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The Gyopo Experience ft Jen!

July 10, 2014


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When we were in LA, we spent a couple of days with Jen, who – by the way – is totally lovely. She asked Martina a really interesting question that really had us questioning ourselves. The question was this: do we consider ourselves Korean-Canadians or Canadian-Koreans?

It caught us really off guard. It’s not something we ever thought about. “Neither” is our first response. We have no Korean blood in us. We’re not Korean. Jen went on to say, though, that we’re in many ways more Korean than she is. We’ve been living in Korea for over six years now. We’ve been really immersed here. We have a home, a business. We eat Korean food every day. We speak Korean every day (not high level Korean, though: but more than enough to carry on conversations). We pay Korean taxes. When we were in LA, we were culture shocked by all of the things that are not like how they are in Korea.

But that’s not the point of our conversation. Though we’ve spent most of our adult lives in Korea, we still don’t consider ourselves Korean, yet we’ve adapted to Korean culture in many ways. Those of you angry Tumblrinas, please note: WE ARE NOT CALLING OURSELVES KOREAN. We were fascinated by the question, though, and what it implies.

Namely, the question of identity got us thinking. Back in the day, your language and your geographical location and your nationality and your heritage were very often all the same. A Korean person spoke Korean and lived in Korea and had Korean family. There was little mingling. But the world has changed a lot in the past 100 years. My parents are from Poland, but they have half-German grandparents. Then they moved to Canada. My first language was Polish, but then I dropped it for English. Now I’m living in Korea, and my identity and career are all based on Korean stuff. What do I identify as, then?

We hung out with Dan Matthews while we were in LA as well, who spent some time with us when he was shooting his documentary. He’s a Korean adoptee who spent his entire life outside of Korea. When he came to Korea, he hung out with us a bit, and we showed him around the area and taught him a bit about it. How does he identify?

Again, I’d like to make clear that I’m not here claiming some people are “more Korean” or “less Korean” than others. I’m not necessarily sure what I feel about the question of identity, either, because it’s something we’ve only been discussing recently, a lot more so after Jen asked us that first question. I’m not sure how much longer people are going to be able to identify themselves based on any country in the future, really, the more we travel and bring our history with us to plant in new places.

I remember when we were in Poland for our Polish meet up. It was a very difficult time for me, for reasons that I couldn’t really understand. I’ve always felt like a terrible Polishman. I remember visiting Poland when I was 16, and my uncle scolded me for not knowing Poland’s historical figures, and he stated that every good Polishman knows Poland’s history. I remember my brother not wanting me to speak Polish around him, because my pronunciation is terrible. I don’t know Polish well, I don’t speak it well, yet there I was in Poland, with a bunch of loving, Polish Nasties, all of whom I wanted deeply to identify with, but I felt deeply ashamed to. I had no right to claim any Polishness. I just had a Polish family and a bit of the language. That’s all.

A big part of this is why I’m fascinated with the gyopo experience in Korea (a “gyopo”, by the way, is a Korean who grew up outside of Korea). We’ve spoken with many who have a really difficult time here, some of whom have been scolded publicly for not being Korean enough, for not speaking enough of the language. It’s something I feel when I think about my Polishness. And it’s something that I consider while we’re here in Korea as well. What place do we have in this country? We’ll always be considered outsiders, no matter how long we live here.

I’m not sure what else to say here. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, even though I don’t have any clear answers or questions. I just don’t know what cultural identity means anymore. I just know I’ll get a ripping from angry social justice warriors for questioning cultural identity, which won’t help me out much. What’s your position?

I also know that I was really happy to do this video with Jen, who could share her experience as a Korean American and touch on the questions of cultural identity as well. We hope you liked the video as well :D

If you’re looking for something more fun, though, I’d recommend checking out Jen’s video makeover on Martina. Side note: Jen’s got SUCH A NICER CAMERA THAN OURS. Ooooh look at that lighting!

And, lastly, click on this pretty button below for more TL;DRs, and for more collaboration videos. We’ve got another one coming next week with Korean Englishman, who’s, like, very similar to us but very opposite in many ways. Yay!



