What does it mean to be Korean?

What does it mean to be Korean“… he is a Korean but he doesn’t speak Korean.”

The first thought that popped into my mind when I read that was that the man is mute. When I scanned the rest of the comment which that sentence was a part of, my hasty conclusion didn’t seem to fit the context. So I came to the only other reasonable explanation: the commenter was trying to say that the man is actually an American.

You see, from my (European) point of view, a Korean is someone who was born and raised in Korea. That is the first and only thought I have when someone says he or she is Korean. It is probably because of that way of European thinking why, while

Who are Koreans

What Google thinks a French Pole is.

you heard of such groups as Korean Americans or Italian Americans, you probably never heard of Swiss Swedes or French Poles.

I asked Kimchi Man for his opinion and this is what he said: “They look Korean; but when I try to talk to them and they don’t understand, I feel some distance that wasn’t there before.”

Of course, we both know things are not that simple. Humans have always moved and mixed and without a doubt in the last hundred years we have done so more than ever before in history. And to make things even more interesting, different people in the same situation might feel they belong to different nations.

Are there any Europeans who have different view of what it means to be Korean that I do? What about others? What is the first thought you have when someone says he or she is Korean?




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20 thoughts on “What does it mean to be Korean?

  1. I agree, when I think of a Korean I think of someone who has spent most of their life in Korea. Most of the time there is a big difference culturally between… say a Korean American/Korean Australian and a Korean Korean. I have to emphasis to people that I’m married to a Korean Korean man, not a Korean Australian man. Someone with Korean heritage who had grown up in Australia has grown up in the same culture as me, so this is no huge cultural differences. Even if in their home their parents emphasised their Korean roots, almost everywhere else is Australian culture. Although it varies from person to person, some are bi-cultural but sometimes a Korean Australian understands more about Australian culture than they do about Korean culture. Many Korean Americans/Australians can feel disconnected from Korea because it’s a place they have only visited and they have difficulty with the language.

    • I feel exactly the same about people whose parents were from my country but they themselves grew up in Australia, America or someplace else.
      Thank you for chiming in.

  2. When a person says he is a Korean, I am think that a. he spent his days in Korea; b. he has Korean blood. It is not uncommon to see Koreans in the Philippines. In fact, there is a forever increasing number of Koreans in my country which results to a lot of Korean establishments (restaurants, e-mart, hair salon, hospital, villages, etc) here. In my village alone, I can say that 35-40% living there are Koreans so my place is like a Korean town. No kidding. There are strips (streets) here where everything Korean can be found!

    In addition, there are also KoPino (Korean-Filipino) children from the intermarriages. But they identify themselves as Koreans.

      • The Philippines is a melting pot of different nationalities and it is difficult to find a pure-blood Filipino now. If one person has a grandparent or great grand one who has a foreign blood, then mostly he will say: I am one-fourth chinese (grandparent is Chinese) or I’m half American (father is American).

        Blood lineage is important and nationality might be two, but a person must only have one country which he swears allegiance to. If I’m half Filipino, half Chinese and China and Philippines went to war, which will I support?

        • Actually, when it comes to war, you start supporting whichever side is not trying to kill you, and not the one you decide beforehand :P

          Hopefully, none of us will have to make a choice like that.

          Honestly, I don’t think neither lineage nor nationality is very important. We are free to make our own choices.

          • uh, not really. There are many cases where a person have to choose.

            Example, if a Korean has lived here in the Philippines for more than ten years, then he can apply for Filipino citizenship. In applying for that, he MUST renounce his Korean nationality. Not only that, he must pledge his allegiance to my country.

            Another example is a Filipino in America. He wanted to be a soldier and so applied to serve in the army. Before being accepted, I think he must be an American citizen, pledging allegiance to U.S.

  3. Interesting post.

    What would you consider Korean immigrants (like my boyfriend’s parents) who came here when they were in their 20s and have established citizenship here and built a life here?

    What about my boyfriend who is “Korean American” but at home, he only speaks Korean, they are very traditional, go back to Korean almost once a year?

    I think saying someone is Korean mostly means that they are Korean by blood (as previous poster). And as for “how Korean” you are, is based on how strongly you connect with the culture/language/traditions/etc. I think I also read somewhere that Koreans are ESPECIALLY particular about being Korean by blood — you can also see that by Korea being the most un-mixed country or whatever. (I worded this very poorly, sorry!)

    • Thank you.

      Those definitions are obviously not clear, that’s why I am curious about other people’s opinions.

