On Being A

Embrace the difference.

On Being A “Local Foreigner”

When I started this blog, it was entirely focused on my life as an expat in rural South Korea.  I called it “Waygook Next Door” (waygook is Korean for “foreigner”) because that’s both how I often felt.  My particular form of integration into the community on Jindo has informed the way I travel, though when I look back at my previous travels, it has always been something of a trend for me to be a “local foreigner”.  I know that those two terms seem like opposites, so let me explain.

She let me photograph her and the other workers for over an hour because she knew me by reputation.

Many people think that you basically have two options when it comes to traveling to a new place: trying to integrate into the community by “going native” or keeping your distance by maintaining your identity of a traveler passing through.  I posit that you have a third option that is somewhere between the two: becoming a “local foreigner”. I don’t necessarily see being a local foreigner as a better or more valid choice than the other two options, but it’s often one that people forget, and I think it’s something worth striving for.

Unless you arrive at your destination with native friends already in place, high skills in the local language, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the local culture, you will have to spend years in a given location to achieve anything near “native” status.  In many parts of the world it’s simply unachievable because you will always stand out due to your appearance, your accent, or a local attitude that one isn’t truly local until your family has been there for generations.  In some places, attempting to “go native” may even be seen as borderline offensive, akin to rich kids “slumming it” in bad neighborhoods.  By contrast, remaining purely a traveler can inhibit your ability to truly connect with locals, and will thus also make it considerably more difficult to have those kinds of “authentic” experiences that most travelers seem to be after.  You can stay in one area for quite a long time and yet never really integrate at all; in fact, many backpackers seem to fall into this category because they end up hanging out with other travelers rather than bonding with locals.  It’s perfectly fine to remain purely a traveler and it’s also perfectly fine to try and “go native”, but for me, I strive to be the “foreigner next door”.

I define a local foreigner as someone who has integrated into the community, but has done so with full awareness of their status as a foreigner. In Korea, I knew that I would always stand out due to my blonde hair and blue eyes, and I knew that I had a higher standard of living than most of the rural farmers I was surrounded by due to my high salary as a foreign teacher.  When I first moved into my apartment on Jindo, my next door neighbor’s kids would often peek into my apartment through my window or the open door.  The first time this happened really hammered home that no matter what I did, I would always be something of an oddity.  Like a mule among horses, I would always be picked out as “different” by the locals.

Better to be known as "the girl who likes dogs" than to not be known at all.

I could have sulked and given up on going native, but instead I decided to build an identity around being the “local foreigner” (not difficult to do considering that there were only 4-6 foreigners spread across the whole island). I learned as much as I could about Jindo.  I bought a motorcycle and rode everywhere I could, visiting sites that some of my students, who had lived there their entire lives, had never even been to.  I spent enough time in the pizza place that I taught the chef’s daughter how to play shell games and the fried chicken guy knew my order so well that all I had to do was stick my head in the door and he’d start cooking.  I spent a lot of time photographing the Jindo Gae dogs at various breeders and gained enough of a reputation for this oddity that I would sometimes arrive at random at a breeder’s doorstep and they’d have already heard of me.  I learned the local history and took an active interest in what I could do for the community in my role as an outsider (such as helping the tourism board, etc).  My crowning moment was when I was stranded on a random part of the island and when I managed to grab a taxi, the driver knew who I was and what village I lived in, as well as a few random details about me. Mission accomplished.

As a foreigner, I was immediately discernible from locals. In a culture like Korea where “different” usually means “bad”, I tried to instead turn that difference into a personal brand, to turn myself from “dirty waygook” to “the waygook next door”.  I thought about every story I’d read where there was someone local who was famous for being an outsider, and I ran with it.  I wanted to be the weird one down the street, the blonde among brunettes, the foreigner among natives. Rather than viewing my differences as a barrier, I viewed them as an asset.  Just as there was a local artist, a local drunk, a local baker, a local bitchy old lady, a local corrupt cop, a local kid who always caused trouble, I aspired to be the local foreigner.  I knew I would never be native, so instead, I chose to play up my role as a local foreigner; someone different but familiar, foreign but local.

