Last night my wife and I ate at a Korean restaurant. The waitress who served us spoke Korean, but her accent seemed a bit strange. I could not decipher anything she tried to say. Although I am by no means fluent in Korean, I can hold my own in a restaurant setting. It turns out that she’s an ethnic Chinese woman married to a Korean man. I don’t recall what triggered the realization that she was not native Korean, but as soon as we realized it, our conversation immediately switched from Korean to Mandarin Chinese. (My Chinese is much better than my Korean.) I asked her a question or two I would normally ask a Korean, questions Koreans would readily answer, but she was rather coy in her responses. Finally, I gave up and resorted to speculation about her background based on facts I know about her, such as her approximate age and occupation.
Although the waitress looked Korean, she will never truly be Korean because she is ethnic Chinese. Although Chinese find it easier to assimilate into Korean culture than other ethnic groups, they can never be truly Korean. The experience reminds me of an acquaintance I know from South Asia. He is a Korean citizen and has assimilated well in Korean society. His wife is Korean, and his children are mixed. He speaks fluent Korean and is well connected in the Korean business community. He has even taken a Korean name, a requirement for Korean citizenship. However, he will never truly be Korean. The waitress we met last night met and married a Korean man in China, and I venture that he is either a businessman or a teacher, perhaps a covert missionary. Korean men, particularly rural-dwelling bachelors such as farmers, sometimes marry Chinese women when they cannot find a suitable Korean mate. In fact, some Korean men prefer Chinese wives because they consider them extremely dedicated and hard working. Sometimes Chinese mates–male or female–are ethnic Koreans who were born and raised in China or emigrated from North Korea. Most often, though, they are ethnic Han who married interracially into a Korean household.
The Chinese Korean women we met last night was somewhat evasive about responding to our questions. We did not ask her questions we thought were too personal. We finally understood that she did not want to us to know much about her personal life and how she made her way to Korea. Most likely, she, like many foreigners who are Korean citizens, finds it necessary to conceal her background in order to minimize the disparaties between her and her adopted country. It’s a defensive mechanism that helps her blend better into Korean culture. It seems a bit distrustful, but it’s understandable. Those who have adopted Korea as their homeland do not want to do anything that will make them more conspicuous than they already are–particularly discussing their non-Korean past.