Confronting Korea with my Waygook card

Last Updated on August 25, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa


Waygook (ㅡㅔ고ㅗㅋ) means ‘foreigner’ in Korean.  Sometimes it sounds like a dirty work.

You’ll hear Korean co-teachers use that word a lot and you’ll be in the same room. You’ll feel like they’re talking about you and maybe they are.

Last week, I did something  very un-Korean…

Koreans have a distaste for confrontation. They’d rather sweet things under the rug and ignore them then deal directly with confrontation.

It’s also a hierarchical thing. If you had an abusive supervisor, you wouldn’t tell him/her how you feel about them or that you don’t appreciate them treating you badly. In Korea, to show respect, you’d just tolerate it.

But I’m very western.

I try my  best to be even, unemotional and diplomatic in my confrontations.

And so I told my co-teacher, in a very honest, contained and direct fashion, …reasons why I resented her.

It was inevitable.

My bitterness towards my co-teacher-  her lack of help, support and welcome- had all grown to the level of disgust.  Meanwhile, her dependency upon me had grown. She wanted me to help lift her workload burdens. In truth, she had a reasonable request and one ordinarily, I’d be fine with. But it’s funny…

As human beings we remember when we’ve been slighted. We remember when someone’s abandoned us at the most crucial times and when help was most needed. Depending on the damage and hurt we feel, sometimes, we have a hard time forgiving.

I had difficulty forgiving.

Not to mention, her request didn’t mean any change on her part. There’d be no give and take. She would just be taking without offering even so much as kindness in return. Now that’s very unKorean

So something had to be done.

I had nothing to lose and when you feel like there’s nothing to lose, there’s very little you fear.

 People create their monsters and sometimes, these monsters resent their creators.

I resented her.

I felt like my opportunity to experience the “romance” of Korea, was stolen from me. Now I was fighting my own desire to hate it, due to its rejection of me.

Oddly, my co-teacher and the last native teacher had gotten on fabulously. She still talked about her now and then, and had no qualms telling me how she proudly, put up her own name as a backer for the native teacher’s cellphone . She even took the girl on trips with her family to share Korean culture.

I couldn’t get so much as a dinner invitation.

Was I a leper?

My mind doesn’t like to enter weak thinking, but living in Korea and I was beginning to understand the way Koreans see foreigners. The dark ideas began to haunt…

Was it because I was Asian, not Caucasian?

–      I had  once heard that Koreans preferred native teachers that looked foreign and not Asian.

Was it because I was my co-teacher’s age and not some vibrant twenty-something?  

–      I knew Asia preferred hiring youthful people and the fact, I look younger than I am, was an asset. But in Korea, a single woman of my age should be married and if not, she’s lost her credible chances. Are single women my age frowned upon?

Was it because I was single, free and living a new life in a different country?

–      Maybe she resented me.

I was fed up with this all Korean-ness. 

I thought “You know what, I’m NOT even Korean! ”

I’m American. Why the hell, have I been trying so hard to “act all cookie-cutter Korean” with my little polite bows, humility and chirpy enthusiasms?

There was a bitter monster inside me growing. And I had to get rid of it. I had to let it out.

So I did.

I pulled out my “Waygook Card”

For anyone who doesn’t know what a Waygook Card looks like, here’s the eye-opener-   it looks exactly like you.

Waygook (ㅡㅔ고ㅗㅋ) means ‘foreigner’ in Korean.

Being a  foreigner is not always a clean association in Korean minds, because it’s related to the idea that foreigners can be  unpredictable, bring diseases, be dangerous,… a wild card.

A waygook card for a native teacher is like a Monopoly “Get out of Jail” pass and Uno “Wild Card” combined.  It allows you to be confrontational and to have your actions to be tolerated because you were birthed from a different mother country.

It gives you the power to shift your disadvantaged situation to an advantage. It’s the highest trump for change.

But you must use it sparingly, smartly and well.

A waygook in Korea: Should you use it?

Treat your situation as you would in your own country… Be yourself.

Confront the situation, but don’t be an asshole about it.

Instead, be firm, intelligent, unemotional and sensible. Stand confident (not stubborn) and  resolute.

This is the only time you’re going to get to share a piece of your mind, so you’d might as well make it count.

Why should you use a waygook card?

