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Is the word “kyopo” offensive?

January 17th, 2007 . by Matt

Is the word “kyopo” offensive to Korean Americans along the lines that “nigger” is to the descendants of black slaves in America? That is what a Korean American commenter called H.Kim at the Marmots Hole is saying. It started here, and since it was hijacking the thread, Robert “the Marmot” Koehler made a new post to discuss the issue.

I post over at the Mamots Hole using the username ‘shakuhachi’.

So is “kyopo” the new “nigger”, or is this just race baiting? Go over there and discuss it!

UPDATE: There is a discussion about this over at the Asiapages. I left a comment there.

16 Responses to “Is the word “kyopo” offensive?”

  1. comment number 1 by: GarlicBreath

    When I hear the word “kyopo” I think of a overseas Korean. But I tend to agree with H Kim that the word is starting to take on a new meaning. Like a backstabber, liar, racist nazi. Perhaps Kyopos can clean up their image.

  2. comment number 2 by: MarkA

    Sometimes it offends me to hear the word Korean-American, but I’m not going to whine about it.

  3. comment number 3 by: King Baeksu

    It bears stressing that the Korean diaspora is far-flung and that there is a wide range of differing types of kyopos.

    I’ve been all over the Far East and also am American, and can say that without doubt, ethnic Koreans from Japan, China, Russia and America are all rather different and have their own relative quirks and idiosyncrasies.

    In the Chinese Northeast, there are some 2 million ethnic Koreans and they are called Chosok-jok in Korean, or “of the Korean tribe (or people or nation).” I’ve found them to be uniformly pleasant and chilled out in the presence of a Korean-speaking white person such as myself. They grew up in a multiethnic state and seem fairly secure about their own identity. They even have their own autonomous province and large Koreatowns in cities like Shenyang and Dandong. They still seem to identify themselves as Korean (and often speak a rustic Korean) but because they grew up in multiethnic China, they are far more chilled out when dealing with foreigners compared to the many provincial Koreans in monocultural South or North Korea.

    In the Russian Far East there are a lot of ethnic Koreans, especially on Sakhalin were they were forcibly brought to work by the Japanese during the colonial period. Many of the younger kyopos I met there were well-assimilated into Russian society and didn’t even speak Korean, as they were by now 3rd or even 4th generation kyopos. They were very Russified and in my dealings with them, they were also very pleasant and chilled out, generally speaking. One can also find many Korean-Russians in South Korea these days and speaking as a white person, I’ve never found them to have a chip on their shoulder when they were interacting with me.

    In Japan, ethnic Koreans are called Jaeil kyopos or basically ethnic Koreans residing in Japan. The younger Jaeil kyopos I’ve known there who were 2nd or 3rd generation are heavily Japanified, and are often hard to distinguish from ethnic Japanese when simply observing their behavior, mannerism and so on. I recently met a young Jaeil kyopo here in Seoul where I live and she told me that she was basically “80% or “90%” Japanese (she had come here to study Korean). I’ve also never had any problems with Jaeil kyopos and found them to be just as habitually polite and well-mannered as the average Japanese person is.

    Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I knew many Jaemi kyopos or ethnic Koreans residing in America. I went to high school and university with many back in the ’80s and ’90s and at that time I had little interest in or knowledge of Korea, and they really never volunteered any information about Korea themselves. My main impression was that they had really tried quite hard to assimilate into American society, to the point that many were so preppy that they were almost whiter than me (I’m talking about accent and clothes, mainly). That said, I never had any problems with them and had several good female kyopo friends in university (I have to say, however, that in high school there were a couple of rather bratty rich-kid male kyopos who I didn’t particularly care for with their brash manners and so on).

    Coming to South Korea, however, was a real eye-opener in terms of encountering and understanding the anger and resentment that boils inside many Korean-Americans. I have also known many Korean-Canadians and ethnic Koreans from Europe and want to state specifically here that of all the kyopos I have met from around the world, Korean-Americans seem to have the most obvious issues to work out in terms of their interactions with white people such as myself. I have met many Korean-Americans here in Korea and really, anger is the word that always comes to mind when I’m picking up the personal vibe or energy from the great majority of them. Not all are like that and it is often is well-concealed, but at a certain point the anger and resentment towards white people invariably seems to come out or manifest itself in major or petty ways.

    I think there are reasons for this. First of all, America is a rather extreme, violent society obessed with race, and so ethnic Koreans who grew up in such an environment have natually internalized such a gestalt. No doubt many Korean-Americans experienced racism growing up and so when they come to Korea and see white people here, that lingering resentment comes to the surface and a kind of transference occurs.

    I also think that many Korean-Americans overly assimilated in America, at least until recently, and this often leads to a crisis of identity at a certain point. For example, I’ve been living in South Korea off and on since 1996 but I’ve never tried to “become” Korean, in the way that most Korean-Americans have tried to “become” American (i.e., white or preppy in most cases). So this process of identification leads to many curious routes on the part of Korean-Americans, for example, Korean-Americans trying to be black and speaking Ebonics, as a way of rebelling against the white mainstream society that they may feel has spurned or rejected them somehow. Well, this is only a temporary solution in most cases, and when people grow up they still have to deal with these issues at some point, unless one wants to be a “gangsta” for the rest of ones life.

