 한국인 (hangukin, Korean) and 외국인 (waegukin, foreigner). Waegukin is the Korean pronunciation of the better-known Japanese epithet, gaijin (literally "outside person"). I'm not too fond of being referred to as a waegukin, but the Korean-language use of the word is its own issue (or non-issue) that I don't feel qualified to comment on.

What I hate is the word foreigner used in English. There are lots of other ways to refer to me in a variety of situations: Canadian, native English speaker, non-Korean, man, guy, person, Westerner, expatriate or expat, temporary resident. To reduce my existence as being simply that of a non-Korean is absurd. It's a negative definition of a class of people that now numbers over one million people, or 2% percent of the population.

Consider, for example, seeing a hapless Korean tourist walking down Yonge Street in Toronto. How would you describe him? Tourist? Traveler? Asian guy? Chinese guy? Korean guy? That guy? Where does foreigner rank on the list, even if you knew that he was from another country? Would you really use such an obtuse definition as "foreigner", which simply means that the person in question is from the other 204 countries and 99.5% of the world?

Referring to someone as what they are instead of what they aren't is a basic extension of logic and courtesy. You wouldn't refer to a knife and a fork as non-spoons, and you wouldn't call cats, dogs and birds un-ungulates. Some rough guess, even a vague assumption of Americanness or Indianness goes a long way, defining me as what I am instead of defining me against the Korean race.

I certainly have no delusions that this will change any time soon. After all, the identification that I carry around refers to me as an "alien", which is several degrees of dated turn-of-the-20th-century prejudice below foreigner. Both the Korean government and at least the English-speaking community have fallen into a comfortable practice of referring to the disparate group of people that includes Chinese factory workers, Indian professors, American soldiers, and Australian teachers as foreigners. After dealing with Koreans all day, it's simply easier to say than "non-Korean", "not a Korean" or whatever remotely well-mannered term you care to apply.

However, it seems ridiculous for me to continue using this word when it's considered a mild insult in English (to those living outside of Korea: when was the last time you referred to someone as a foreigner? Maybe when doing an Ellis Island mock-up?). I'm grateful that my Korean coworkers usually refer to as "the native speakers" when talking about us in Korean, instead of "the foreigners" as might be expected. I certainly will not use this absurd pejorative any longer, at least not where I can help it. I request those of you in Korea to try and do the same.


Shan said...

"...and you wouldn't call cats, dogs and birds un-ungulates."

I don't know. YOU might.

Simon said...

One of the big difference in Korea is that if you see a white (or brown) guy walking down the street, you instantly know he's not Korean and thus a «foreigner», while in Canada, an Asian guy walking down the street is assumed to just be another Canadian.
It's a tough concept to explain to Korean, that if they come to Canada, people will probably assume they're Canadian (unless they're dressed up super Korean/touristy) until they start speaking.

Adeel said...

I don't have a problem with the assumption, as exclusive as it is and as problematic as it's going to be (there are going to be a lot of outcast foreign-looking mixed-race adults in 30 years). My problem is with English use of the word foreigner (not in Korean), which is not something we'd ever say back home to refer to someone, no matter how obvious it was that they were from another country.

Hannah said...

A couple years ago, one of my colleagues at the newspaper where I was working lobbied to expunge the word from the paper's pages. This was after reading a column calling for the same nationwide. I personally made an effort, but I don't think it really stuck.
I, too, don't like that word being used. But as someone who looks Korean, sometimes I just have to use 외국인 to make it clear that I'm NOT "one of them," hence I can't understand some complicated bureaucratic term or obtuse cultural practice.
What I really hate is when someone tells me I'm not American (both Koreans and other expats do this in Korea) or when people compliment me on my English (the culprits in this case are usually other Americans of the moronic class). Annoying!

The Asian of Reason said...

All East Asian societies refer to non-ethnics as "X". Chinese living in America even refer to non-Chinese as "foreigners"! I'm not exactly sure if Koreans do the same thing. Maybe.