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The Gyopo Experience ft Jen!


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  1. Hi!! I live in Bolivia ( south America Country) My mom is Bolivian and my dad is Korean, i Had been raised under two cultures, but i feel More Bolivian Than Korean as I had born and Growth here, But other Bolivians think I`m a foreigner, and Koreans just don`t know where I`m from, My face has totally Korean Characteristics but in Tan Version and I also Have Latin Body, and I speak Spanish… so i`m quite estrange for Koreans.. So i don`t feel neither Bolivian Nor Korean.. But since i watch your videos I know more about my fathers country and culture thanks! .

    6 years ago
  2. I have to say, I am a white american and have been my entire life and ever since I can remember we have never worn shoes inside the house and I have certainly never left my shoes on going into a friends house. Also a korean friend of mine, who moved to the US approximately 3 years ago, says that she wears shoes at all times sometimes even in the shower (at home not at a public pool or something).

    I also tend to think it is pretty easy to recognize a native Korean from a Korean American here, even though I have never been to Korea.

    6 years ago
  3. I was born in Korea, moved to Canada 17 years ago and never visited Korea ever since. If I ever go back (which I plan to soon), I’m going to be 촌년 because of the way I dress nor I know how to take the subway. Remind you, TTC (Toronto Subway) is the easiest of the world probably.

    Until high school, I was almost 2nd gen – speaking English at home while my parents spoke in Korean, listening to Punk/Rock music. And then, University hit me hard. My life changed. I met Korean International students in my program and became really close. Got to learn “soju” culture, and got into K-pop, K-dramas and shows. Then, I volunteered at KSAC (Korean Students Association of Canada) which is more of 1.5 gen, like myself, community. It was then, I finally found where I belong. People in my age, immigrated here with their parents, know both English and Korean, into both cultures, etc. It is difficult to fit in one way or another because we know little of both sides. Yes, it’s great to be multi-cultural and bilingual and all. But, we often feel empty and lonely because of no belonging.

    When I visit Downtown Toronto, where a lot of Koreans hang out. By looking at their clothes, I can see that they’re International students because of the way they dress – probably the type of clothes they own because they bring it from Korea.

    I think Korean girls here try to follow up the Korean make-up style rather than North American. This is when we realize that Americanized make-up do not look good on our faces. Maybe it’s the skin tone, or the size of the eyes or nose, shape of the face. I usually ask my friends who visits Korea to bring me make-up so I use Tony Moly’s CC cream. I don’t personally like putting a lot of make-up on so that’s pretty much it. Sometimes, I put on Etude’s face mask on.

    Our house is the most Koreanized house that I know of. We live in a condo (apartment) and we make 된장, 간장, 고추장, 메주 and always have 3 kinds of kimchi at home. We shop at Korean grocery store and cook Korean food, eat Korean food and snacks. Even when I meet my Korean friends outside, we go to Korean restaurants. A lot of miss “home” in our heart. I know I do.

    6 years ago
  4. I’m Pakistani-Canadian. I was born in Pakistan but moved to Toronto when I was 5. Despite having spent almost my entire life in Canada, sometimes I don’t feel truly Canadian. People often ask what my cultural or ethnic background is. It’s never enough to say that I’m Canadian. Because I’m a visible minority, that somehow classes me as a foreigner. Once someone said I was Canadian but not a real Canadian. I grew up here, I’m a citizen, I speak both official languages, I’ve lived in both eastern and western Canada. How much more Canadian do you want me to be?

    I had to go all the way to Pakistan to be recognized as a Canadian. To my extended family we’re known as the Canadian relatives. People judgingly questioned why I didn’t know enough Urdu, why didn’t I know Pakistani history, why didn’t I understand Punjabi. Basically, why aren’t you like a normal Pakistani. It’s like they forget that I’ve grown up in a completely different environment. Your family can influence only so much of your identity. Your environment plays a huge role in shaping your identity. Stragely enough, I experience that same critisism in Canada. Pakistanis in Canada (mostly the older generation, but sometimes people my own age) will say you’re acting too Canadian or that I’m white-washed.

