Expat, Not Refugee

I moved to Korea from the United States two years ago. I stumbled off the plane, bleary-eyed after a sixteen-hour long flight from Atlanta, with $800 to my name and two suitcases worth of things I deemed necessary to start a new life – some clothes, favored photos, a phrasebook I’d picked up for cheap off the bottom shelf of a popular bookstore. The phrasebook was something that I had to work up to slowly– I didn’t even know the alphabet.

After two years of living here, the Korean I speak is still broken, at best. I struggle to find words – simple nouns and verbs are clumsily strung together, along with the sweeping gestures and facial expressions I have come to rely on as a more reliable form of communication.

Nobody has ever told me to speak Korean. Nobody has mocked my endeavor to twist my tongue, my thoughts into a strange, alien shape that I did not grow up with, that I never had thought I would ever have reason to use.

Instead, they clap when I understand. They cluck their tongues and shake their heads, proud of my feeble attempts, and tell me that Korean is a very difficult language.

I was at a friend’s house this weekend, and her mother was searching for the English word for goguma. “Sweet potato,” I said, a little surprised at myself. I had eaten many sweet potatoes in Korea. They’re easy to find on the street, served roasted and piping hot in paper bags to hungry customers.

My friend’s mother turned at me. “You are a genius!” she said in English, smiling brightly at me.

I smiled back weakly at her, mutely disagreeing and feeling slightly embarrassed. I’m not a genius, I’m privileged.

My skin is a pale, nearly translucent white peppered with freckles that goes well with my strawberry blonde hair. I have a pointy nose and blue eyes with double eyelids. In essence, I am a quintessential Caucasian, impossible to mistake for anything else. In my small city of approximately 85,000, I am one of around a dozen other white people. Less than one percent.

Here, in Korea, I are not a refugee.  None of my few white (or otherwise non-Korean) friends are refugees, either. We are expats. None of us came here by force or circumstance, but by choice. We are here for jobs, or adventure, or to simply pay off our student loans. We can return to our homes if needed. We have stable incomes and apartments and plenty of food. What’s more is the extent to which we are welcomed here.

Last night, three girlfriends of mine — also expats — and I went out to dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near to my apartment. It’s the kind of place I’ve walked by a thousand times but have only stopped in maybe twice. The only thing marking it as a restaurant is a menu printed on the window — in fact, the rest of the building is a house.

I slid open the glass door and took off my shoes so I could walk over to my table.

Conversation in the restaurant skidded to a halt as all eyes swiveled towards my friends and myself. I made eye contact with a few of the patrons — all older folks — and took my seat on the floor next to a wall. I’ve gotten used to a lot of attention here. When you such a racial minority as I am, it’s nearly impossible to not garner attention.

I ordered kimchi jjegae, a spicy stew to warm us up from the freezing January winds that blow down through the Korean peninsula from Siberia. Conversation in the restaurant picked back up, and I assumed we were left to eat in peace.

Next to our table was a Korean man who looked a few years short of retirement. His hair was gray and becoming patchy with age, and he had lost the slenderness of youth. His eyes, however, looked lively  and he leaned into our table.

“Russia?” He asked in gruff, but friendly voice.

“No,” I said in Korean. I gestured to the girl sitting next to me. “She and I are from the United States.” I pointed at a friend across the table. “She’s from Canada. And that woman is from South Africa.”

The old Korean man — who later asked us to call him haraboji, or ‘‘grandfather,’’ was visibly excited to see such diversity in his restaurant. He whipped out his phone and made a call. I heard the word waygook. Foreigner.

A woman came and sat across the table from the old man, and they were soon joined by the woman who had taken our order. The three of them were friends,  all around the same age. They had abundant questions for us — did we like the food? Was it too spicy? Why were we here? Where did we live? Were we married? Were we all friends? — that we employed our best broken Korean to answer. They were pleased with the amount we understood, when we did our best to make ourselves understood.

A bottle of sweet Korean plum wine was brought out, and generous glasses were poured for us. We drank as politely as we knew how and thanked them. They called us beautiful in return.

Their hospitality, coupled with their curiosity, was greater than our thanks.

More questions. More wine. We shared our lives with each other over our meals with what little communication we had available to us. One of the women went into the house portion of the restaurant and brought us rice cakes. Then apples. Then crunchy, nutty burnt rice. We accepted everything they gave us — it’s rude not to — and even had food to take home the next morning. “Breakfast apple!” I said in Korean, entirely unsure as to how to format “I will eat this apple for breakfast tomorrow morning” into a complete sentence.

After a long while, once the restaurant had closed and all other patrons had left, we stood up to leave. Our new friends stood up with us.

“If you see us, come by and bow and say hello,” they said, smiling. We paid. It was cheap; we hadn’t been charged for anything except the soup we ordered.

Then, the old waitress pulled me gently into her arms. Her skin was papery smooth against mine as she hugged me goodbye.

The two women hugged all of us in turn, and our new grandfather smiled and waved, pinned in behind the table on the floor. I bowed deeply, a sweeping angle from my hips, and thanked them profusely.

I left the restaurant, my mind a storm of swirled feelings.

Very easily, I could have been born non-white, or into a Christian household. I could have been born into a war or famine ravaged place. I could have been devastatingly poor, or with debilitating medical problems, or any of the other myriad of factors that would mean I am less blessed than I am now.

Sometimes, I see these people on the news. Their paper facts are similar to mine: they too have left their homes in search of something else, but that is where the parallel ends.

I could be trying to enter the United States instead of having left it behind. My language levels could be shunned, or mocked, instead of celebrated. I could be berated for my physical appearance, scorned for the religion that I received almost as a birthright. I could be unwelcomed at restaurants, be told to go home, live in fear.

Instead, I am poured a drink and told to visit often.

I only wish it were the same for others.

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