Here’s a big and obvious loophole: “foreigner” already connotes an unconscious list of bad stereotypes, so you won’t be adding anything new to it:

– You’re expected to be a dirty gook, despite how overly polite and respectful you are in etiquette and formal code.

– Anytime you make a mistake, smudge something or do something which could be considered bad form… it’s attributed to the fact you’re all covered in waygookiness!

– Being foreign, you are a potential danger, liability, a possible loose cannon.

Every culture has  workplace politics and customs that you must tolerate.

Expect to hit rough lessons when you don’t know the local custom or rules.

In my workplace, I find I’m playing against a people, who’ve had lifetimes to sharpen their non-confrontational tactics.

Saving face can mean others are ‘doling silent punishments, when they think they’ve been slighted’.

Attempting to fight my battles “in a Korean way”, would be like swimming in a pool of sharks.


Compromising vs giving up your identity to expat life.

As a conscientious traveler, we should regard and respect the rules and customs of the countries we enter. Possessing  humility, open-mindedness, adaptability and flexibility are valuable traits to carry. But…

Losing my identity to adapt to Korea is not necessary.

Protecting my identity as a first class citizen. It’s something I shouldn’t lose sight of..

How did I confront with my co-teacher?

I know there are some out there who are battling bad situations, worse even.

My approach was generally the one you would use in punishing students (punish, explain what wrong was done, what it effected, tell them what they do good at and why its disappointing, and then possible consequences). I didn’t aim to hurt but to be point-blank honest.

I was not irrational nor belligerent. My voice raised at times, but I was firm in keeping my cool while also grave. I didn’t want there to be any confusion or illusions about how I felt or what type of work relationship we were creating if this were to continue. I wanted my CT to know it wasn’t an attack, but honest feelings and I was open to discussion.

I don’t expect an overnight change or any at all. But we ended truthful reveal  in a hug. That will do for now.

Are you a waygook in Korea? Would you use the waygook card?

Related Posts

Expat Life, Just Show Me Pictures!, Korea, Teaching English


  • Waygook (외국) means foreign country not foreigner. 외국인 or 외국 사람 means foreigner.

  • 외국인 = foreigner

  • korea sucks, don’t understand why anyone would put up with it. get in make some cash, save, get out. simple.

  • I’m honestly not sure about this posting. I’ve been in Korea for 8 months in Suwon, and I haven’t had anything as negative as this. Of course, I came here with my partner as a couple…maybe that makes a difference. Our director and co-teachers are helpful, although not our friends. We just go out when we want to and enjoy ourselves when we have free time. Korea doesn’t seem like a very restrictive place, and we’ve already worked out plans for being here for a second year…maybe even a third. Life is great in Korea!

  • Hi,

    I am sorry that you have had a difficult time with your co-teachers.
    When we first arrived, we worked in a hagwon for a couple of months, where we also had difficulties with the managers and coteachers.
    Thankfully we are no longer there.
    Now we are at a great school, with amazing co-teachers.
    Korea is full of great people, you just have to look out for them sometimes.

  • lol 외국 doesnt mean foreigner. you should fix that typo and look it up.

    • @Jackson: 외국 Typo? Really? In all honesty, I had to re-Google the term to double-check but I still don’t know what you mean. With other blogsites like (set up by the staid blog prophet, Brian in Jeollanamdo & our expat teacher’s bible & forum), blogs like The Waygook Effect,.. ‘Foreigner’ (whether neutral or negative) has been the only meaning most of us have known. Here’s some definitions and experiences:

      ” A foreign nation. Literally “out land”. Way gook in means a foreigner, or outlander. Generally expats simply refer to themselves as “way gooks” as “way gook in” sounds like a verb.” –

      A Year in Mokpo has their researched version here
      ACowgirl in Korea experiences a hilarious but quite common waygookin situation in her “Curse of the Waygook‘ .
      So Dr, what is your prescription for the typo? =)

      • p.s. In my definition research I got a little deterrent and stumbled upon Seoul Gyopo Guide: What Foreigners Need to Understand About Korea (and Koreans). I thought it pretty hilarious but true. Just wanted to share.

      • I’m gonna go with dr jackson for this.

        Writing waygook in English sure, it’s slang for foreigners but you won’t see it written in Korean as 외국. You need the 인 ,if you are writing it in Korean.