    I’ll be going to Turkey next year for an exchange program and do a mini-Euro trip afterwards. And I’ve been wondering what the heck I’m going to say when people inevitably ask what are you or where are you from. If I say I’m Canadian or from Canada that’s not the whole story. And if I say I’m Pakistani, well that’s not the whole story either. I’ll be in the UK for a bit which has a huge Pakistani community. Over there, I think if I say I’m from Canadan people will just leave it at that. I’m assuming to them a brown person saying they’re Canadian is no different than a brown person saying they’re British. I’m just really curious how Turkish people will respond when I say I’m Canadian. Will they just leave it at that or will they ask where are you really from? I guess I’ll find out when I go there.

    6 years ago
    • As an Arab-American, I can totally relate to your experience.

      I actually went to Turkey for a visit a couple months ago and people used to ask me where I was from. I would always say I was from the U.S. Most of the time they would pause and look at me for a second before moving on, and there were also a few who would ask the “No, really…” question. Why don’t people understand immigration!!?? lol

      6 years ago
      • Yeah, I think sometimes people in other countries forget that North America is made up of immigrants from all over the world. But I don’t really blame them because the Americans they see in films and television are usually white Americans or African Americans. Other groups have far less representation in media.

        6 years ago
    • I’m also Pakistani, but I was born and raised in America. I always got super offended when people called me Pakistani or Indian, because I always told myself I was American. I do love visiting Pakistan, and my family goes there every 2-3 years. I went a few months ago, and realized I’m a lot more Pakistani than American. But it’s still really hard to categorize myself as one completely. Similarly, I get called American in Pakistan, and Pakistani in America(and Korean by my family :)

      Also, I travel a lot, and when I tell people I’m American, no one questions me (and I look very Pakistani). But I guess your experience could be different.

      6 years ago
  5. I can totally understand your confusion of self-identity. I am Native American and Filipina. My mother is full-blooded Native American and my father is half Native (a different tribe than my mothers) and half Asian. Growing up, cultural identity was never an issue. Because I grew up next to Chinatown, my first language was Mandarin, which I later learned, there is some Chinese mixed into my Filipina heritage. I am second generation born in the US. My Lolo (Grandfather) immigrated to the US from the Philippines and lost contact with ALL his family there. Now, I don’t have any family I can find so I don’t have any extended Filipino family (that I know of). I identify as Asian-American though, because that is how I was raised (despite the fact I am 75% Native American). We moved to my Mother’s home (on an Indian Reservation) when I was 4, for a few years. I had to learn both Navajo (Native American Language) and English from a young age in school and so my family decided to speak only in English to me. I stood out so much in a Native American school. I never had American food or Native food, and was made fun of for bringing Asian food in my lunch box. I learned I don’t identify with any culture. I’m too Asian for my Native side of the family, I’m too American for my Asian half, and I’m too “ethnic” for American society. I understand some Navajo, but I don’t speak it very well because my accent is too “Americanized.” I understand some Tagalog and can speak it with the correct accent and pronunciations, but I don’t know very much (yet – I’m re-learning). I understand Mandarin the most (even though I’m probably a very, very, tiny percent Chinese) and speak it pretty well enough to pass. In fact most Chinese people will tend to speak to me first in Chinese before English. Weird? When I’m out and about, I’ve been mistaken for EVERY race imaginable! I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with finding a self-identity, but I tend to think of myself as a person of the world. Traveling overseas, I definitely stood out! I’m too tan and too American for most Asians, but, I’m labeled Asian when I travel to European countries. I think this topic will become more and more of a topic in years to come, being that most kids in the current generation are quite mixed, ethnically. In my generation, it wasn’t as common, especially being mixed Native American and Asian, but now, I’m finding more “Nasian” mixes, just like me. I think I worry most about losing the knowledge I have of my Native American half, being that it’s a very under-represented race. I mean, people that usually claim it, are typically 1/164th blood quantity. Being that I’m enrolled with 3/4 blood quantity makes me feel obligated to carry on the traditions and teachings (that I have little knowledge of, because I was not taught). I think there’s that sort of obligation any way, with any culture, but being mixed, and being American makes it harder to balance your identity. Nonetheless, great topic! It was sort of therapeutic to read everyone else’s experience and to know it’s not just me who deals with this on a daily basis. :)

