Saturday, February 21, 2004


"Waygookin-ashi," says the elderly Korean lady as she walks past me on the street, going to god knows where, and bent more than double with the gigantic load of dried seaweed that is nearly twice her size.

"Me-gookin-ashi," says a group of Korean schoolboys recently out of one school and one their way to their fourth academy of the evening.

I get into the cab and I might hear the driver mutter either of these under his breath as I tell him were I want to go. Way-goo, Me-gook, they are practically the same thing most of the time.

You have perhaps at sometime in your life heard the word "gook". Perhaps it was in a retrospective of the Vietnam era. More likely it was a red necked next door neighbor talking about some poor Asian family that made the poor choice to move, live, eat, and or breathe in what the red-neck considers to be it's space. Perhaps you were simply looking for something nasty to call someone and that's one came up.

Unlike Japan, which has managed to sneak quite a few words into the English vocabulary, Korea can really only be credited with two additions to our language. Kim-chi, the spicy red-pepper covered fermented vegetable, usually cabbage, is the first. Kim-chi, I will have you know, is a word naming a food that is as different and varied in Korea as snow is for Inuit tribes in North America. At last count there were literally 200 different kinds that I've tried, and a few that I'm a little squeamish to get near. The other language credit that is Korea's claim to fame is the word "gook" as a derogatory word labeling those of Asian descent.

Of course, unlike kim-chi, gook, is rarely associated with Korea, but more often associated with Vietnam, rather unfairly I might add, as Korea really does deserve the credit. The origins of "gook" vary from one source to another, but to understand how it all began one must look at the state of Korea after the second World War.

The Americans forces had occupied South Korea, in much the same way that the Axis forces occupied West Germany and for the same reasons. Korea was a part of Japan at the beginning of the Second World War, and unfortunately for Korea, it was split in half, one half going to the Reds, and the other to the more democracy minded Americans (the island of Japan was allowed to remain whole).

Americans had been in country for a bit before the Korean War, and the origin of the word "gook" took place after the Second World War during the initial American occupation. This occupation allowed numerous soldiers the chance to mingle, in the various different ways that an occupying force will, with the natives of the land. Experiencing varying aspects of the culture, the food, the women, and the language.

As some people know, and less people know than one would suspect, America was involved with the Korean War during the 1950's, before the longest military standoff in history (that being the current state of Korea, which is technically a country at war). After the North invaded south Korea in Way-gone (a city only 20 minutes from where I type this) South Korea called on the help of the American force in a conflict that lasted three years and ended with the armistice treaty that we have today, a 50 year standoff that has not yet ended in a peace treaty.

Now, Koreans, contrary to the many popular myths, are actually a fairly outgoing people, and are at least willing to try to hold down a conversation with you. Truth be told Koreans are perhaps some of the nosiest people in the world, they love to find out anything at all about anyone at all, and they are not deterred in the least by a little thing like a language barrier.

In the language of Korea the country in which I live is called Han-geuk. This ancient name comes from the fabled Choson dynasty period, and translates roughly to "land of the morning calm". The people of Korea are called the "Hangeuksaram". Koreans, as they were exposed and came into contact with varying cultures from varying lands gave those lands different names. China for example is Cho-geuk. Thiland is Te-geuk. Any foreign person in general is usually refered to as a Way-geuk. And by some magically syllabic twist of fate America was dubbed Me-geuk.

Americans stationed in, or visiting, Korea would have had very adventurous Koreans, wandering up to them, and asking "Me-geuk!?" This, of course, would sound slightly familiar and at the same time foreign, but served as an explanation to many Americans. 

"Me gook?!"

"Yes, you gook."

 Of course, the Americans had no way of knowing the Yu-geuk actually meant Europe, so many of our adventurous Korean conversationalists would not have taken too much time to further explore their question, having had it answered. And, as troops rotated and tourists came and went, "gook" was carried out of Korea and used as the definitive label for our "slant eyed" brethren.

Many of the Americans who carried the controversial word "gook" back to the new land, however, may never have heard the mumbled swear under the breath of some frazzled Korean, "ah, Me-gookin-ashi" and so would not have realized that the particular translation of that invective is "fucking American".

For many of us currently living in Korea, waygook, megook, or otherwise, we have accepted as our fate the title of gook. I frequently find myself referring to my status as that of a "Waygook" and life in Korea as being "Waygooky". Foreigners tend to hang out at "Waygook bars" and we like eating "Waygook Foods". We realize the mistake made by our predecessors and we have chosen not to make it again. Although we call ourselves gooks day and night, I've yet to hear any of the other foreigners here refer to our hosts as "gooks".

That little old lady bent double by her load, of course, thinks nothing of referring to me as a "fucking foreigner". Some days, too, I don't give it a second thought. As far as she is concerned most of us "gooks" never learned enough about her people or her language to have any idea what she was saying anyway.

And some days, when I'm feeling sensitive, I hear myself saying right back to her "Han-gookin-ashi". On those days her eyes will gleam as she looks up into mine, and we share a fleeting moment of complete understanding before moving on.