    Anyway, I haven’t been to the U.S. for ten years so I don’t really know what younger Korean-Americans are like these days, although I do know that recently it’s become cooler and most accepted to assert ones Korean identity there, compared to the past. However, I do know that compared to kyopos I’ve known from Russia, China, Japan, Europe or Canada, the Korean-Americans I’ve encountered here in South Korea have often been quite rude and even racist towards me.

    I think many other white expats in Korea have encountered the same phenomenon and that’s why the term kyopo has become rather loaded of late. But just to emphasize the main point, I think the issue is Korean-Americans or Jaemi kyopos, and that most kyopos in other parts of the world are really far more chilled out and relaxed about these issues of race and identity.

    Perhaps in another decade or two, Korean-Americans will have better worked out these personal and psychological issues and can be a bit more mature about it all.

    To paraphrase the great Rodney King, I really do hope that we can all just get along!

  4. comment number 4 by: Fantasy

    Great comment, King Baeksu !

  5. comment number 5 by: Deer Hunter

    ‘the Korean-Americans I’ve encountered here in South Korea have often been quite rude and even racist towards me.’

    Fair enough, but could it, also, be the case that a lot of white expats have been ‘quite rude and even racist’ towards kyops?

  6. comment number 6 by: Two Cents

    From the impression I get, “kyopo (僑胞)” seemed originally to have been a harmless word, like the word 華僑 (kakyou) is used by the Chinese to call their people abroad. Then, when the word started getting associated to the negative manners displayed by the kyopos on the Internet, it becomes a racist term. Reminds me how the harmless word “在日(zainichi, meaning residing in Japan – thus, there are zainichi Americans, Canadians, Chinese, etc.)” became a derogatory term in Japan. I had to laugh when the vocal lot of the Korean community started saying “call us korian instead of kankokujin or chosenjin.” So I guess, kankokujin (South Koreans) and chosenjin (North Koreans) are also derogatory words. If a word that represents your affinity to a certain nation becomes derogatory, then maybe you have to doubt your actions and manners, and not the word. If they don’t, the word korian in Japan will become a no-no word in the not-so-distant future.

    Words come into being to express a thing, idea, etc., and take on new meanings with time. It is not the word’s fault that it exists. Whatever it is used to express will not cease to exist even if you forbid the use of the word. A new word will simply be created or used to replace it. Just as on 2-channel, the word “kimuchi” has become a derogatory term for calling Koreans.Although I have no respect for people who call the Koreans “kimuchi” or “chon,” which are clearly derogatory usage, you cannot eliminate the prejudice in the minds of these people by preventing them from using certain words. Even “dear leader” can be used in a negative light.

  7. comment number 7 by: dogbert

    Fair enough, but could it, also, be the case that a lot of white expats have been ‘quite rude and even racist’ towards kyops?

    I think you’ll find, though, that the animosity came first from the kyopo side.

    If you think about it, white expats have no reason to be “quite rude and even racist” toward kyopos. Normally, they would not even register on our radar screen.

    However, many kyopos have a chip on their shoulder about perceived racism in the U.S. and when these same kyopos come to Korea and find white expats enjoying their lives here, it burns them up and they lash out. This is what creates our reaction.

    In addition, you sometimes find that white expats speak Korean better than kyopos or know more about Korea than kyopos and this _really_ infuriates some (not all, certainly) kyopos, which again causes them to lash out, creating a counter-reaction.

  8. comment number 8 by: dogbert

    Great post, Scott.

    I like to call some of the over-assimilated kyopos who then swing violently back the other way, “born-again Koreans”. I have seen extreme examples of that in college and grad school in California myself. The kiggers I can’t understand though.

    Also, the ethnic Koreans in China are called “Chosunjok”. This has become a somewhat pejorative term now.

    BTW, I bought your book. Great read and very informative.

  9. comment number 9 by: YoshoMasaki

    In the thread on Marmot’s Hole (not a member), several posters expressed distaste with being asked

    Where are you from? …… No, I mean, originally?

    I see this not as a problem with what is being asked, but the way in which it is asked. In my four years in Hawaii, I have come to learn that there are much better ways of inquiring about someone’s ethnic background. Seeing as how its not uncommon to find someone who is a mix of 10 or more races, you can’t tell much by appearance and just have to ask. People aren’t sensetive about it because they know what you mean by “where is your family from?” My co-workers are Tongan, Chinese, Korean, German and many more, and they self-degrade and harrass each other using race all the time with no harm done. In this environment, one would be hard-pressed to make ‘kyopo’ out to be an offensive word.

