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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Coming (Back) to Korea

Story by Martin Rehder

Everyone who comes to live in Korea faces challenges. For some, it’s the language, others it’s the food and some struggle to find some semblance of western life. For certain individuals, however, the challenges of being ethnically Korean but culturally foreign present special problems the rest of us never have.

Rachel Norton and Jim Yoon were both born in Korea but grew up in America. Both left Korea at a very early age but have come back to Korea as adults and experienced special challenges as a result of their ethnicity, language and culture.

Rachel was born to an unmarried mother in Korea who gave her up for adoption. Even before she was born she had a family ready to adopt her.

Rachel Norton

At six weeks old, the adoption agency flew her to America where she lived a comfortable life in the state of Georgia. She learned English as her primary language and, culturally, she is as American as apple pie. Having been raised in the “deep south” in America, Rachel saw plenty of discrimination, not towards her, but directed towards the black population, particularly from the older, white generation. It was a shock for her when she arrived in Korea to be on the sharp end of the discrimination stick.

When she decided to come back to Korea, she had barely two weeks to prepare before she was expected to be at work. Among all the packing and moving, learning Korean was a distant priority. Once in Korea, whether it was a bus driver, taxi driver, waitress or store clerk, nearly all Koreans she came in contact with were curious as to why she looked just like any other Korean but couldn’t speak the language.

The photo of her family Rachel carries for illustration.

Having to explain her history was – and still is – a regular ordeal. To ease the explanation process, Rachel carries with her a picture of herself as a toddler with her family. In her limited Korean, she could easily convey the fact that she was adopted by a Caucasian family and considers herself an American. For many Koreans, once they learned she was culturally different, they would treat her differently. Some might stop the conversation abruptly and look away. Others might make a “harrumph” noise with a slight upward curl of the lip. Still others would physically move away in disgust as if the economic hardships and relationship decisions of her birth mother were contagious. She estimates that 60-70% of her encounters in the first years or so of living in Korea ended this way. She felt hurt and was even made to feel guilty as if it were her fault she was raised and educated elsewhere.

Part of Rachel’s journey in Korea involved searching for and finding her biological mother. With the help of the adoption agency, Rachel reconnected briefly with her. She met her in a filthy cluster of tiny homes near the North Korean border. The laugh-lines on her face were etched in a permanent downward slant, underscoring the hard and sorrowful life she’s had. Their short reunion ended with Rachel thanking her for giving her the ultimate gift – life. A life that her adopting family was only too happy to share with her. Sensitive to their concerns and fears about her becoming closer to her Korean roots, Rachel has had to balance between not disrespecting the culture and life they gave her in America with the prejudice here in Korea for not being Korean enough.

Through it all, Rachel remains upbeat and positive. Koreans have become much more accepting of multiculturalism over the time she’s been here. Although the discrimination still occurs, it is far less frequent than what it once was. Overall, she says, living in Korea has been a positive experience. There are many other Koreans whose outgoing and friendly manner impressed her and she’ll retains many wonderful memories. Her advice to others searching for their birth parents: keep your expectations low.

Jim Yoon has had his own experiences with discrimination. At the age of two, he went with his parents to Iran so his father could work as a communications engineer. He went to an English school in Iran and learned English as his first language. When the Islamic Revolution in 1979 took place, he and his family were uprooted and at gunpoint made to leave the country with almost none of their considerable belongings – because they weren’t Iranian. (That’s a story worthy of an entire article in itself.) They made their way to America and settled in Dallas, Texas where his father took a job as a maintenance man at an apartment complex. Dallas has it’s own racial issues with contingents of whites, blacks, Mexicans and Asians. Jim tells the story of simply walking down the street in Dallas and being accosted, threatened, cursed at and shouted at for being “Chinese.” Jim was having to fight almost every other day for his right to fit in a society he thought he was a part of and had a right to be in.

Jim Yoon

Because he was born here and moved with his parents, Jim had dual Korean and American citizenship. Ultimately, he had to choose one country or the other. In 2001, at the age of 30, Jim decided to come back to Korea. His first experience with discrimination was on the bus. While talking on the phone in English, an old man began yelling at him and jamming his finger at his forehead between his eyes. Not understanding Korean, Jim tried to push him away so he could finish his phone call. Instead, he got a kick in the head from another, younger Korean for his efforts. Jim still has no idea what the old man was so angry about but could only surmise it was a combination of Jim’s Korean face and English tongue.

Again and again, Jim had bouts of Koreans not understanding who this man was that was so Korean in appearance but so foreign in every other way. Being a husky man and perhaps somewhat more aggressive than petite, little Rachel, Jim got into several fights over the clash of cultures. Not knowing his native tongue wasn’t his only problem. One of Jim’s early jobs in Korea was as an English teacher. But because private school owners wanted “real” native speakers, they would pay only 1.2 – 1.4 million won rather than the 2 million won Caucasian native English speakers earn. But nowadays Korean Americans make more than the blue eyed blonde hair stereotype native speakers.

But it wasn’t from just the Koreans that Jim felt discrimination. In the early days of his existence here, going to the foreigner bars posed a problem. He had to “prove” he was a waygookeen. The casinos were also a problem. Koreans are forbidden from gambling, and Jim had to prove his bona fides. Stuck in a no-man’s land between Koreans who treated him as an outsider and foreigners who wouldn’t accept him as a true foreigner, Jim felt alone and adrift. It was only when he met another Asian American in Korea that he found a friend that understood the difficulties he faced.

These days, Jim will readily say that Korea has changed. He says it’s gotten 100% better than it was. Since he’s arrived, Koreans have begun traveling more and have become more aware culturally. They are much more accepting of multicultural individuals. As for Jim, he has mellowed over the years. He doesn’t get into nearly as many fights. He’s adjusted to the society and speaks Korean well, although now it’s only his accent, or “saturi” that throws people off. He’s happy here and committed to living in Korea the rest of his life. “I was always Korean,” he says. “I just didn’t know it until I came here. I’ll remain a Korean and die a Korean.” Indeed, as the interview for this article neared its end, Jim spoke more and more proudly of Korea in the “we” sense.

Whether it is discrimination, xenophobia, fear of having their culture or language diluted or just plain old dislike of anything new and different, Rachel and Jim both have endured challenges most of us haven’t. They are a testament to the enduring spirit of Koreans. What they experienced is not unique to Korea and exists throughout the world wherever prejudice – the act of prejudging someone before knowing them – is not countered by education. It is heartening to know that Korea has grown and continues to grow in the right direction.