South Korea Struggles with Racism Toward Foreigners

Last semester, one of my best and brightest students asked me if I was able to sit down on the floor with my legs crossed, "Indian Style" as we used to say in the 90's (although that might be a politically incorrect phrase now). I immediately took to the floor of my classroom to show off my stuff. I wasn't sure if it was a practical joke or just another strange inquiry to which I have now become accustomed, but I did it anyway. When I asked her, "Why?" She responded, "I heard foreigners can't sit like that!" True story.

I rarely write about xenophobia in South Korea on the Internet, even though it constantly pops up in expat conversation and even in my daily routines. It’s a controversial, multifaceted topic that is difficult to sum up in a short blog post, especially amongst readers unfamiliar with the issue. South Korea is allegedly the second most homogeneous country in the world after ... North Korea. It’s a unique place in terms of multiculturalism, and so there are myriad opinions floating around on the topic. Locals constantly approach me in public to ask where I am from and they are certainly interested in the habits and lifestyles of non-Koreans. South Korea is a global leader in technological innovation, education, and research, just a short 60 years after Japanese occupation. This country’s economic history is a case study for success, and Korean companies are indeed major, global players.

But when you think about that history in terms of Korean national identity, the country’s homogeneity has been internally advertised as a source of pride, a concept that surprises most westerners (especially melting-pot-inclined Americans like myself). This was in response to 60 years of colonization, in which Koreans were stripped of their national/ethnic identities and forced to speak Japanese, take on Japanese names, and submit to the demands of their occupiers. In order to unite and move forward at the end of occupation, independence movement leaders created propaganda emphasizing the pureness of Korean bloodlines, which is now totally ingrained in the Korean mentality. It is still a source of national pride for many older Korean people.

Although there are 10,000 English teachers, 28,000 American soldiers, a large presence of various other expat groups, and droves of international tourists in South Korea, this peninsula is sadly a difficult place to be a foreigner, largely because of the homogeneity. (Although the soldiers may not actually be helping our cause. But that’s another article in itself.) At least, it is more difficult than I imagined it would be. Even use of the word foreigner struck me as odd when I first arrived; before living here, I always associated the term with a tinge of negativity. Someone who doesn't belong, is unfortunately different, or simply other ... and not in the exotic way. In Korea, it feels like a massive group of us have had a big fat sticker plastered to our faces that entitles every ajumma and ajeoshi to stare at us in grocery stores or at the bank.

Sometimes it feels wrong to complain. Korea has given me an unmatchable opportunity: An interesting job with great pay, loads of vacation, normal working hours, and the chance to cheaply travel throughout Asia in my early 20s. When you bear in mind Korea’s troubled past and the reasons behind the homogeneity, it’s easy to shrug off the xenophobia. But then there are times when I read, see, and hear things that I simply cannot brush off—no matter how nice my free rice cooker is—such as MBC's recent "expose" on "The Shocking Reality About Relationships with Foreigners," as part of their "Think Different" series. Take a look.

So. Much. To. Say. First off, just to make sure we're all on the same page, this isn't a joke. This “report” is actually supposed to be journalism, and aired on one of Korea's main news networks, MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation). The segment struck a nerve in the ex-pat community, and rightfully so. I've read vehement responses from expat K-bloggers, spoken to friends dating Koreans, and needless to say, my newsfeed was blowin' up ... bro. There is even a petition on Avaz.com, asking the CEO of MBC to produce a statement of apology for the video.

The response from MBC? In "Korea Real Time," a Wall Street Journal blog, Evan Ramstad reports a defensive reaction from MBC. A spokesperson for Kim Jae-cheul, the President of MBC, offers no apology, and is clueless as to why the alarmist language, extreme xenophobia, and blatant bias presented in the segment might be offensive and discomforting to foreigners living in Korea. “I don’t understand why foreigners get angry about the issue while they are living with their spouses and having no problem. Foreigner-Korean women couples are living happily, but why are they angry over an issue that has nothing to do with them?”

Wrong. The issue has everything to do with every foreigner. Each time I walk down the street and people take a second look at me, I wonder ... I've seen the video, maybe they've seen it too ... do they think something is wrong with me? Am I actually unwanted in my quaint, peaceful town of Yeoju that I've come to call home for the last 10 months? I'm not a western man with a Korean lady attached to my arm, but that isn't the point. I'm an outsider to them, and now I'm an outsider who is associated with messages like this one. Moreover, messages that my students will see and will affect the way they see me.

Another upsetting component in this video is the way Korean women are dealt with. Phrases like "our women" are not only objectifying, possessive, and archaic, they also paint a picture of women who lack self-respect or intelligence—a picture I can whole-heartedly argue is untrue. Women here—although a little too obsessed with skin whitening cream and hand mirrors for my taste—are decisive, altruistic, and highly intelligent. Especially the open-minded ladies I've met who choose to spend time with people not of their own culture. There are obviously low-caliber humans of every race and gender, and Koreans are not exempt from that. But it is always wrong to group, generalize, and characterize. I believe that is called stereotyping. One young Korean woman I spoke with said the video is difficult to watch and “makes us look stupid.”

Although I would like to wholeheartedly say that I think this is changing with each new generation, I can only express this half-heartedly. Stories like my quirky opener are not uncommon in my life, nor in the lives of my other English-teaching friends. However, these kids have had considerably more exposure to non-Koreans than their elders, and this will certainly impact the way they treat foreigners in their adult lives. They are more comfortable speaking English and are exposed to international pop culture in a way older generations weren’t. I guess I'll just have to come back to Korea when my students are all grown up, and our five-year age difference will seem much less significant than it does right now.