When Home Is a Foreign Country

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When Home Is a Foreign Country

There are two opposing and rather extreme positions many Koreans take toward kyopo, Koreans who have lived or still live outside the country. The first is the automatic hostility felt by cultural chauvinists, accompanied by the accusation that all kyopo are "traitors" who left the country for selfish reasons. The other extreme is more common in today's capitalist Korea: admiration of kyopo who were educated in and live in so-called "advanced countries" such as the United States, Australia and Canada. The economic opportunities available in richer countries and the expatriates' exposure to Western culture elevate their social position when they visit Korea.

According to Han Shin, the spokesperson for Click to Asia, there are 600,000 kyopo members on their website, most of whom are young professionals, living in America or Korea.

Some kyopo have lived up to these stereotypes, either intentionally or unconsciously. Peter Chung, a young banker who returned to Korea to work, found himself out of a job and the subject of international press coverage last month when his e-mail to friends about his sexual conquests here was spread at Internet speed around the world and came to the notice of his employers. Locker room braggadocio was interpreted here as a "big fish in a little pond" mentality on the part of an overseas Korean.

"There are still many kyopo here who think of Korea as one big Turkish bathhouse," says So Jae-young, a Korean-American filmmaker from United States who returned to Korea six years ago with his family. Like Mr. Chung, who boasted in his e-mail about lavish business entertaining here, many kyopo who visit Korea even for a short time make a point of frequenting upscale hostess clubs and revel in being king of all they survey.

Because Mr. So, the filmmaker, thinks many kyopo use their exposure to Western culture as an accessory to decorate their social image, he decided a few years ago not to represent himself as a returnee from abroad unless the subject comes up naturally. He feels uncomfortable about the kind of judgments that follow as soon as he identifies himself as a kyopo - "whether it is a privilege or a disadvantage," he adds.

Although Mr. So said he also has difficulty with being told he has to follow the Korean rules simply because he is in Korea, he did seem to take some pleasure in fitting in. He served in the military as soon as he returned, when he spoke very little Korean and knew nearly nothing about the military in Korea. "In the beginning, I just appreciated the fact that I can ride on a subway, everyone looks like me and I feel like a part of the others," he said.

In fact, a few kyopo in Korea attempt to adapt to a new environment by keeping a low profile in public to lead an ordinary Korean life. As Mr. So suggested, they are fed up with the idea of standing out in a crowd as they did abroad.

"I don't know if I can best represent the expatriate community in Korea," said Jett Yang, the general manager of Bacardi-Martini Korea. He had moved back to Korea ten years ago; his family had emigrated to America when he was ten. Although Mr. Yang has not been living the life of an ordinary Korean businessman, he is ambivalent about calling himself a kyopo.

Instead, he half-cynically refers to himself as a "DP," or displaced person, a term for persons uprooted by war from their communities and unable to return.

"At first I thought I should go back to States after my work is completed. Then I stayed longer than I planned. Now I just don't feel obliged to give myself a set notion as to where I should live," he said. He gives a similar explanation for his cultural identity. He said he is more comfortable dealing with his fluctuating identity than he was ten years ago. Then, he said, "I spoke bad Korean to a taxi driver and I knew he was laughing at me." Mr. Yang speaks fluent Korean now.

Perhaps language is both a source of privilege and a disadvantage to many gyopo. It is a privilege because English is a sign of sophistication. It is a disadvantage because such people are seen as having been badly raised by pro-American parents who didn't even teach their child how to speak Korean. This is something foreigners in Korea do not have to deal with, but it concerns most English-speaking Koreans.

"Even five years ago, you were fingered if you spoke English on the streets of Seoul. People would actually come up to you and tell you to speak in Korean. But now, people just envy you if you speak in English," Mr. So said, adding that he prefers Koreans forbidding English rather than encouraging it, since the latter condition is simply based on fascination about American culture.

It is interesting to note that gyopo community in Korea apparently has a very strong network, both financially and socially. Gyopo in Korea have various social clubs and informal gatherings, including organizations that parallel Korean university alumni clubs, that serve mainly as opportunities to meet other professional expatriates and support each other's businesses. This is somewhat ironic, considering the jealousy, competitiveness and rivalries that often mark relations within Korean communities abroad, but it may serve as a new model for a more mature social structure for Koreans who are comfortable traveling across cultures.

by Park Soo-mee

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