I am a foreigner. And I was with Her. Many of us are – we’re just one of 8 million American expatriate citizens dotted across the globe. We have a strange relationship with America. It is our homeland, where we vote, where we visit family, and, sometimes, even where we vacation.
But my true home is on this small peninsula in the Far East, a place where the streets smell like kimchi and opportunity. Where the alphabet looks like hieroglyphics (at least, in the beginning) and the highrises cast long shadows from the sky.
When I moved here nearly a decade ago, a white face was as rare as wheat bread. Brave children would greet me excitedly with shouts of “Helloooo” and “Wow, foreigner!!!” A wrinkled and weathered old man once softly touched Whit’s arm hair in a bustling train station, just to feel something so foreign, yet present.
A lot has changed in the last decade. Modernization is fast in Korea, but their conservative social mores and fear of foreigners in a very homogenous land is still real.
We now have two children who were born and raised here. They are both completely immersed in the local culture, attending Korean schools and daycares and living in a small university neighborhood where even the baker knows their name (and spoils them rotten).
Most of our neighbors and community members have completely accepted us. They smile at us every time they see us, the “tomato lady” continues her sales pitch and unending words of advice on rearing our children, and my Korean mom friends have welcomed me into their tight-knit circles.
Recently, Finn and his best friend Abby – also a foreigner here – have been heckled by a small group of older kids in the park for being foreigners. “No foreigners allowed to play this game!!!” they shouted.
Whit and I were shocked at the rhetoric, words we always feared for our children who live as foreigners every day in this world. We wanted to jump in, to defend Finn, now 5 and completely fluent in Korean.
“I’m not a foreigner,” Finn shouted back. “I’m Korean. I live here and I speak Korean, just like you do!”
His Korean buddy quickly interjected. “Yaaaaahhh! They aren’t foreign! They’re Finn and Abby!!”
My heart melted as I heard this 5-year-old girl shout at the older boys, completely barraging them for attacking her friends. My heart melted further as I thought about the last four years, and how this same girl’s mother was the slowest neighbor to accept us into the community.
We never had to interject for our son, who can certainly handle his own situations and with much more grace.
Whit and I are quickly offended any time the word foreigner is hurled our way. It sounds so dirty, so mean, so exclusive.
But to my dear 5-year old? He was born and raised here. This is his world, and he’s damn sure going to own it.
I later asked him what was going on with the older boys, and he shrugged it off. He couldn’t have been more nonplussed. But I wanted him to understand the labels that people so often use to define a person.
You are not Korean, I told him. You are also not American, I explained.
You, my son, are a citizen of this world. And with that comes a great responsibility to do your best to understand everyone different than you.
Walk in their shoes. Learn their language. See how they live. Respect their Gods. And always keep your mind open.
One day – unfortunately, not today – the world will thank you for it.