As a person with an intersectional identity, as a Mexican-Iranian American, when I first began my adventure of learning Korean at the age of 15, one of the things I questioned the most was whether or not a significant amount of people from minority backgrounds like myself who had learned or who were learning Korean existed. Oftentimes, it felt lonely on this journey as I hoped to find community, people who shared similar interests as me in regards to learning Korean as a non-Korean person, but who embraced and shared love for this language, culture, and society while embracing their own identities and backgrounds as well. I thought to myself it was not common to find many people like this. People coming from a similar background as mine, non-Koreans people passionate and dedicated to learning Korean and Korean customs. In the early stages of my Korean language learning journey, I had so many questions regarding this such as “Did such individuals reside in South Korea? And if so, what drove them there? Their love for Korean language and culture, economic opportunity, social status, lifestyle, safety, education, or all of the above?” I couldn’t contain my curiosity, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and do some research.
In April of 2015, at the age of 15, the first month of my Korean learning journey via exposure to kdramas, I watched a popular kdrama called Playful Kiss (장난스런 키스). In almost all aspects the show was your typical kdrama with the exception of one character named Chris, played by Abigail Alderete. Intriguingly, Chris was a non-Korean main cast character who spoke Korean fluently.
In k-dramas, characters who appear non-Korean or foreign based off of their appearance (facial, skin color, etc…) typically will be featured on-screen either speaking in the language that Koreans would stereotypically associated with them with or speaking broken Korean. For example, this phenomenon of portraying foreigners in Korea or foreign looking Koreans as racially stereotypical characters can be seen in Tale of Fairy. In this show, Han Hyun Min, South Korea’s first black model of Nigerian and Korean descent born and raised in Korea, is featured in this show as a cameo as character that is from Nigeria, who is an expert at making coffee. Notably, his character is portrayed wearing what is thought to be the traditional dress for Nigerians and speaking Korean slowly and informally because this is the way Koreans may expect foreigners to speak Korean.
Therefore, seeing a character who was not portrayed in this way for the first time made me extremely happy and curious as to whether other non-Korean people who spoke Korean were present in Korean entertainment. So like any other person, I paused my drama, opened up my YouTube app and searched for something along the lines of “foreigners speaking korean.” It was then and there that as I scrolled down the list of video results I found a video featuring a guy named Christian Burgos from Mexico who would lead me to discovering a show called Abnormal Summit (비정상회담).
Christian Burgos is simply an amazing example of a foreigner who lived the ideal dream of every passionate Kdrama fan/Kpop fan: to speak Korean fluently and communicate with locals, travel to Korea, and experience Korean culture in person. Christian was first exposed to Korean through watching Korean variety shows like as Quiz to Change the World (세상을 바꾸는 퀴즈) and subsequently became passionate about learning Korean. After self-studying Korean for 6 months, his passion grew stronger for learning Korean and his ambition to travel to Korea.
In order to improve his Korean, he enrolled in Korean languages courses in his university and in order to save up money to travel to Korea, he worked as a Korean Spanish translator at a copper mine owned by Koreans in Mexico for one year. After, he finally travelled to Korea to study abroad at a Korean for 6 months. However, after the 6 months were up, he decided to stay in Korea and work as an English teacher. After some time, he applied for and was accepted as a panelist on Abnormal Summit.
Abnormal Summit was a discussion-based show that featured a panel of male expats living in Korea. The show’s purpose was to expose its’ Korean audience to different perspectives and cultures. All of the panelists served as cultural representatives from their respective nations of origin teaching about their countries’ cultures, values, and native languages. This show was inspiring for me as it was the first Korean television program I had watched that featured a majority foreign cast of non-Koreans, who introduced their individual cultural identities and discussed topics regarding Korean culture through the perspective of foreigners in Korea. It was through this show that I found people whom I could relate with. Christian Burgos was a cast member who I related to the most on a personal level as he shared my Mexican cultural identity, a similar worldview to mine, and experienced a similar process of learning Korea. For four years, I was inspired and motivated by Christian to dedicate myself to learning Korean and to pursue my dreams of traveling to Korea one day. However, not only was I able to fulfill my dreams of traveling to South Korea, but surpass my expectations of studying abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul. This weekend I had the opportunity of a lifetime to get to meet the one and only, Christian Burgos in person. There is an amazing company in South Korea called Mingles. Mingles is a service that offers people living in Korea the opportunity to learn, experience, and interact with the culture (especially food) of famous expats living Korea, many of whom were featured on Abnormal Summit.
My dreams of learning Korean and interacting with locals in Korean have become my reality. my dreams of learning Korean and studying abroad in Korea.