Strangers in their parents’ homeland“Korea is a mecca for young Koreans,” says Jimmy Chang. They pass through before graduate school, law school, medical school or between summers. Mr. Chang, 31, should know: The former Vancouver resident is one of those overseas Koreans, or gyopos, who returned to the motherland.
Their parents left in the 1970s and 1980s for a better life. But often the Korean immigration cycle often comes full circle as their children move to their parents’ homeland.
This is the story of those children, who, having grown into young adults, are now living in Korea.
Why they moved
The new generation comes to Korea for a variety of reasons: to learn Korean, to earn money, to search for an identity, even to find a spouse.
Grace Yun-kyung Lee, a 24-year-old English teacher, came to Korea six months ago because she couldn’t find a job in the United States. Sebastian Lee, 26, came to Korea after he was offered a job here. And there’s a 27-year-old woman who says her parents sent her to Korea to find a husband, laughs, then asks that her name not be disclosed.
Tom Kim, a 33-year-old Canadian, left Korea as a baby and came here for the first time three years ago. “I wanted to visit the homeland and learn Korean,” he says.
But often, there’s no single motive. A corporate finance consultant who grew up in Canada and didn’t want to be named, came to Korea for at an international MBA program at a Korean university, “while at the same time, have the opportunity to meet and get to know relatives, learn the Korean language and be exposed to the Korean culture,” he says.
Samuel Shin, 23, moved from Paraguay to Korea two years ago with his family. The lower college tuition was an added benefit.
John Yohan Kim talks about the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. “I went to watch the U.S.A. vs. Korea game at Seoul National’s auditorium [on the big screen] and found myself completely overwhelmed by a sense of affinity with this place,” says the 25-year-old, who spent his childhood in Boston.
“At the moment that Hwang Sun-hong removed his hand from his injured forehead, I realized that many Koreans before me had spilt blood to give me the opportunities I had, and I decided to move back.”
Connecting to society
Once here, the desire to learn about the culture and an openness toward Korean ways aren’t always met with the same acceptance by native Koreans, although by and large it’s much better now than it was two decades ago.
For a long time, Koreans used the word gyopo to classify overseas Koreans.
Mr. Lee, 26, a former marketing coordinator, doesn’t like being associated with the word “gyopo.”
“By definition, I would be a gyopo,” Mr. Lee says. “However, I don’t like being called one, because I believe that gyopo has a negative stereotype associated with it. For me, I picture the kids who come to Korea after living in the States for a few years and try to show off they lived abroad. . . . I know that there are a lot of gyopos who aren’t like that, but that’s the image that I get when I hear the word ‘gyopo.’”
Koo Bon-hae, 40, who works at a TV station and has been in Korea for four years, says the politically correct term is actually “dongpo,” which means “brother,” “brethren” or “fellow countrymen.” After the Kim Dae-jung administration, the government ordered the use of the word dongpo in all official documents.
Such a word would represent a complete shift in native Koreans’ attitudes toward foreign Koreans. In the 1980s, speaking English in public often drew glares from shopkeepers and cab drivers. The derogatory slang “orange tribe” was used to describe Korean Americans decked out in expensive clothing, hanging out at coffee shops in ritzy areas like Apgujeong.
But Mr. Lee recounts difficulties in the 21st century. “There were many occasions when a friend and I were given dirty looks when we were speaking to each other in English,” says Mr. Lee, who is proficient in Korean. “There were even instances where strangers told us that we should speak in Korean.”
Sometimes there’s a sense of alienation, but often this is nothing new. Mr. Lee, who grew up in California, says, “I don’t particularly feel close to Korean society because of some of the hostility that I face, but I know that because I am ethnically Korean, that I would be more readily accepted here than I would be in the United States. There are still many parts in the States where an Asian would get a lot of strange looks.
“For the most part, people here have been very supportive, and I have made many native Korean friends during my stay here.”
“I’ve lived in four countries so far,” says Chung Tae-gyung, a 27-year-old architectural designer, “and in none of those have I felt like I totally fit in 100 percent.”
Tom Kim, an English editor and proofreader, says, “In Canada, being Asian made me feel like an outsider, not often, but occasionally. In Korea, not being fluent in Korean made me feel like an outsider. The difference between gyopos and native Koreans is pretty much the language barrier ― looking Korean but not being able to speak Korean.
