“Our ethnic homogeneity is a blessing,” said ……… Lee Sung-bok, a bricklayer who said his job was threatened by migrant workers. “If they keep flooding in, who can guarantee our country won’t be torn apart by ethnic war as in Sri Lanka?”
I recently read a great New York Times article on race and conflict in South Korea. In the article, Choe Sang-Hun presents a side of South Korea rarely considered by the west, that of a racially troubled and intolerant society. The article talks at length about the racial discrimination that foreigners face – ranging from insults to sexual abuse – and how the growth of South Korea’s foreigner population has caused a lot of tension and hostility towards foreigners, or even between South Koreans themselves.
Of course, this is not a side of Korea we expect. In the West, foreigners who have any knowledge of Korea mostly think of the Korean War, the standoff between North and South, and picture South Koreans as a friendly Western-loving people. South Korea is on our side, after all – or perhaps we’re on theirs. In my two years in South Korea I’ve had enough experience to get a deeper sense of the culture and the Nation’s current attitudes towards foreigners. This attitude is not always good, but there are bright spots and it’s important to consider both of these sides before we can label any account remotely accurate.
One thing you notice when you leave the West is that “racism,” the discrimination against a person based on his or her race, is more or less a Western concept. Sure, other nations use the term, it may exist in their cultural consciousness, and some members of those societies may even champion for more tolerance towards other races, but the spiritual homeland is the West. In the West, the stance against racism is powerful and pervasive. While racism used to be a huge problem in Canada – race riots across the country, constant derogatory names, racial violence, job discrimination, quiet segregation – the country has made a lot of progress towards developing a much more racially tolerant society. It’s not perfect, and discrimination based on race still exists, but a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards different races and cultures is the national mantra. Racism is largely seen as evil, and thank God for that.
Not so in South Korea. In my experience, South Korea seems to be about 70 years behind Canada when it comes to race relations. Racial purity is still a huge focus here, and this is clearly seen when it comes to the politics of dating. In Korea, many foreigners have experienced discrimination and hostility when even talking to Korean women. Usually this comes from middle aged men. A year ago, for example, my friend was in Gangnam, a wealthy neighborhood in Seoul, talking to a Korean woman on the sidewalk when they were approached by an older Korean man. The man asked the girl if she and my friend were friends and she said that they weren’t. At that point the man started yelling at my friend, picked up a stick and started threatening him with it. Luckily my friend spoke great Korean so he was able to start yelling for the police in Korean, causing the Korean man to hesitate momentarily. In that brief moment, my friend backed off and left. While this seems to be a harsh response for just talking to a Korean woman, it is only one example in a long list of discrimination against foreigners and mixed-race couples.
My own experiences with dating in Korea aren’t much different. I’m a fairly outgoing person, so I talk to people often. When I’m on the Korean subway system, though, curious things start to happen. Usually I’ll start talking to someone – a guy, a middle aged woman, a couple of high school kids – if they look friendly. The response is great the majority of the time, people really open up and like having the chance to talk to a foreigner. Sometimes, though, I’ll talk to a woman who is similar in age to me. Most of the time it goes well, as expected, but then I’ll start to notice stares from older men on the train. Often one of them will rise from their seat, stand in front of us, and start to glare at her. The conversation then turns from a fun free-flowing chat to a muted and awkward interaction. The woman becomes very uncomfortable, and stops talking altogether. Sometimes the man will call her out on her behaviour – talking to a foreign man her own age – or even verbally attack her, and stay looming over us until the woman leaves the train. The same thing does not happen when a Korean guy talks to a Korean girl his own age.
Last October I was walking in Apujung, probably the wealthiest part of Seoul, with a girl I was dating. I had my arm around her and was walking her back to her apartment after a great night out together when she felt a sharp pain and bent over slightly, pulling away. When I asked her what happened, she told me that somebody had thrown a rock at her. These are the kind of things Western men have to expect when dating Korean women in Korea. On the other hand, I recently came back to Korea from Vancouver where I was dating a Japanese girl. In the year and a half that we were together I only received one strange look, and no rocks were thrown at me. Comparatively, inter-racial dating in Canada is a non-issue.
While Korean attitudes are starting to change, the distaste for interracial dating even exists among younger generations of men. Most young Korean people I meet have a fairly open attitude towards the West. Many of them want to travel internationally, a lot want to live in a Western country, and a lot of them want to have Western friends. I think that’s great, since sharing culture between societies adds flavor to life. Some young men, though, feel particularly strongly against interracial dating. While not my experience yet, I have had friends go to dance clubs with a girl they are dating only to have Korean guys try to separate the two of them, often physically. While it might look like an infection inflicting only the older generation, racial purity is an ideal guarded by the young and old alike.