        Waygook in english : Foreigner (slang)
        외국 in Korea : Foreign country

        Also from what I can see of the links you listed as evidence, they also recognize a difference between the actual Korean word and the slang term.

        I just realized how old this post is. My bad.

  • […] […]

  • “And you also made me realize— in order for me to gain immersion, I can’t continue to think of myself as riding out a year! Thanks.”

    It’s an easy mistake to make. A lot of folks see the experience as just something to “get through”. If you do that, then why are you even there? So that you can make the claim that you “made it” through a year in Korea? It’s not worth it. If you’re having to console yourself by knowing that it’s only a year, you might as well just go somewhere else, because you’re wasting your time being unhappy.

    However, if you *don’t* look at it as just a stint to get over with, you will find yourself opening up to the local culture, be it Korean or Expat, a lot more. It wasn’t until I stopped looking forward to my departure date that I actually made friends, or really started to involve myself in the culture of Korea, both Korean and Expat.

  • Laura Cancun
    April 29, 2010 5:02 pm

    You made me cry a little with this entry. I struggled with this a lot… can I remain the same as I was in the States without offending my Mexican friends?

    It’s a thin line, and I know I offended some of my friends along the way. However, we managed to openly discuss it, I got some great pointers from them on how to handle things better, and 5 years later I finally get it. (There are occasional, but nothing my friends don’t understand.)

    Glad things went ok with your mentor. I hope things change 🙂 And don’t worry about hating the place. It’s just one of the phases of culture shock. it’s normal and it will gradually turn into acceptance, enjoyment and pride.

    • @Laura: Sorry and thanks. I always appreciate your blogs. While you’re Southwestern of the border, you had a break-in and adjustment period which was difficult as well. Moving to a new country is just one shift that people see, but enters…making a life, getting to understand relationships, language, work politics, etc… Many new negotiations to have to deal with and learn. I’m relying on the hope that what i’m going through is culture shock and things will turn to gradual acceptance and enjoyment. 😉 Yeah, open discussions are important to have every now and then.
      @Cary: Thanks for your 2 cents! To hear your input of how Korea works even in the dynamics of business is both, interestng and helpful.
      @Kelsey: Those flickr pictures floored me! I have a lot of respect that you actually held on and didn’t let go. Another EPiKer is going through something similar with his apt and is having the worst time with his school I appreciate your experience here. What you said about showing your CT a listing and your acceptance was something in the vein of what I also noted. Also the faking not knowing English People need to know you’re serious and that there are options. I feel like once you’re out here, we forget that options are available and we had a life before we came and perhaps that adds to the feeling of difficulty. What we see is the helplessness and vulnerability we feel towards the language and culture, so FULL acceptance is assumed. Acceptance is imperative when going into a new culture, but I’d like to think keeping the small but good part of yourself within that change is mandatory also. And you also made me realize— in order for me to gain immersion, I can’t continue to think of myself as riding out a year! Thanks.

  • dealing with the customs they have there is very difficult…i found it even harded since i was japanese sometimes

    you’re in a totally different envirnment than i was. i was there for the corporate world at korea’s top business (samsung) and when you have to deal with top level managers (older men) and me being japanese…man…it was TOUGH

    you can’t really break barriers in thier culture…unless you become one of them first. it’s a really tough thing to do…i could go on and on about this whole thing but i really don’t have too much time

    i just hope you can get through this and just know that there’s people who go through this everyday there…you’re not alone…and some of us really truly understand what you’re going through…imho, i’d just get outta there before things get worse. once you get into this kind of situation, it’s really hard to make it work unelss you’re willing to bend…A LOT… just my 2 cents…good luck…

  • It was one of those shipping containers that have been converted into a livable space (maybe they don’t have those in the cities, but they’re common in the countryside). It wasn’t exactly livable though:

    I agree that there is a line, but the problem is that Koreans don’t really understand it that way. It’s not that they necessarily want you to become Korean, it’s that they don’t understand your behavior unless you behave like a Korean. Korea is very insular, as I’m sure you have learned, so it’s hard for them to conceive of someone who might think a little differently than they do.

