South Korea’s complicated embrace of gyopo


Ann Babe knows her real name, birthday and hometown. That’s because it was all included on the note left with her at the South Korean bus stop where she was abandoned as an infant in 1986.

However, beyond the name of the orphanage where she was later adopted by an American couple, that’s all she knew about her South Korean roots.

The only way to find out more, Babe decided, was to return to the land of her ancestors.

After graduating in 2008 from the University of Wisconsin with a triple major -- journalism, history and political science -- she became one of many ethnic Koreans raised abroad who return to explore their heritage.

Some come to earn money and brush up on their Korean or to please their parents. Babe took a job teaching English to learn about her roots.

What she found was a culture quite unlike that in the United States. And though she appreciates the sense of community extended to returning ethnic Koreans, at times she still felt like a stranger.

“I think that Korean culture is beautiful in the sense that they are so strongly committed to one another, but they are also community-oriented to a fault,” she said. “They don’t allow people to be individuals as much as I think is necessary.”

In South Korea, returnees such as Babe are known as gyopo.

The term connotes “our Koreans who happen to be living overseas in another country,” said David Kang, a second-generation Korean American and director of Korean studies at USC.

He emphasized the tribal focus of the word: “It’s this very atavistic view of Koreans as our blood overseas, almost.”

For some ethnic Koreans who come here, the term gyopo has carried a negative connotation, singling them out. But most accept it as a practical label.

About 7.5 million ethnic Koreans live outside Korea, 2.5 million of them in the United States, Kang said.

“An awful lot go back for a year or two to find their cultural roots,” he said. “Some go back to make money, and some, it will make mom and dad happy.”

Based on her interactions in South Korea, Babe says she can break down the attitudes toward gyopo into three types.

She described the first as “a person that’s older who is sort of angry about you being a Korean but not being fully Korean.” The second type is “very friendly and helpful” but sometimes “overbearing when they try to convert you or reform you.”

The third are people who seem flummoxed and simply incapable of grasping her background.

Kang said many South Koreans expect gyopo to possess considerable cultural and linguistic competency. As a result, he said, “the number of culture clashes and number of taxi drivers yelling at these kids is legendary.”

He said the high standards that gyopo are held to in South Korea contrast starkly with the relatively mild receptions ethnic Japanese or Chinese get when they reverse-migrate.

Other experts agreed.

“If a foreigner is non-Korean-looking and behaves in non-Korean ways, that’s not a problem; we accept it,” said Honkuk University professor Min Byung-chul, author of a book that lists behavioral differences between Koreans and Americans.

But gyopo who look Korean but behave in a “non-Korean” way may be a target of discrimination.

Kang also pointed out Koreans’ tolerance for most other foreigners’ behavior: “If you’re white, you can get away with almost anything.”

Babe acknowledged that she often misses out on some of the perks enjoyed by her non-Korean peers. South Koreans often will offer directions to confused foreigners, not presumed kinsmen.

Looking Korean has affected her employment opportunities as well.

Many English teaching positions posted on the Internet include “no gyopo” clauses. “They don’t fully understand that speaking and appearance are not really related,” she said of employers.

Michelle Kim, a New Jersey-raised gyopo, described an interview scenario that has become familiar. “They say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you were Korean; we thought you were American,’ and I say, ‘Well, I am an American.’ ”

She added that “gyopo only” jobs usually pay less.

Kim’s reason for coming to South Korea was to learn Korean and maintain family ties here.

“I don’t want to lose this huge part of my family because I can’t speak to them,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, gyopo enjoy some advantages.

For example, F-4 visas, granted exclusively to gyopo and former Korean nationals, allow them to take permanent residence and offer work flexibility, such as teaching lucrative private English lessons, that is denied to most foreigners, Kim said.

Applicants for F-4 visas need only to have “one side of the parents or grandparents who once possessed Korean nationality” to qualify.

Min emphasized Korea’s strong desire to embrace gyopo, who he said are valued for their English proficiency and “impressive” decision to connect with their heritage.

Now well-accustomed to life in Korea, Babe continues to teach middle-school English here and said she feels firmly established.

Though she has not yet decided whether to seek out her biological parents, she knows one thing: She will ultimately return to the United States.

“I think as much as people are able to relate to other cultures, fundamentally they always seem to go back to the culture they were raised in,” she said.

Wiggin is a special correspondent.