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.
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.
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:
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.
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