      When you say “by blood” do you mean their DNA or how their parents raised them?

      • I’m asking YOU for your opinions in those situations, haha!

        And blood means their DNA. I think blood is more important to Koreans? I don’t think they would be 100% supportive of someone who was non-Korean by blood but was raised Korean? Compared to someone who WAS full blooded Korean and raised Korean.

        I’m just assuming this because I think that’s how very traditional Chinese or Taiwanese people are. (Or at least from my elders and how they’ve passed on their opinions to me.)

        • To be honest, I have no idea; I don’t know even one case of someone with non-Korean parents born and raised in Korea.

          It is difficult for me to say what my opinion is because of two things. 1. I believe it is not my place to tell others who they are. 2. I don’t think people’s culture has as much influence as most others believe even when they have spent their whole life in one country. Kimchi Man and I are soooo similar, and if culture had much to do with it, we should be very incompatible.

          If I would go out of my way to answer your question, my opinion would be that your boyfriend is an American. I understand his parents raised him to be influenced by Korean culture, but being Korean and being influenced by Koreans is not the same. Simply put, if he was compared to an average European, average American and average Korean (if such a thing even exists), my guess would be that he would be the most similar to an American.

          His parents could be either Koreans or Americans. I know of women who move to another country and stay isolated inside their apartment. Of course they are not going to be influenced by new culture. But someone who is adaptible, and spends majority of their adult life in America, would probably be an American as well.

  4. The word Korean can be interpreted differently. I really thing there are multiple levels of identity to a person, which I suppose I mainly get from growing up in a family who does extensive genealogical work. I might identify myself first through my surname, then my religion, the region I’ve grown up in/live in, nationality, and so on and so on. I can’t clearly state my ancestral roots in one word since my family branches from a number of European, American and English lines so I’m basically labelled as “White” or “Caucasian” on most documents and surveys. Sometimes I just want to tell people I’m an Anglo-Saxen-European-American descendent and see how they react.

    So, that’s my long-winded way of saying that they were probably saying that he was of Korean descent but did not speak Korean and is therefore either not native born, or moved away at a young age and never learned Korean from his guardians.

  5. @ gongjumonica

    One does not have to be a US citizen to join the US military. They accept greencard holders. Actually, many GC holders go into the military to expedite their citizenship application

  6. I can definitely understand where Kimchi Man is coming form when he said, “They look Korean; but when I try to talk to them and they don’t understand, I feel some distance that wasn’t there before.” As someone of mixed race who didn’t grow up in either of her parents’ countries, I’m often the one on the receiving end of statements like that, when I go visit my family back in my parents’ countries. A few years back it used to irritate me because I’d feel like I was being judged for not being German or Egyptian enough. And despite feeling most at home in London where I grew up, I don’t share all the same cultural perspectives as British people do either. Now though, rather than get irritated or feel caught in between, I appreciate the fact that I do have different influences – racially.culturally and language, and I pick and choose what I want out of them. As far as identifying as a particular group is concerned, I just think there is no reason for me to have to choose to identity with only one group, when all groups are an influence on me. The world is too small for us to get hung up on classifications. Humans intermarry racially constantly so that what you identify with should be less about your race and more about which ever has the biggest influence on you.

    • I, Oegukeen, always felt a bit out of place in my own culture and as a teenager that bothered me. But as I grew up, I realized that if I had felt too strongly connected to my own country, I could never be open enough to so easily meet and fall in love with Kimchi Man – I would miss on a lot ;)

      I can also feel some distance when I meet people who grew up in, for example USA, but had parents from my country. But feeling distance, as you realized yourself, does not in any way mean I am judging them. On contrary, I find a new point of view refreshing.

      Kimchi Man read your comment as well, but he is too shy to reply ^^

  7. In my opinion, you are Korean if one or both of your parents are Korean. Regardless where you have been raised, or what language you have been taught. I’m not Korean but I can speak basic Korean, I know some (or a lot? hehe) things about Korea (Hallyu, current events, food, education system, etc.) and I have more Korean friends than people from my own country. Really, I’m not Korean. Some people I look Korean but it’s just because my grandfather is Chinese. :)

    • So someone who has one Korean parent, one Egyptian parents and was born and lived in Brazil all their life is Korean to you?

      One of my parents is not from the country I was born in, and yet I have always considered myself a 100% belonging to the nation I was born in. That’s the language I speak, that’s the culture that influenced me. Where my mother was born makes no difference to me.

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