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.