    6 years ago
  6. My experience of having a national idendity is really lame compared to the ones I have read here…
    It might be because of all that social justice BS going on on tumblr about “well shit I didn’t know you are five diffrent flavors of vanilla at once” but oh well, here I go:
    I was born in Germany in the northern part of Bavaria, where I still reside. My paternal grandfather was a Czech with slight German ancestry and fled to Germany after World War 2 because he was afraid of being persecuted and associated with the Nazis in his home country. Similar to Simon’s case, his mother tongue was Czech, however he dropped it in favor of German and even refused to teach my father Czech because he was ashamed of his heritage (Talk about the media brainwashing people into thinking that everyone from Eastern Europe is an alcoholic burglar).
    My grandfather’s sister however still speaks Czech occasionally and she still has strong accent when talking German. My paternal grandmother’s family originates from France. Stereotypically they were all winemakers, my great-aunt owns a huge winery in Rhineland-Palatinate.
    My maternal great grandfather came from Tyrol (which is now split in half by the Austrian and Italian border). He had 2 brothers, one of the stayed in Austria and the other one emmigrated to the US. We completely lost touch with our Austrian relatives and the last time our family had contacted with our American relatives was when ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ was a hit single. All I know about them is that they live in Milwaukee and Chicago.
    I don’t really feel ‘German’. Matter of fact, I don’t there are a lot of Germans who feel ‘German’ or have a national pride similar to the USA’s or France’s. Anyone being proud of his nationality here is still associated with Nazism. There was literally a German actress posting a selfie with a German flag with the caption “I love Germany” she got thousands of death threats, was scolded publicly and eventually had to shut down her facebook page because all of the hate she was getting. I also didn’t have great responses from people when I said I was German while I was on vacation. I still remember some guy mumbling “cochon allemand” after talking to him. I have also met some tourists from America that were super duper racist and prejudiced towards Germany. They were literally asking me if we hid our “Nazi stuff” in the non touristy regions. So naturally, I kind of tend to identify more with my ancestors nations, like Austria (which is a stunningly beautiful country with lovely food oh my god.)
    But I think this mentality from German people and towards German people is in the process of changing right now. A huge contribution to that is soccer, which is like a self-esteem boost for the whole population. I also think the steadiness of German politics and our female head of government increased Germany’s reputation among other countries a lot.

    6 years ago
  7. I’m Mexican-American even though I am about to turn 24 this year. A lot of older generations Mexicans find it weird and a few find it shameful that I cannot speak Spanish properly. It’s partially my fault, but growing up in almost all white county in NC there was no way I could have not learned English and forget my Spanish. My parents encouraged me to speak to them in English while I was at home so they too could pick up the English language and culture. Now that there are more younger generations of Mexican-American children, the older generations think of it being okay for the younger kids not to speak Spanish because of how society is now a days. I just accept the fact my Spanish is no good and that’s how it is. I love the Korean culture by the way, it reminds me of my heritage, but more classier (lol). The music and fashion is a plus! :)

    6 years ago
  8. There must be something to that “foreigner radar”. Back during the summer of seventh grade, I was in Seoul visiting my relatives. I walked into the local convenience store to buy something and when I walked up to the cashier, she immediately asked excitedly in Korean “Are you from America?” Startled, I shook my head yes and mumbled in extremely broken Korean while pointing in some general direction when she she asked where I was staying in Seoul. I’m not sure if it was my large build, my clothes or my mannerisms, but there was something about me that set off her migook saram alarm.