Are you intruiged by this concept?  Want to give it a try on your next trip?  Here are a few suggestions from my own experiences:

Suggestions to help become a “local foreigner”:

  • Stay in one location for a decent amount of time. A month is really the minimum, three months is more practical.  Being a local foreigner requires you to have a connection with locals, something that isn’t easily accomplished in a short period of time.

    If I hadn't been a regular at the sandwich stand, I would have never been invited to the chef's recital, much less known she was a musician.

  • Establish a routine. Eat at the same restaurants or food stalls very frequently.  Order the same things over and over again (even better: make modifications to your order – it will make you more memorable).  If you’re location independent, work at the same locations repeatedly, and get to know the staff.  If you have a vehicle, get to know your mechanic or gas station attendant.  Routine makes you memorable.
  • Get to know everyone. Waitresses.  Chefs.  Convenience store cashiers.  Gas pumpers.  Trash collectors.  Food stall-keepers.  Farmers.  Everyone.  You never know what you may one day need help with, so befriend as many people as possible.
  • Go to those people when you need help with something. When my motorcycle broke, I pushed it to the gas station that I used every time I needed gas and since the attendant remembered me and knew who I was, he was more than happy to help call a mechanic for me and even fiddled with the bike while he waited for the guy to arrive.  Going to relevant people for help makes them feel good (“the foreigner came to me for help!”) and it will help them to remember you.
  • Become a regular. This is the combination of routine and getting to know folks.  Choose a few places (a bar, a cafe, a park, whatever) and become a regular.  You’ll eventually become friends with the local regulars and they will likely introduce you to others.  This network may be a lifesaver at some point, so take care of it.
  • Do things similarly to locals, but slightly different. Motorcycles are common in Korea, but are usually ridden by men, and are rarely ridden as primary transport.  The fact that I was a girl and rode my motorcycle everywhere made me stand out.  Another example is that most of the restaurants on Jindo were primarily delivery restaurants, and yet I would physically go to the restaurant to order my food, wait for it, and then take it home.  This oddity made the chefs remember me very quickly.
  • Do your best to learn the local language, but don’t be shy about asking what the native word is for something (don’t do this with people who are busy or seem stressed, however).  The person you ask will feel good because they’ve helped you learn something new and they will feel that you actually care about their culture.
  • Don’t overshadow the locals. It’s entirely possible that you might know more about the local area than a native does, but don’t let that show too much; the resulting embarrassment will be alienating and you may lose that friend or contact.  Let the locals feel like they’re teaching you about their home and you’ll be greeted warmly.  Showing them up will result in a cold shoulder.  Show that you have knowledge, but don’t be a know-it-all.
  • Make local friends. Don’t necessarily seek out those who can speak English, seek out those who seem like you’d get along with if you could communicate.  Much of communication is universal and can be overcome, but personality can’t.  Go for personality, not language ability.  You’ll not only make friends, but they will also spread word about who you are and what you do among other locals, which helps with your integration into the community.
  • Take advantage of gossip. Gossip happens everywhere and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, so you might as well use it to your advantage.  Cultivate a particular image for yourself and you may just find that the local gossips will inadvertently help to spread that image.  Make sure it’s a good one!

Well, this post is already long enough, so I’ll stop for now.  Have you ever been a “local foreigner”?  Is it something that you would strive for in your future travels?  How do you think being a local foreigner fits into the travel world?  Let me know in the comments.


  1. great article and i agree completely! having the knowledge and also the humbleness to know you’ll never be a local *native*, but trying to fit in and blend as much as you can while at the same time taking advantage of being a foreigner.. it’s the right balance!

    • Just as there’s the town mechanic, the town drunk, the town eccentric, and the town preacher, I also feel that there’s room for a “town foreigner”, which is what I generally strive for. I agree, it really feels like the right balance. Assuming that you will ever be “native” is naive and in some ways very patronizing to the locals, so instead working to create your own niche within the community is generally a far better option.

  2. Enjoyed this post. Haven’t commented but have been lurking. Wanted to offer greetings!

  3. i absolutely love this article! this is definitely my goal whenever i travel. I’ve also found that cultivating the habits and attitude that it takes to be a local foreigner are useful even when you’re in a place where you’re unknown. for example, as a pasty Irish-American girl in Cairo, I couldn’t pass for a local. But by ACTING like a local foreigner I got more discounts and was generally treated like a long-term expat who knew the ropes.

