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The Art of Fitting In: An Immigrant Story

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

Our writer today wishes to remain anonymous, but her background is of a Korean-Kiwi who moved to South Korea a few years ago. She was born in Seoul, but moved to NZ when she was 1. In her mid twenties, she decided to move to South Korea after her studies to explore more of her mother country. She tells us "as cliché as it sounds, I wanted to connect back to my roots and learn more about the place I was born in. And here I am a few years later, writing about my experience as I continue to live here."

This is her story.

Before you read this, I want to explain a part of my identity as a Korean who has never actually lived in Korea until now. Gyopo (or kyopo) is a Korean term to describe people who are ethnically Korean, but lived in a country outside of Korea for a long time. Other similar terms are gyomin and dongpo (but the most commonly heard term is gyopo). In Korea, I identify myself as a gyopo instead of a native Korean.

Growing up in NZ, I sometimes felt like I didn’t belong to particular groups that existed within school and the wider community. The two main ethnic groups I grew up around were East Asians and Pākehā. I was seen as ‘too Western’ among my Korean peers, and ’too Asian’ to my Pākehā peers. It wasn’t until my later years during high school and university where I felt a sense of belonging by building my own social circles. I felt like I belonged as an individual, instead of how someone saw me solely based on my ethnicity. I began to gradually identify myself as both Korean and Kiwi.

I sometimes felt awkward saying I was a ‘Korean-Kiwi’ because, as many Asians have experienced, sometimes you feel (and get treated) like an outsider in a place you’ve called home your entire life. Still, I felt like I belonged to the community through friends, different social circles, and because it was the place which held my childhood and adolescent memories.

I decided to move to South Korea near the end of 2018.

I packed up and organized 20+ years of life in NZ, then flew over to Korea at the beginning of 2019. I had visited a few times before then during my summer breaks, but this was the first time working and living in Korea long-term.

I had a lot of mixed feelings about moving here. I was moving away from my comfort zone and everything I knew. The biggest feeling I felt was that it felt familiar but also completely new.

It felt familiar because I was surrounded by people who looked like me. I didn’t have to worry about hearing things like “go back home,” or racial slurs about my appearance. But despite looking like I belonged, I was also worried because I had to use Korean more. I’m fluent in Korean, but I sound a bit funny. Sometimes, I might get tongue-tied. My pronunciation can sound odd and awkward, especially when I get nervous. But it was a good experience for me to speak Korean more often, because I was always nervous to speak it with anyone outside of my immediate family. Living in Korea has forced me to get out of my comfort zone. But I'm not going to lie - I still recite what I’m going to say in my head before I order at the restaurant, or when I make an appointment!

The biggest thing I gained after moving to Korea was finding another part of my identity I didn’t realize I had. Here, I had to build new connections for myself and make new social circles. It was hard to relate and socialize with native Koreans because of a language and cultural barrier, but it was also equally hard to connect with 'foreigners' (non-Asians in Korea).

Like in the past, foreigners saw me as ‘too Korean’ just based on my appearance, and native Koreans saw me as the foreigner. It was hard to accept it at first because it brought up experiences from the past only this time, I understood where each group was coming from.

This is when I began to build friendships with gyopos. I didn’t have a big group of Korean-Kiwi friends back home, so it was really refreshing to know and meet people that had similar experiences to me in terms of their Korean side/other identity. We had many things we could relate to about our experiences as gyopos growing up, and as gyopos living in Korea. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve met some great foreigners and native Koreans, and some not-so-relatable gyopos. It has just been a nice experience to get to know gyopos from all over the world while living here. It’s something I will cherish and value from the move to Korea.

Initially, I moved here with the intention of staying for a year. I’ve been here for almost three years now and I don’t have a set plan ahead with where I’ll be in the next few years (especially with the uncertainty of Covid-19 and all). But I’m super glad I put my curiosity into action and made the move.

I’ve learned more about myself as an individual, a Korean-Kiwi, and as a gyopo. I’m mostly thankful to learn and understand more about my culture in the country itself. I hope that other Asians who have ever felt a similar way growing up, have found a sense of identity that they are happy with!

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