*Updated with some new (and more accurate) information!
A couple of days ago, I casually discovered that there’s a name for people like me. I say casually, because when I first heard it, I smiled, nodded my head, and pretended to know exactly it meant. Since then, whenever it’s been used around me (which is a lot), I’ve owned up to my lack of knowledge around the term and have gotten people to explain what they think it means to me.
So, what is this term exactly? It’s 교포, pronounced “gyopo”. I did a little digging around on the internet and found varying definitions of gyopo. Some say it’s only for native Koreans permanently living in another country, excluding those of Korean descent born abroad (Urban Dictionary). Others use a broader definition and consider it an ethnic term that includes both expatriates and their descendants (Feb. 2010 LA Times article). A few commenters on blogs and the like have stipulated that you must have at least one Korean parent or grandparent to be considered gyopo (excluding Korean adoptees raised by non-Korean parents). My understanding so far aligns with the definition given in the LA Times article — if you’re gyopo, you’re Korean but you don’t live here. Which makes all Korean-Americans like myself gyopo.
It’s one of the first things I get asked when meeting new people. When I heard it used for the first time, I was eating dinner at the hasookjip and had just met another boarder from Vancouver. Within a couple of minutes, after explaining that I had just arrived in Seoul last week and am from Los Angeles, he asked, “So are you gyopo?” After my slight hesitation, he added, “You’re Korean-American, right?” eliciting a nod and “mmhmm” from me. The same thing happened today, over lunch with a few other Korean Language Institute (KLI) students. Before even introducing myself or learning all their names, “Are you gyopo?” was again thrown my way. This time, I responded, “I think so,” and got the explanation that informs my current understanding of the term (along with my brief research). I get the sense that because I’m third-generation I’m considered slightly less gyopo (and more American), but who knows for sure.
It’s very strange to be so instantly categorized by a term I had never heard before. (This is precisely the experience of being a Korean-American in Seoul that I promised to blog about.) Gyopo isn’t used in a derogatory way, or hasn’t been towards me at least; it just seems like a way to distinguish those of Korean descent from others. There are people here from all over the world. I’ve met students from Ireland, Singapore, France, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, China, and the United States, all in the past 48 hours.
“Gyopo” really reminds me of the term “hapa”. Hapa is short for “hapa-haole”, a descriptor that originated in Hawai’i and literally means “half-white”. Hapa can also be combined with other words to denote other mixed ethnicities (check out the etymology section of Wikipedia’s “hapa” entry). On its own, hapa is usually used to describe part-white, part-Asian people. Like gyopo, it’s (generally) not derogatory. I call my part-white cousins hapa.
Both “gyopo” and “hapa” are very specific racial descriptors that are hard to escape because they’re stamped on your forehead. Before I left, a fellow Korean-American who attended Yonsei six or seven years ago warned me, “They’ll be able to tell you’re American just by your clothes.” She might as well have said gyopo instead of American. It’s even easier at Yonsei’s KLI, since gyopos are the only Koreans who do the program. I guess I look more Korean than I thought (I’m often mistaken as Chinese or Japanese back in the US, partly because my last name doesn’t sound Korean).
I have yet to figure out whether there’s any judgment attached to this “gyopo” term. Or rather, what kind of judgment. (The aforementioned LA Times article takes a stab at it; I’ll articulate a response in another post.) So far, I feel like people just assume you’re here to rediscover your heritage and culture, as happened to me earlier today. To the contrary, I’ve always felt very in touch with my heritage, culture, and family history (to some extent). I grew up eating Korean food, have known how to read and write in Korean since the first grade, and have donned a 한복 (hanbok: traditional Korean dress) every New Year’s Day to pay respects to my grandparents and elders. I certainly don’t know Korean culture or the language as well as real Koreans do, but that doesn’t mean I know nothing.
I was told today that I’d soon find my “gyopo friends”, as if there would be a group of them apart from my other friends. All of the people I have met so far have been in Korea for at least a few months, some for even an entire year, so it’s easy for them to say these things. I’m still the newcomer, so it will be interesting to see how my adjustment to life here shifts over time. ‘Til next time!