Always an Outsider, Sometimes Included

I remember one of my first staff meetings for the foreign English teachers at KNU. Bill and Gail Patch, long time missionaries to KNU, then president and matriarch of KNU, explained that as foreigners we will always be outsiders here. No matter how long we live here, no matter how well we speak Korean, no matter how adapted we become to the culture, we will always be outsiders. (30+ years hasn't been enough for them to become insiders.)

Korea is one of the most homogeneous nations on earth. In a way very similar to the Jew/Gentile divide, you are either Korean or Weigook (the Korean word for foreigner, which literally means outsider). There is no in-between - in or out.

Interestingly, this creates lots of interesting problems or dilemmas for children with only one Korean parent. Are they Koreans or weigooks? Who decides? Are they some of both? Surely this pure Korean/Weigook divide cannot last for many more decades, as more than 1/7 of all marriages in Korea in 2006 had 1 international partner (one Korean and one Weigook). This growing trend is leading to lots of kids who don’t fit in the current cultural boxes.

We hear this word, “Weigook,” almost every day. As we walk down the streets, stand in the elevator, take a bus, sit in a restaurant, go about our normal, every day life, a child (or sometimes even an adult) will say “There’s a weigook!” It’s like it’s a great shock to them, and I guess it is a small shock to see a nonKorean outside of an English classroom. We’re still a bit rare in Cheonan.

Still, I find this open declaration of my outsider-ness incredibly rude and annoying. I often respond to the children with equal pointing and mock shock, “There’s a Korean!” (Sarah is nobly trying to break me of this nasty little habit.) They are usually pretty surprised and embarrassed that I understood them, so they turn a way and resume their conversations with their friends or occasionally even apologize.

Usually, being an outsider is not so disturbing, just part of life in a different culture. Occasionally, however, it feels really bad.

I had one of these bad experiences on Sunday. Since our church officially joined the Korean District of the Church of the Nazarene, we have received a flood of mail in Korean from the district office, notifying us of this or that district event or program. I had been lax in seeking translation help, but I finally got one of our church folks to volunteer to translate summaries of each piece of mail. I was delighted to discover that the district was hosting a soccer tournament. I talked with our youth leader, who is an excellent soccer player, and we began to make plans to join the tournament.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to the KNU soccer field to try to join a pick-up game of soccer. Unfortunately, I found instead, that the Nazarene tournament was already underway without us. Also, it was too late for us to join. I was really disappointed.

To the credit of the district, they did their duty in notifying us of the event in plenty of time. Unfortunately, our church was late in understanding the letter they sent. That’s our fault. The really frustrating part is that I play soccer on weekday mornings with many of the pastors involved in the tournament, yet none of them said anything about it to me.

We are the first international church on the district, and this is our first time being on any district. Everything about this relationship is new to all of us, and we are still working out the kinks. I understand all of that, but I have rarely felt more like an outsider than I did sitting on the sidelines of the soccer field on Sunday afternoon watching my friends play in a tournament I was too late for.

Later in the afternoon, after I went home and sulked, I went to a smaller field near our apartment. There I found a group from another Nazarene church (who was either not in the tournament or already eliminated). They eagerly invited me to play with their team every Sunday afternoon.

That was a healing moment for me. We will always be outsiders here, but sometimes we will be intentionally included. And that – that intentional inclusion into the community – is worth a lot.