CONSIDER THE people of Korea as parts of one shared cultural puzzle; where would the pieces identified as gyo-pos fit? While the word, by definition, refers to those of Korean heritage residing outside of Korea, it evolved overtime to carry a loaded connotation; it is often used in a pejorative way to convey stigmatized ideas of those who lost touch with their ethnic culture. To some, the term is a simple identification of one’s background. But to others, it is a discriminatory slur. Breaking down the different aspects taken into account when identifying a gyo-po, as well as examining the impact of the word on individuals in Korean society hint that the word cannot be simplified into one universal idea.
Defining a gyo-po
The technical definition of the Korean word gyo-po is a person of the Korean diaspora or those of Korean heritage who live outside of the Korean peninsula. According to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, approximately 7.4 million Koreans lived abroad in 2017, with the highest populations residing in China (2.5 million), the U.S. (2.5 million), and Japan (0.8 million). In the word’s practical sense, the label of a gyo-po would apply to all 7.4 million ethnic Koreans who are accounted for in this census. However, aside from such tangible standards, opinions differ over the social standards of classifying one as a gyo-po.
In general, the basis for the categorization of a gyo-pocan be summarized into three defining factors: legal nationality, physical characteristics, and cultural connectivity. Legal nationality refers to the affiliation to a country in which someone was born or holds citizenship. This category takes into account how long someone lives abroad, usually meaning that the longer someone lives outside of Korea, the “less Korean” they become over time. Since this distinction is not always easy to discern based on looks, the next factor, physical appearance, plays a more direct role in identifying a gyo-po. This factor focuses on how “Korean” a person looks, displaying typical Korean characteristics such as soft and small facial features, dewy and subdued makeup, and attention to what is trendy in Korean fashion and hairstyles. Lastly, cultural connectivity tends to be the most influential factor in the identification of gyo-pos. It judges the level of cultural heritage that one displays through elements such as mannerisms, knowledge of customs, and language fluency. While these factors point out the most commonly used criteria taken into account in identifying a gyo-po, it is evident that it is not clear-cut action, due to the amount of subjectivity used.
Defining a gyo-po remains difficult due to the fluctuations in individual experiences regarding the term: each person possesses differing backgrounds and attributes that make them applicable to this term.
Mary Estrera (Jr., Dept. of Korean Studies) is half-Korean and half-Filipina. She was born in the United States and grew up in a largely white community in Dallas, Texas, with an Americanized lifestyle. She noted that food was the only aspect of Korean culture that she was able to experience in her childhood, as influenced by her grandparents and church community. Estrera first encountered the term gyo-po in college when a Korean international student told her that Koreans considered her a gyo-po, because she lived abroad, even though she felt more in tune with Korean culture than American culture. The Korean student introduced the term in its denotative sense, referring simply to those of Korean heritage residing outside of Korea. However, Estrera took the word at its face value, given the differing experiences others have with the term. “There are so many experiences, because there are Koreans everywhere,” she said. “I know that there are negative connotations, but I take [the word to mean] Korean diaspora.”
While she tries not to read further into the word gyo-po than its neutral definition, Estrera encountered preconceived notions concerning her appearance as someone of mixed race in Korea.
Because she looks Korean, she said, “People assume I speak Korean, and it sucks when I tell them I can’t, because they look so disappointed.” Nevertheless, she does not let these experiences alter her notion of what gyo-po means and affect her in a negative way.
Similarly, Marcus Schultz (Jr., Dept. of Business Administration), an adopted Chinese-Korean living in the U.S., faces expectations of competency in Korean, a language that he is not proficient in. In the interview with The Yonsei Annals, Schultz explained how he tends to introduce himself as a Chinese-American in order to avoid the gyo-po stigma in Korea.
“Without knowing the actual term for it, I knew the idea of gyo-po long before I came to Korea,” Schultz said. I grew up knowing it. There is a negative connotation towards it—[it refers to] people who have lost touch with what it means to be Korean.”
To Schultz, there is nothing positive about the word, given the context in which it is typically used. He finds that, especially among older generations, there are unfair expectations placed on those who are biologically Korean to fluently understand the language and culture. “Even if you have a valid reason, people still look down on you as a white-washed Korean and you become a target for discrimination,” Schultz said.
Lee Eun-gyul (Sr., Dept. of Systems Biology) moved from Korea to the U.S. when she was 14-years-old, and grew up being dubbed a gyo-po. Lee accepts the term as an identification and states that she does not link it to any negative connotations. “Gyo-po reminds me of a melting pot: since I grew up in the U.S., my parents are typical Koreans who kept the traditions, but outside of my home, I was meeting American people and experiencing American culture and food.”
She realized that Koreans cannot recognize the fact that she grew up abroad based solely on her appearance, but they can discern it through her gestures and lack of knowledge in certain Korean terms. “I’ve heard people say that I act like a gyo-po, but I didn’t ask what they meant by that,” she noted. “They said I look like a native Korean, but the way I talk and the way I behave is so different.” Though Lee is not offended by these observations made about her, it is common for gyo-po to take discomfort in being called markedly different in public settings.
Implications of the word
Just as the experiences of being a gyo-po can differ among individuals, so too can reactions to them. As noted by the interviewed students, the most common reaction that people attribute to the negative connotation of being called a gyo-po is that of mainland Koreans putting unfair expectations on those of their shared ancestry who live abroad. Gyo-pos are often assumed to possess culture and language proficiency when they return to their origin country and interact with natives there. If they do not, they are looked down upon as being “less Korean” and, in turn, become victims of discrimination. Given that Korea is a largely homogenous nation there can also be a lack of understanding of transcultural backgrounds, particularly among the older generations; some fail to grasp the notion that someone of Korean descent might not fully understand the language or cultural contexts.
Another way this prejudice manifests is through the existence of the “no gyo-po” clause in English language teaching positions. At several cram schools and English education institutions in Korea, job descriptions stipulate that holders of the F4 visa will not be accepted. F4 visas are specifically for citizens of other countries that are of Korean descent, namely gyo-pos. This workplace discrimination reflects the tendency of some Korean educational institutes to favor those from English-speaking countries and with non-Korean physical looks. “No gyo-po” clauses highlight that outside of just social situations and interactions with others, overseas Koreans face concrete acts of discrimination against them in Korea.
Reactions to gyo-pos are not always intolerant, however. Some native Koreans look to embrace their “foreign kin” with support and friendliness, to help gyo-pos become more in touch with their Korean heritage. Nevertheless, such approach must also be viewed with caution, as it can be overbearing and appear as an attempt to lead overseas Koreans away from their own cultural identities. On the whole, stigmatizing the term with the idea that Koreans living outside of the peninsula are “less Korean” can result in “gyo-pos” who return to Korea to discern their cultural differences rather than embrace shared characteristics with others of their heritage.
* * *
The conversation about who a gyo-po is and how it will impact an individual will continue as long as personal accounts differ, whether that be facing problematic expectations of cultural competency and uncomfortable situations of being noticeably different, or using the word as a simple descriptive tool. While it is easy to pin a word on a group of people and let it reduce their identity to a couple of syllables, the word gyo-po also allows for undefinable personal exploration. In an increasingly global social climate, gyo-pos have the opportunity to embrace transnationalism and the choice to explore diverse cultural backgrounds. With countless combinations of heritage within the Korean diaspora, the identity of who each gyo-po is cannot be summed up into one definition.