Things to Keep Secret in Korea

I’ve had an interesting education about what to talk about about myself  and what not to.

For example, I shouldn’t point out that I’m adopted, because it makes people uncomfortable that domestic adoption goes against the Confucianism that is so ingrained in the Korean culture.

I’m also not supposed to talk about being an orphan either, because of the uncomfortableness that causes as well.

I had an meeting/conversation with the male vice principal early on during the early semester that went something like this:

VP: I want to talk to you. I am insulted.

Me: Um. Sure. What’s wrong?

VP: You are Korean. You don’t speak Korean. You should speak Korean. There is saying when in Rome do Rome. You are Korean in Korea, you should speak Korean. If we in US, we speak English.

Me: Um. Okay. I’m the English teacher, so I speak English.

VP: Your father he thinks what about you not being Korean. And you speaking English? I think he is hurt that you are American. And you don’t speak Korean. You speak Korean to him? What? I want to know what your father thinks.

Me: Well, my parents are dead. That’s why I moved to America.

VP: Oh. Oh. Oh. I didn’t know. No one say to me that you have no parents. I so sorry. You can speak English no problem.

Fast-forward to last week, when the same vice principal made a point of telling me not to say that I’m an orphan to others here at Singa and that he’s only told the new principal, the other vice principal, and the English supervisor, no one else knows my secret.

And then my one of my other c0-teachers when she found out that I was adopted, told me not say that I’m adopted because Korean people don’t like to hear about adopted people and don’t like adopted people too much, just say that I’m a kyopo.

I would never say that I’m proud of being an orphan or adopted and that I’ve never advertised either, but I’ve never really hid it either. If someone asks me about my very English name, unless I feel that they’re not someone that I should share either with, I’ll tell them.

In Korea, if someone doesn’t know me and they’re just talking, there’s a good chance that they may say something anti-American or make a comment about orphans. If I speak up, they’ll either be really embarrassed and apologetic or they’ll be defensive and somewhat unreasonable. Fr. Simon at Myeong Dong Cathedral told me that before he went to the States, he was like the vast majority of Koreans, happy to take American aid but also happy to link any and every problem in the world to Americans. But then after spending and really spending time in the States and seeing how Americans really are, he completely changed his mind and position on things American.

But the xenophobia in Korea is growing, not lessened, since I first came back, even as the government is trying to promote Korea as a great place to live and work and to visit. I always hear how white people (Caucasians) complain about prejudice that they feel and experience in Korea, but what kyopos and any one of Black or African ancestry faces is so much more from what I’ve seen and heard.

How many Caucasians have been hit or spit on or slapped or threatened because they can’t answer promptly and correctly in Korean? or been seen with someone of the opposite sex of a different ethnicity? or had someone immediately disinfect their skin where they might have been touched?

I love my heritage and my history and my culture, but Korean-American culture is so different from Korean culture now, that on so many different levels I can’t/won’t/don’t want to be a part of it.


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