    I kind of fit in here because I have never identified myself as “causasian” or “white” unless I had no other option. I have always been “Russo-Italian”, because I don’t think that asians or other ‘colored peoples’ should be the only ones who get to distinguish ethnicity by nationality (its not uncommon to have several asian nations and Pacific Islands listed as options on forms here). Southern Italians are darker-skinned than East Asians so its not about color or lack thereof. Europeans just don’t get to have an ethnic identity beyond being WHITE in most places, but since ethnicity is discussed so often here even I get to talk about where I’m from, originally.

  10. comment number 10 by: King Baeksu

    Hi Dogbert, you’re right, the ethnic Koreans in China are called Chosun-jok or Choson-jok. Choson is obviously the old name for Korea during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910). I made a typo and wrote “Chosok-jok” for some reason, but just to be clear the term is Choson-jok.

    For the record, I am currently studying Korean at the oldest private Korean-language hagwon in Seoul and my professionally trained native Korean-language teacher told me today that the term kyopo has a neutral connotation when used by the vast majority of South Koreans in the Korean language. In her words, it is a 느낌이 없는단어 or a word without a (special) feeling.

    It follows that there are 48 million South Koreans who use the word in a particular way in their own original language, and then perhaps a couple million ethnic Koreans abroad for whom the word may have a different nuance. So as foreigners in Korea, which usage are we to follow? I prefer to follow the standard Korean usage, so for me the term kyopo does not have an inherently negative (or positive) connotation unless I intentionally inflect it in such a way in a particular context. In the same way, the term “English teacher” is also neutral for hundreds of millions of native English speakers around the world, even if in Korea it may be inflected in a negative way for some people here.

    Perhaps the term kyopo can be compared with Konglish. When used in Korean among native Korean speakers, kyopo does not have a negative connotation, but when used by English speakers in English, it may more easily assume a negative connotation depending on usage. In a similar way, the word glamorous has a particular meaning when used by native English speakers that is different from the Konglish usage, which is that it means “sexy” and “voluptuous” (it does not!). As a native English speaker, I will not use the term glamorous in the Konglish way and refuse to recognize the Konglish meaning of glamorous. And when speaking Korean, I will follow the standard Korean usage of kyopo and that’s it. I’m on the side of 48 million Koreans who speak Korean pretty damn well, and that’s good enough for me.

    As for the English-context usage of kyopo, it’s up to kyopos to determine what kind of connotations it resists or acquires over time. But for me personally, I will also use the term kyopo when speaking English as it is used by native Koreans, in order to be rigorous and respect the culture and language the term springs from. So screw the “kiggers” if they don’t like it, I’ve got 48 million native Korean speakers covering my back!

  11. comment number 11 by: surabaya johnny

    If you haven’t read King Baeksu’s book Korea Bug, go get it this weekend. It’s a hoot!

  12. comment number 12 by: dogbert

    It really is a great book; I heartily second the recommendation. A lot of research and thought obviously went into it.

    I hope there’s a sequel someday.

  13. comment number 13 by: Deer Hunter

    ‘In addition, you sometimes find that white expats speak Korean better than kyopos or know more about Korea than kyopos and this _really_ infuriates some (not all, certainly) kyopos, which again causes them to lash out, creating a counter-reaction’

    Interestingly, this closely parallels what many kyopos go through in America, as well. There seems to be a rise of resentment towards some of them and other Asians for doing fairly well in the States by some whites…

  14. comment number 14 by: King Baeksu

    Hi Dogbert and Surabaya Johnny, I’m glad you liked my book, thanks for the props!

    Speaking of which, the first main essay in my book is called “Incredibly Strange Books about Korea Written by Honkies.”

    I’ve been waiting for the outrage and boycotts and cybercampaigns in protest of using such an offensive term to describe the noble Caucasian race, but curiously there has only been silence so far.

    So on behalf of all white people around the world, I would like to officially say how offended I am that I described myself and other white people in such a derogatory way.

    I’m very, very sorry that things have come to this. Really, I am.

  15. comment number 15 by: Matt

    Hi Dogbert and Surabaya Johnny, I’m glad you liked my book, thanks for the props!

    Link for book?

  16. comment number 16 by: lightemup

    It puzzles me that some Korean-Americans consider Kyopo offensive. I present myself as a Kyopo all the time! The more offensive word to be called should be ‘Itaewon’. I’ve noticed many young Korean kids called Kyopos that.

    Like many Asian-Americans in the past who struggled to prove themselves as Americans, I gave several years of my life, serving this nation in war. Instead of bitching about being called a Kyopo and how offensive it is, Korean-Americans need to focus on the problems they face at home. 5 years in the Army, and I’ve faced lots of ignorance throughout the South. I’m proud of my family’s heritage, but I’m also damn proud of being an American. And we need to continue to show Americans that we’re not some whacky foreigners that likes to ching and chong, but that we are Americans like them.

    And for the expats who were given a hard time by some Kyopos, I’m sorry to hear that but don’t generalize it to all Kyopos. Whenever I’m in Korea and I see a non-Korean struggling, I step in to help.

    And, I’ve met many expats that speak Korean much better than me, and I’m pretty jealous =) But hey, good for them, it’s always good to know that there are many out there interested in Korean culture.