    As someone who’s struggled with identity issues my entire life, I can definitely relate to what Jen’s talking about. Being born in Seoul, moving to NYC at the age of two and growing up in the ‘burbs in a large Korean-American community, I felt like I was constantly being besieged on all sides. The American kids always pointed out that I was different for being Korean, while the Korean kids flat-out rejected me for being too American. My parents kept trying to make me more “Korean” by enrolling me in Korean language classes and having me interact with the Korean community; I kept trying to make them more “American” by trying to teach them the do’s and don’ts of everyday American society. Once I reached adolescence I just said “fuck it” and rejected both whitebread America and my Korean heritage to become a full-blown gangsta-rap-listening baggy-pants-wearing wannabe. I felt like I could identify with the angry anti-establishment plight of black youth; to me, whites and Koreans WERE the establishment. Of course, this misguided adoption/idolization of gangsta rap culture led me down a predictably bad path which ultimately completely changed the course of my life. And to think, it was all because of something as seemingly innocuous as cultural identity.

    While I consider myself American, it’ll always be with a caveat. “Korean-American”, “American of Korean descent”, etc. And it’s because both sides, both mainstream America and the ethnic Korean community in America, continue to stress this distinction between “real” and “fake” Americans in public and private life, whether it’s a newspaper article automatically pointing out an Asian-American’s ethnicity when writing about them or my mother exclusively referring to white people as “Americans”. Speaking of which, as you guys talked about on the “gyopo” issue, I’ve also personally found that Koreans are much harsher on their own people than to non-Koreans. People always want to point out the racism and prejudice of majority populations who put pressure on minority groups to assimilate, but nowadays, it’s usually the conservative members of one’s own community who are the harshest judges. This is why, like Simon, my relationship with my ancestry is very complicated. While I’ve come to embrace my heritage in recent years, I’m still pretty much ashamed of my inadequacy in the language and lack of knowledge of social norms and customs. It’s difficult to even bring myself to go to a Korean restaurant because I don’t want to be questioned in Korean and then have to explain how I don’t speak the language fluently even though I’m of Korean descent. If I’m going to some other ethnic restaurant, I’m totally fine. There I would feel as if I’m entitled to mispronouncing the menu items or being ignorant of the traditional fare and dining etiquette. But to do that at a Korean restaurant would be regarded as a failure of some sort in my eyes and ostensibly in others’ eyes as well.

    I’ve always found it interesting how you guys talk about being considered perpetual outsiders in Korea. On the surface, it appears to be a pessimistic assessment. Like many other first/second-generation immigrants, the notion of being rejected from the in-group is a deeply personal and painful one. But due to your unique circumstances, it seems like you guys are at peace with it. Because you two already came of age before moving to Korea, and found unconditional love and acceptance with each other, you guys probably didn’t feel such a need to find acceptance within Korean society; as you’ve stated multiple times before, you’re perfectly fine in your Simon & Martina bubble. The fact that you’re both free-spirited counterculturists/dirty hipsters with perhaps a dash of subconscious White Privilege probably helps sugarcoat any angst you would otherwise feel. I am drawn to one anecdote, however, which may paint a more complex picture, one you consistently bring up as your favorite memory in Korea: the one where you guys were cheering for Korea at a bar during the 2010 World Cup and people bought you free chicken and beer because they felt solidarity with you. And you treasured that memory because it was the first time you truly felt you were a part of Korean society. So maybe you guys do genuinely want to be accepted, just in a measured realistic way that doesn’t interfere with your personal autonomy. Have your cake and eat it too, if you will. Regardless, you guys have succeeded in carving out a Nasty Niche for yourselves in Korea by creating a wholly new and wonderful community to be a part of, so perhaps my point is moot.

    6 years ago
  9. A-yo! to all Konadians (Korean Canadians) out there!

    6 years ago
  10. So I’m a legit caucasian American and I and everyone in my family has always taken our shoes off in the house. We’re not as strict about it as in Korea; I will leave my shoes on to run into the house really quickly, but generally they come off. However, adult visitors generally leave their shoes on. That’s not the case for every house, but it is pretty common.

    I’ve been in a lot of different countries for work, and I’m always easily pegged as an American. I try not to wear the American tourist uniform (white athletic shoes, baggy blue jeans, untucked t-shirt, baseball cap, large bag/backpack), but it’s still pretty obvious to most people that I don’t blend in. Occasionally people think I’m an Australian (likely because Aussies travel more than Americans – I can’t think of another reason), but most guess American pretty early in the game.

    6 years ago