    I didn’t realize from your post that you had actually talked to her already, just that it seemed that you wanted to. I’m glad it went over well. I put my foot down with my supervisor early on in my stint, and it served me well, because they knew I wouldn’t put up with their crap. At one point, I showed her a job listing that had accepted me, told her that she needed to change her attitude (she would suddenly “forget” how to speak English when she didn’t want to deal with me, for instance – a common tactic) or I would leave. I started to walk out of the office and she actually chased after me. She had a more healthy respect for me after that.

    I agree that if it’s not in the contract, it doesn’t exist, but that’s not how Koreans see it. Unlike in the west, contracts in Korea are more like “guidelines” (you can find tons of posts about this topic on Dave’s) and you may find that even the central education office will encourage you to “be flexible” with your contract. I would carefully read over the conditions of your contract re: anything they pay for. In the standard EPIK contract (during my year, at least), if you left before 6 months, you had to pay back your settlement allowance, your airfare reimbursement, plus 600,000won of deposit for your apartment. Other fees they will likely require you to pay are insurance fees, “maintenance fees” for your apartment, advance utilities for the month after you leave while they find someone new, etc. If you try to leave the country before paying back money you owe them, they can have customs place a flag on your passport, meaning that you can be stopped at the airport and held in detention until you pay the fines. It’s uncommon, but it does happen, especially with schools that don’t particularly appreciate their native teachers. It’s that regulation that causes folks to do the famous “midnight run”, as that way by the time the school realizes you’ve left, you’re out of the country.

    A light at the end of the tunnel does exist, but sadly, I think that most folks tend to find it only after multiple years in the country. Korea takes a long time to get used to, and you have to kind of find your “niche” before you will really feel comfortable. For some folks, that means marrying a Korean, for some it means becoming an organizer within the expat community, for others, including myself, it means trying to integrate yourself into the local neighborhood. I think that as long as you see your experience in Korea as strictly a one-year, temporary stint, you will have quite a bit of difficulty fully immersing yourself in the culture there, be it Korean or expat.

  • have someone make a shirt like this for you:

    i had that made for me… =)

  • Unfortunately, I suspect that is not going to go over well. I used to be confrontational as well at the beginning of my time in Korea, but the fact of the matter is that being confrontational just lowers you even further in their eyes and you will get even less respect from them. Sure, you’ll have the knowledge that you’re not “becoming Korean” to satisfy them, but you will likely find that they are even less willing to work with you. I ended up living in a SHIPPING CONTAINER for 2 months because my coteacher had lost respect for me and didn’t want to bother with finding me a real apartment.

    There are folks who have good relationships with their coteachers, but they are generally the exception, unfortunately. You’re bumping up against one of the more unpleasant realities of living in Korea, and one of the main reasons I generally don’t recommend it as a teaching destination.

    Also – be aware that if you break your contract, they will likely come up with all sorts of fees and deposits they will demand payment for. When I looked into changing schools early on in my time there, my school demanded that it would cost me over 1million won to do so, plus repayment of my airfare.

    • Wow- shipping container. Damn Kelsey you are a trooper!

      But I also think there is a FINE line to play. Some of us are “overly polite and attempting to Become Korean”. We’ve worked hard, sat quietly in our situation for 2 months and are losing who we are & our strength in the process. It’s not about being Anti-Korean or Korea bashing (it’s not my way) … I respect the culture and aspire to observe its ways, but finding a negotiation within yourself where you don’t give yourself up entirely is necessary. Despite how I feel about the CT, I come to school with a lot of positive enthusiasm for everyone, I did tell her that ironically, I thought we had the “best working chemistry”, that I love the work I do & I love the children! “BUT… ”

      I’m firm, not combative or belligerent, I attempt to be fair while meaning serious business. I was upset, but never lost my cool…it’s how I had to be when working with tv & film crews & difficult people. It’s a fine line to juggle. But I didn’t lower myself. In the end, she knew that my honesty was actually respecting her- giving her/us another chance to be better.

      Contract wise– if its not stated in the contract, it doesn’t exist. My settlement allowance (covers airfare, med costs, etc..)- means nothing to me over this situation. I make more in the U.S. being unemployed.But if its mysterious fees– we can take it to the DMOE.

      I appreciate your comment and any encouraging advice you can lend. I know people who are going through your horrors & i’d like for them to think a light at the end can be found.

    • Actually, I decided to revise after a bit of what you said. I don’t want to lead anyone down a pointed or wrong path but I can see how my post can be misconstrued. Thanks & please keep commenting.

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