The One Word You Need to Know When Traveling to Korea

summer 006_edited
Nampo-dong shopping district, Busan. Summer of 2006.

As an adoptee traveling to Korea, there are many useful words you’ll want to know: hello, good morning, thank you, good-bye, how much is this, where is the bathroom…but just as equally important is the word 입양아 (ib-yang-ah) which translates into the word “adoptee.” Trust me when I tell you that knowing this word will save you many headaches.

The thing is, when you’re in Korea, Koreans are naturally going to assume you speak Korean. And when you don’t speak Korean to them, they are going to assume you are second, third, fourth-generation Korean-American/Canadian/etc. and that your parents did a lousy job of raising you for not teaching you how to speak “our language,” and trust me when I say that you’ll get an earful, and it won’t always be nice. It can pretty much border on being offensive.

But you can bypass all that by referring to yourself as an adoptee. And the funny thing is, the reaction will be different. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me in a taxi. I’ll get in a taxi, name my destination, and immediately the driver will know I don’t speak Korean. But before he has a chance to chew me (and my parents) out for this act of laziness, I just refer to myself as an adoptee and things go a little more smoothly. I’ll be honest in saying that the conversation doesn’t get much more comfortable, but at least it’s not hostile.

One time I had a taxi driver in Busan apologize to me for being an adoptee. He went on to say how back in the day, Koreans had no money, no food, and no resources to raise all their children and so adoption was the only choice. He asked me to please understand this, and then apologized (I guess on behalf of the entire country???) for the circumstances that took me away from Korea as an infant. (This was when I was living in Busan and had a decent basic knowledge of the language.)

Anyway, during this latest visit to Korea, I was again in a similar situation. I had caught a taxi from Hadan Station in Busan and requested the driver to make the longish drive to Yongwon-dong in Jinhae where I used to live. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that I didn’t really speak Korean, but before he could go on his tirade of how awful my parents were for not teaching me the language, I spat out the word 입양아 and his demeanor softened immediately. In broken English he cautiously asked, “Mother, father, Korean no?” He got it, and the message was suddenly one not of “shame on you for not speaking Korean,” but rather “welcome back home to your birth country,” as funny as that seems. In the end, my taxi driver turned out to be the sweetest old man; I’m still surprised at how well we were able to communicate considering the language barriers that existed between us.

Now I’m not guaranteeing similar reactions every time you use this term while in Korea, but for me, I’ve never had someone mistreat me for referring to myself as an adoptee who could not speak Korean. And that can make a somewhat intimidating experience (communication with Koreans when you don’t speak the language but look the part), less stressful. And who knows, if you receive a kind reaction, it may be because you are actually educating a Korean about the reality of international adoption, or at least raising awareness, by demonstrating the fact that many adoptees, like yourself, are returning to Korea, the country of our birth. And believe me, this is a very touching realization for many Koreans.

As adoptees, our relationship with the country, people, and culture of Korea may often be one of love-hate, but with a little knowledge on how to diffuse potentially sensitive situations, you can see a side of the Korean people that you may not have realized existed when it comes to how they view adoptees. And, it may pleasantly surprise you. I know it did for me.

2 thoughts on “The One Word You Need to Know When Traveling to Korea

  1. Greatly enjoying your blog! It is an important word to know also for self knowledge.

    I might suggest a slight variation: 입양인. The 아 in 입양아 means child, whereas 인 means person. Almost none of us are children anymore!

    Keep up the good writing!


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