“Culturally, I’m screwed up. On the inside, I’m 90 percent Canadian. On the outside, I’m 100 percent Korean,” he says.
John Kim also felt out of place, growing up in the United States. He left his band in Philadelphia a year and a half ago and moved here for a job as a stock trader.
“The town I grew up in was almost exclusively white, and everyone went to one of two churches in town, while my family went to a Korean church 30 minutes away. All my friends’ parents were friendly with each other, and talked about the ‘in’ styles and trends, which made me feel very much out of the loop.”
He now has a ready response to cab drivers who ask about his identity: “I tell them that my blood is Korean.”
Tommy Kim, 30, an events organizer who grew up in New York, adopts a more philosophical, or perhaps realistic, attitude. “If you’re living in Korea you’re connected to Korean society whether you’re gyopo, white or black or whatever race you are. I think feeling like you don’t belong or like an outsider is a state of mind.”
Samuel Shin changed his citizenship to Korean, despite facing military service. His passport is now Korean, but Mr. Shin says, “I’m neither Korean or Parguayan. But this is where my parents are. This is my home base.”
Some gyopos deal with their outsider status by developing their own ties here, mainly by meeting people at church or through co-workers, friends of friends and college alumni.
With many immigrants, regardless of ethnicity, religion plays a vital role in creating a sense of community. For some returning ethnic Koreans, the church is the center of not just their spiritual well-being but their social life.
“I love my church,” says Mr. Shin. Many have found a similar home in churches in Korea, particularly Onnuri English Ministry.
Others, like Sebastian Lee, say they have a hard time meeting other gypos. Mr. Lee attributes this to his work circumstances. “If I had the opportunity to meet more gyopos, I would have taken it,” he says.
For people like Mr. Lee, Mr. Chang launched the G Network three years ago for young professionals. “Gyopos don’t have a lot of connections in Korea, but it’s pretty important. It’s who you know,” he says.
But outside of the gyopo community, Ms. Chung, the architectural designer, finds it hard to meet people, especially native Koreans of the same age group. “They already all have their own groups of middle school, high school and college alums.”
But there are aspects of socializing that disturb some. The main reason Mr. Lee is returning to the United States is the after-hours work culture. “Heavy and frequent drinking was considered an integral part of the job. I got sick of working in that kind of environment,” he says.
Meeting the relatives
In addition to a new country, a new language and a new life, foreign Koreans often have a new family to deal with as well, as they meet relatives for the first time.
“It’s a bit difficult for me to bring them into my life,” Tommy Kim says about his relatives. “I suppose it’s the same with them. We try to call during the holidays or on special occasions, but rarely more than that.”
Most of Grace Lee’s family is in the United States. She says relations with her relatives in Korea are very difficult. “We have a huge language and cultural barrier. They don’t understand the things I do as a young woman and why I do it.”
Tom Kim says, “My immediate family is in Toronto, but all my other relatives are in Korea, who seem like strangers to me, and to be honest, I don’t feel any kind of kinship.”
But others have renewed family ties. Sebastian Lee says, “Almost all of my relatives live in Korea, and moving to Korea has given me the opportunity to see relatives whom I have not seen in over 20 years. I am pretty familiar with Korean customs and culture, and my Korean is good enough that it has been pretty easy to get along with my relatives.”
Evaluating life in Korea
Despite barriers such as language and culture, the gyopo life in Korea can be positively memorable. Friendship is often cited as the top redeeming factor.
“My highlights here would have to be the many good people I have been able to be friends with,” says Mr. Shin.
Tommy Kim has also enjoyed his five years here. “It’s not often that people are able to find a job that they like, and I was able to do that here in Korea. I’ve met many good friends and I’ve learned a lot about myself as well as my culture.”
“I hated [Korea] in the beginning,” says Grace Lee. “But I got used to it and made some friends, and things are now excellent.” She’s also been happy with the money she has made as an English teacher.
In addition to friends and a better standard of living, the joys of Korea can be as simple as the ones John Kim cites: “I love the food, the people, noraebangs, the no tipping policy.”
And while some leave Korea in disgust, others find that what was supposed to be a temporary visit has somehow turned into something more long-term. “I came to Korea for a vacation and had no idea that I would end up staying as long as I have,” Tommy Kim says. “I see myself moving on, but at the present, I don’t have any plans of going anywhere.”
John Kim has the same outlook. “I could see myself leaving within a year or staying here the rest of my life,” he says.
by Joe Yong-hee