Written by Andrew Cheng

One cloudy fall afternoon, my friends and I went downtown to visit the Changwon Migrants’ Arirang Multicultural Festival, the largest of its kind in South Korea. We had heard that the variety of delicious and authentic ethnic foods there would be staggering. Even more astounding, though, was the diversity of its participants.

The park was bustling with people of all colors and sizes, from large Mongolian men demonstrating traditional wrestling to Bangladeshi women cooking up a storm. In one corner of the park, a Nepalese man decked out in hip-hop attire was rapping to a captive audience. In another, Pakistani exchange students were blasting music and dancing to the amusement of the Koreans wandering by. Groups of white foreigners were dispersed all throughout, like powdered sugar dusting a red bean pancake. Everywhere I turned, I heard a different language.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. Since South Korea’s meteoric rise to economic success in the late 20th century, people from many other countries in Asia have arrived to seek their fortunes here. But their actual numbers were never more apparent than on the day I went to this collective cultural festival. I had never seen more non-East Asians assembled in one place before.

My favorite part, of course, was browsing the food stalls for tasty things to eat. Vietnam was selling pho, Indonesia offered sate ayam and Russia had a barbecue grill billowing enormous clouds of smoke in every direction. For lunch, I got menudo and turon from the Philippines and sneaked bites of my friends’ pad thai and tandoori chicken. A truly global culinary experience.

Sitting down to my feast, however, I suddenly felt that something was amiss. I scanned the food stalls for the flag of Taiwan, but to no avail. Despite the festival’s multicultural moniker, the sights and smells that I craved from my mother country — oyster omelettes, stinky tofu, pineapple cakes — were nowhere to be found. It seemed odd to me that Taiwan wouldn’t participate in a festival where even countries that I never think about (such as Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan and Nepal) were doing brisk business.

As I munched a fried banana, I looked around again, and then it dawned on me: this was the Migrants’ Arirang Festival, and the countries being celebrated here were those of migrant workers. Taiwan didn’t get a booth because there are no Taiwanese migrant workers. There were also no booths representing the United States or any Western countries, for that matter. All of the festival participants were people who had come from South, Southeast and Central Asia, threading pockets of immigrant communities almost seamlessly into the seemingly solid-color fabric of Korean society.

"Identity" by Andrew Cheng. Taken in Changwon.

“Identity” by Andrew Cheng. Taken in Changwon.

From ancient times until the opening of its borders in the early 90s, the so-called Hermit Kingdom was notorious for its isolation, and its correlated pride in its homogeneity has always been strong. This has helped it retain much of its cultural heritage, but it also means that its adolescent relationship with outsiders who have come inside has been awkward at best and strained at worst. Just who are these so-called “waygookin[1. Korean word for foreigner, literally “outside country person”]”?

I think that up until now, my admittedly narrow-minded idea of the waygookin in Korea was of the Western Anglophone Expat: an independent twenty-something from Canada, South Africa, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand or the U.S., most likely white, here for a brief teaching stint before moving home or on to the next Asian country. Of course, over time I’ve met missionaries, foreign exchange students and engineers from all over the world who have expanded my understanding of what the dictionary defines as “someone who is banished or purposely withdraws from their native country to live somewhere else.” In expat circles today, the negative or political connotation is played down in favor of identification with a somewhat exclusive club. But we English teachers are obviously not the only expats in this country; indeed, to a Korean, “waygookin” includes a group we have categorically left out of the conversation: immigrants.

I had never truly noticed the presence of migrant workers in Changwon because they are mostly employed in industry, such as in one of the city’s hundreds of factories in a different part of town. But they are here. They make just enough money to live comfortably and send the rest home. Due to the nature of their work, they tend not to stay in their host country permanently. Does that sound familiar?

Now here I was at a party that my city threw for its immigrant communities, simultaneously feeling a vague kinship with them and an odd estrangement. I learned that some families have actually lived in Changwon for 10 years or longer. Their children have grown up here. In this way, they reminded me strongly of the permanent immigrant enclaves in California where I was raised — only their adopted country is Korea, not the United States. Like my family, they have toiled for years with the odds stacked against them for the sake of a more prosperous future in a land they don’t call home. And like my family, they continue to be perceived as foreign. Waygookin. People of a different color and a different culture that need to be put under the spotlight once a year under the guise of multiculturalism. “Where,” they are asked, “are you really from? Why don’t you show us?”

Clearly, I cannot answer for them, and to be honest, I already run into trouble with this question myself. Let’s not pretend there aren’t Koreans who genuinely believe all Americans are white. I’ve told many a curious Korean, “Yes, I actually am American, but my parents are from Taipei.” Thirty years ago, they began the long struggle toward socioeconomic stability in the United States and, through hard work, a bit of luck and a fierce dedication to their education, they achieved it. It is due to their success that I can be where I am today: an American expat in Korea. I fit in with the Western Anglophones, valued for my contributions to education; I am not the kind of foreigner my appearance would seem to betray. So I don’t get a booth.

How strange would it be, I wonder, if I did run into a poor Taiwanese enclave somewhere in the world and found myself staring straight into the face of my American privilege? What if I met a community of Taiwanese emigrants who were living virtually unrecognized in a society that acknowledged them once a year with a festival that celebrated but also completely Othered them? I couldn’t say for sure which emotion would win out: delight, embarrassment, curiosity or inexplicable shame.

Not that this matters. I may call myself American, or Taiwanese-American, or an expat, or a foodie, but when all is said and done, I am just a waygookin, like all my fellow English teachers, like all these dark-skinned migrant workers. We are not Korean, not part of 우리, the culture of “us.” It is worth noting that “Arirang” refers to the ancient folk song that epitomizes the ethos of the Hermit Kingdom. For a celebration of immigrant communities to be pegged with this title insinuates, I believe, that foreigners may aspire to have their melodies subsumed into the main theme.

When I sat down to lunch that day, I was holding a mosaic, the foods on my plate classified neatly by their country of origin. But when it comes to the ability of food to bring people and cultures together, festivals like the Migrants’ Arirang seem to demonstrate more of a melting pot effect at work in South Korea. Here, dozens of different minority groups are kneaded into one ball. Here, the immigrants and the expats are all called waygookin (although it’s clear which bites of the stew are more favored). Here, the identity and pride I have as both Taiwanese and American are rendered as murky as egg drop soup. While Korea’s prosperity and diversity are both bound to increase, it remains to be seen how cultural assimilation will stir its stone pot of hegemony.

Andrew Cheng is a 2012-2014 high school ETA in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do.