  4. Kelsey,
    Thanks for posting this link on my blog. I think I have a similar travel style — I like to go to places and just stay there… for a really long time (like until the visa authorities threaten to kick me out). As I’m a white girl in Asia (and I’m spectacularly bad at learning languages), there is really no chance that I’m going to be mistaken for a local (even though I sometimes forget that I’m different). But I still like feeling like I’m part of the community. In Japan, I started running races and going to baseball games (two things I NEVER would have done in the States). These were two activities during which I felt like I truly belonged (even though I didn’t… really… but I could pretend).

  5. I really enjoyed reading this, and I will use this advise when trying to integrate myself into my future community in GwangJu. I want to be a “Local Foreigner!”

  6. I love the term ‘local foreigner’!! We definitely learned on our RTW trip that we would prefer to slow down and stay in a place much longer…like you said 3 months would be ideal. And that will be our goal as we move forward. Great tips in here! Cheers!

  7. I’m somewhat of a “local foreigner” here in Medellin, Colombia (originally from New York City), and I found this post very interesting. It was spot on. Although if I followed some of your suggestions it would be a one-way ticket to being kidnapped lol =P If I were in a more stable region we’d be in 100% agreement.

    PS – I also love the term “local foreigner,” I plan on using it ^.^

  8. thanks for sharing… I will remember your suggestions to
    my future travel. 😀

    nice post!!

  9. While many people flit from one town to the next and blurt about how they know the local culture, it is not until you have stayed in one place for a while (as you mentioned) that you truly begin to understand it.
    Great post!
    Rob W.

  10. Inspiring stuff! I’m not sure I’m brave enough with strangers to do a lot of this (I only really travel to follow my husband round the world – sad but true!), but it gives me ideas about small steps – and whaddya know, I think some of it does actually sound familiar…

  11. Great article, as a canadian I would like to salute you on not pretending to be a canadian, although you didn’t mention this article, you did in “why living abroad made me a better american”, and good on ya for your reasons not to too! in my limited travels i have noticed that most people check if they suspect in the least that you might be an american masquerading as a canadian. at any rate i stumbled apon your blog by accident late one evening when i was surfing the interweb when i happened upon a site that at the time i thought said morador but was actually matador (like i said, it was late). anyway, the reason that i initially picked your blog out of the myriad of blogs was that you were wearing a totally fantastic hat. I myself am a bit of a hat guy and I must compliment those who wear great hats often in hopes that it will become a trend again. (sigh, – yearning for the great style and fashion sense of the 20’s) but beyond that i really do appreciate the way you travel and should i have the opportunity to travel in the future (here’s hoping!) that i will be able to do it in the manor which you suggest and clearly enjoy. may god bless you and keep you safe in the adventure we call life.

  12. Nice blog and good comments/suggestions. I quite agree with being a “local foreigner”…been one for years. Liked the part about waiting for food at a delivery restaurant…I do that as well.

    BTW just one small quibble…”waygook”=”foreign” “way-gook-kin”=”foreigner”

  13. The photograph with the Korean school kids. Was that Baekhak Middle School? Looks just like it.

  14. Hey there,

    I just stumbled across your blog searching about ‘foreigners in Korea’. As of late I have been interested in how other people perceive Korea, and how they find living there as a foreigner.

    As a Korean New Zealander who grew up New Zealand and is fully integrated into New Zealand society, I experience the very same culture shocks every time I go back to Korea although I might not stand as much.

    I can understand how people would easily take offense or think badly about Korea or Koreans based on the reactions so it’s very encouraging to read about someone who has taken a very accepting and broad minded approach to being a ‘waegukin’ in Korea.

    As an ethnic Korea, I’m in an odd situation where I speak Korean fluently, know the culture and mannerisms, but I’m really not ‘Korean’ in terms of my mindset, upbringing or lifestyle. Because of this, I’m expected to be able to immediately integrate into Korea even though I experience a culture shock every time I go back which is interesting!

    I want Korea to become a more multicultural and more accepting country immediately; but at the same time I recognise that it is one of the most homogenous countries in the world with a distinct language, history and culture which has only dealt with foreigners for just over a hundred years, so it will take a lot longer.


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