If you've spent any significant amount of time in South Korea and picked up even the most rudimentary vocabulary of Korean, you've most likely heard the word waeguk-saram more times than you could possibly count.
That's because, in Korea, that's what you are if you aren't Korean: waeguk-saram (or sometimes just waegukin) means "foreigner".
Personally, I've never particularly liked the word "foreigner", as it isn't too far removed from a word that resounds with even more sense of isolation in "alien" (which is, in fact, the word most often used in translation for waeguk-saram in formal/bureacratic Korean). In Australia at least, it has never been a particularly polite or refined way of referring to someone of a different nationality who happens to be visiting your country, and is almost never heard with reference to someone who has actually moved here to live, work, or study. You'll see and hear terms like "international student", "international visitor", and "migrant" much more often than you'll hear a blanket term like "foreigner".
Needless to say, during 10 years of living in Korea, it often made me wince ever so slightly when I had to hear every Park, Lee and Jung refer to me (usually while I was standing right next to them) as "that there foreigner". Remembering that sensation, I'm even more sensitive about ever using the word myself now that I'm back in my own country and surrounded by such a rich array of nationalities.
However, I've always felt that I didn't have quite the full picture when it came to waeguk-saram and Koreans' understanding and use of the term. That was confirmed today when I took my wife and kids to meet a gathering of Korean mums and housewives who had decided to meet up in Melbourne for some lunch and bonding.
My main job was to take care of our son and baby daughter while my wife engaged in some much-needed chinwagging with other Korean ladies - all of whom are relatively recently arrived in Australia as migrants and applicants for permanent residence. I was doing a very good job with this and keeping my nose firmly out of their business until it occurred to me that I was hearing those terms waeguk-saram and waegukin again and again from their conversation. I got curious and listened in a bit, not all that naughtily I might add (it was apparent to everyone there that I speak decent Korean and I was seated right there at a table with them!), to figure out why this - one of my least-favourite Korean terms - was being used so much.
Abruptly, I realised that these ladies - with the exception of my wife, who knows my distaste for the word and was the only one of these particular Korean ladies actually married to a non-Korean - were referring to all and sundry around them in their new home in Australia as waeguk-saram or waegukin: foreigners and foreign-ish things! I was amused and startled at the same time by this, and later explained to my wife why.
1. The term Hoju-saram (Australian) was used very rarely in their conversational dialogue - waeguk-saram was by far the dominant referent.
2. If anyone could/should be referred to as foreigners in this environment (Australia), it would be the Koreans themselves - not the Australians, not the Chinese-Australians, Vietnamese-Australians (etc.) all about them.
3. Even if this is the basic case (that these newish Korean arrivals are the actual "foreigners" in this context), the majority of Australians wouldn't see them that way (given they are here as migrants), and would almost certainly never directly refer to them that way.
Bizarre as it might sound, I was listening to "foreigners" referring to natives in their own country (who wouldn't necessarily consider the foreigners as being such nor would ever directly call them that) as the foreigners. Does that make sense, or have I twisted my own concept into too many figure eights?
It was a revelation to me, because while in Korea I got so used to being labelled a foreigner that I actually began to regularly refer to myself and my friends as being such. You'll even see "foreign teacher" being the popular term of parlance in recruitment and scheduling in Korean schools. Being called a foreigner and being constantly reminded of your foreign condition is all a part of handling the Korean context. But even here in my own country, to these people I'm still the foreigner! While in Korea, sitting around a table with other Australians (or for that matter even other westerners) I just cannot in my wildest dreams imagine anyone referring to the Koreans around us as foreigners!
I'm not relating this experience here to have a quip at Koreans about their concept of "foreigner"- rather, I'm admitting that I guess I didn't really understand just how deep the Korean root feeling of ethnicity (and a deeply ingrained sense of "us" versus "them") runs - and (I confess) I still don't know now! I can say with some confidence that no Korean really uses the term "foreigner" in an attempt to be rude or derogatory; for them it is a simple statement of fact that indicates a separation of Korean from non-Korean, irrespective of location or context. It may sound a little scary or extreme to some (I'll confess, myself included) for there to be such a quick and all-encompassing distinction made in many Koreans' minds, just as it is rather heart-warming to hear the Koreans' instinctive use of uri ("our") when they refer to family members and possessions.
Just when you thought you had something figured, eh?