An Alien From the Same Planet
It has to be remembered that through all these moving places, I stayed the same person, I had my Austrian passport, I was half Austrian and half Indonesian: yet in Indonesia, I may have been an expat, in England an immigrant, in Korea - a constant struggle to become somewhat included. It is clear that the power as to who I am is not in my hands.
South Korea, Eastern Asia
Story by Veronica Burgstaller
Published on April 19, 2020. Reading time: 4 minutes
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My parents would always tell me proudly that as soon as I was born, I had a passport. As somebody, who has led their whole life on the move from one place to another, the question of national identity, or identity of belonging, is probably more acute and constantly in their mind than for many other people. Your national identity seems, in fact, more important than your own name. Where you come from is most often the first question people ask you, after your name. I am thus not Veronica, I am - my nationality. Except, herein lies the problem.
The concept of nationality is believed to be tied to a home, to family, to your life. Then how to start explaining a life that has primarily been lived in other countries? Does that mean to recount my whole life story to anyone I just met? It is also the question of how to define people like me: an expat, a migrant, a nomad? But these terms too are not up to you to be defined, they rather describe how a society or government decides to see you.
Born in Vienna, Austria I moved to Indonesia during middle school, where I was automatically the rich "bule", meaning "white person" in Indonesian. There, I experienced for the first time that as a white person I was special, privileged, and had more power. Moving from Indonesia to England, however, the treatment was reverse. My background showed that as I had just arrived from a so-called “less-developed” country, I must be clearly “less-developed” as a person as well, and was put with my brother in the foundation classes. Those classes are for students struggling with normal school materials (they soon realized that we were much out of place there).
In Korea, where I have been living for the past three years, I can say that yes, as a foreigner you do have more privileges, but it is a privilege of exclusion. Exclusion of a harsher work-environment that most Koreans are subjected to, of the very defined division between elder/younger, superior/subordinate, parent, and child. The word for foreigner in Korean is 외국인 (oe-kuk-in) using the Chinese characters 外國人 meaning literally "the person outside the nation/country". The word for alien (외계인 oe-kye-in) sounds similar but the character "country" is replaced by "world" so that I sometimes joke around with my Korean friends, and say that I am an alien, which is met with rather serious expressions and a reply "You are not an alien, it's called foreigner" as if I may not have learned the vocabulary correctly during my Korean language class. But it might really not be so funny at all, because every registered foreigner here gets an "alien registration card". So, yes, we are officially aliens.
However, I do feel, and probably we can attribute this to Korea's rapid transformation into a capitalist society, that one's social status, job position, income, school background, and even which neighborhood one lives in have become regarded as much more important. In this sense, all citizens and foreigners are discriminated equally in Korea.
It has to be remembered that through all these moving places, I stayed the same person, I had my Austrian passport, I was half Austrian and half Indonesian: yet in Indonesia, I may have been an expat, in England an immigrant, in Korea - a constant struggle to become somewhat included. It is clear that the power as to who I am is not in my hands. Maybe this is a sign that I can really only define myself using metaphors - a visitor, a nomad, an alien.
Additional Remark: After 56 years of using the term "alien" in Foreign Registration Cards, the Korean government has decided in June 2020 to drop the term.
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