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Current Korean language headache:

외국인 is translated as “foreigner” or “international” and literally means “outside country person”. However, the real meaning is “non-Korean” which poses some problems if you’re attempting to talk about foreigners in your own country.

For example, to talk about international students at my home university posed some real challenges during my writing segment today. If I write in Korean, “there are many international students” and use the word 외국인, the Korean reader will assume I mean there are many non-Korean students. Not quite the point I was trying to make, eh?

The definition for “foreigner” in English is location dependent. If I’m in America talking to my American friends and mention something about foreigners, which is unlikely and also a bit rude but we need a parallel example, then it’s assumed the people in question are visibly non-American (as in, style, accent, obvious tourist tendencies). But if I’m out to eat with Americans in Korea and I say, “oh look! Some foreigners came!” I am in fact talking about visibly non-Korean (non-Asian) people who might even be American like me.

However, for Koreans the meaning does NOT change depending on location. Koreans will come to America and call Americans “foreigners” because in Korean, “foreigner” means non-Korean. Oliver Ssaem has a great video about this; it’s in Korean but you get the gist.

As such, 외국인 obviously doesn’t translate well to English and its definition is built from the assumption that the speaker is Korean. The dictionary doesn’t tell you that, however.

So what’s the best way to say “international” in Korean to mean people not from the country in question?

다양한 국적의 사람들 people of various nationalities
다양한 나라의 사람들 people from various countries

It only took me an excruciating hour of research and peppering my tutor via Skype with questions to figure that out.

외국인 in Korean doesn’t have a contentious, or as contentious, use in Korean as it does in English. Like my tutor mentioned, most Koreans won’t think twice about it.

As I described in one writing assignment to my tutor, America has generally dropped the use of “foreigner” for its negative connotation. I gave the medical example of how “foreign object” signifies something bad that needs to be removed. Americans generally refer to non-Americans by their nationality.

(If you live in a less diverse town in the US, maybe this is not the case. And America’s definitions of citizenship and ethnicity are nebulous and sometimes detrimental to those who don’t appear “American” enough. We certainly have our challenges.)

However, Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. Therefore, language around race and identity are very Korea-centered.

South Korea and North Korea are among the world’s most ethnically homogeneous nations. Both North Korea and South Korea equate nationality or citizenship with membership in a single, homogeneous ethnic group and politicized notion of “race.


I am visibly non-Asian and am therefore always a 외국인. If I was born in Korea or had Korean citizenship, this would no doubt play on my pysche.

(Hyunmin is a Korean teenage model, currently the face of No Brand Burger, but as his dad is a very dark-skinned Nigerian, he does not visibly pass as “Korean”. He’s only lived in Korea and only speaks Korean but has plenty of stories to share about his life growing up. However, Korean reality TV seems to have adopted him and panels more often discuss race and nationality with him at the helm.)

But I am not and therefore take things as they come. I certainly face stereotypes born of ignorance rather than malice but I imagine for a Korean living in a homogeneous location in the US, his or her challenges are much worse. It helps that South Korea has a strong relationship with the US and locals generally see America favorably; it also helps that I’m white and this is a feature that unfortunately has been exported as America’s ideal nearly since its inception. It shows up in ways like this: teacher, you look very American. I try to bring in diverse imagery to my classroom so the kids can start to understand that in the US at least, nationality does not equal race as it is assumed to in Korea.

It helps too that if people don’t think I’m American, they usually assume I’m Russian or Western European which brings positive imagery, aside from the problematic stereotype that Russian women in Asia are sex workers.

From the video “Things Chinese People Say” from my favorite YouTube Channel Mamahuhu which directs fantastic satire about life in Asia. Source.

If you recall my drunk coworkers, they said “Koreans think Russians are very beautiful and Americans fat. So people think you are Russian.”

My third graders also guessed that I was Russian, German, or French on my first day because yes, you’re new teacher is definitely not a native English speaker! I would have to do some serious forgery to get my English teaching visa as a non-native speaker (it’s illegal).

There are certainly times when being called 외국인 can be grating, like my friend who dropped her bags at the airport desk and the attendants then loudly shouted to each other “The foreigner’s bags are ready!”. Or when my 외국인 face is used for status points (see, most notably: Busan Boy whose unhinged decline still gives me the occasional nightmare).

Overall being visibly 외국인 is a unique experience and the challenges are comical rather than devastating. It’s fun, being different.

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