A lot of the examples I’ve given have been in the realm of dating because it is in the realm of dating that most significant interaction between Koreans and Westerners takes place. Racial discrimination is also evident in other areas of everyday life, however. The subway is one place where attitudes towards Westerners reveal themselves. It’s very common, for instance, for an older Korean person to change seats if you sit beside them, and most prefer to stand rather than take the only open seat if it is beside a foreigner. The behaviour is nearly identical to how most people would react to a heavily drunk – or smelly – person sitting next to them. Racial sentiment is shown in other ways, as well. I was once on the subway with coworkers from my office. Our group was made up of Westerners, as well as Koreans of different ages, and it wasn’t long before we were approached by an older middle aged man. He started lecturing my Korean coworkers in Korean, and when he left we asked them what he had said. It turned out he was berating them for speaking English, telling them that they shouldn’t speak English they should speak Korean because they were Korean. He walked away and we continued, but a couple of stops later, while he was leaving the train, he turned to all of us and said, “Fuck you and your English!”
Racial attitudes are also common on street level. When taking cabs, for example, my foreign friends and I have encountered prices that Koreans, in my experience, just aren’t subject to paying. I was once returning to my apartment to pick up an item I forgot at home, when I told the driver that I would take his cab back up to Seoul to the exact same place. When I hopped out of the cab the meter read 20 000W (about $20US), which we happily paid. On the way back, however, the meter totaled 15 000W. We were traveling back and forth between the exact same two points, yet somehow the ride to my apartment was far more expensive than the ride back. I assume it was because he was too lazy to take the long way on the way back, or wanted to return to Seoul a little quicker. Another time, my coworker was taking a cab and the driver asked for the money in advance. He gave the driver the money who tucked it away, then claimed that they had given him 20 000W less then he actually received. The end result was a police station, the police telling my coworker to get out of the cab, and the driver keeping the 40 000 my coworker had given him. These are the types of encounters foreigners have come to expect when taking taxis in Korea, if they are lucky enough to get a taxi that is. Often drivers just refuse to pick foreigners up.
While adults are no strangers to discriminating against foreigners in Korea, the very young of Korean society have also picked up the habit. I’ve been teaching elementary school for the entire time that I have been here, and there is a night-and-day difference in the level of respect that students give Korean teachers in contrast to foreign teachers. At my first school, the type of language used when talking to me or referring to me was evident when kids spoke in front of other Korean teachers. Not a Korean language speaker, I didn’t know what the children were saying to me in Korean for the first few months at my school. It wasn’t until the children started speaking to me in front of one of the Korean teachers I had become friends with, and the teacher started ripping into the kids at the top of his lungs, that I began to understand just how rude the students were being to me. Most of the foreign teachers I have talked to here have told me similar stories. Many of them have been called derogatory names, and have been spoken to very rudely by students. In many of the cases even, sadly, students act like this in front of other Korean teachers who just turn a blind eye to it because the target is a foreigner. If students spoke to any Korean teacher like that, parents would be called and the student would have to face a severe punishment. But, being on the outside of Korean culture and obviously not Korean, we just don’t matter as much.
All this sounds very damning, and I haven’t even talked about Anti-English Spectrum yet, an organization founded to rid Korea of “black pigs”, their term for foreigners. I haven’t even gotten into their habits of stalking and harassing foreigners living in Korea, or their claims that foreign teachers target young students for sexual molestation; and I haven’t even mentioned yet how group membership ran tens of thousands strong before an American human rights lawyers got involved.
It would be easy to demonize Koreans for being ignorant, intolerant people, without considering the larger context in which these actions take place. The crime rate among the foreign population is substantially lower than the Korean population as a whole, but the same might not be true of American GIs. American troops have been stationed in Korea since the end of the Second World War. They helped liberate South Korea from Northern occupation and have kept a strong military presence here ever since. Many of the troops here have previously served in Iraq, or Afghanistan, and as a result might be plagued by psychological issues. Whatever the case, American troops seem to get into trouble every so often, and this trouble often goes viral. Witness, for example, the response by one American soldier who mistook a Korean word which means “you” for the word “nigger”:
Unfortunately physically attacking the elderly is not a one-off incident:
With clips like these spreading throughout Korean society, a society that nearly worships the elderly, is it any wonder that there is a strong hatred for foreigners in this country? Combine that with Korea’s long history of being invaded and raped by other nations and it is easy to understand why Korean society would be so inward-looking and ethnically intolerant.
But while negative experiences abound, not all foreigners hit old Korean men, and not all Koreans hate Westerns. As powerful as these negative experiences are, they don’t represent my entire experience in Korea. While these experiences might stand out in my memory, and the memory of other foreigners, they are a minority of the interactions I have had in Korea. Having rocks thrown at me is not something that happens every day, and for every rock or insult that is thrown at me, many more friendly/positive experiences have taken place.
By far the best thing about living in Korea is being able to spend time with the kids I teach every day. Right now I have a great bunch of students, most of who are really happy to see me at the start of every class, and always greet me with wide smiles. While they don’t show me the same respect that they show Korean teachers, most of them are friendly and take a big interest in my life in Korea and are curious about what I was like when I was younger. We joke back and forth and they even stay after class to talk to me. The impact that foreign teachers are making on this generation can’t be understated. Nearly every student in Korea is lucky enough to be exposed to people from other parts of the world, and the impact we are making is evident when I’m shopping for milk at Home Plus and I hear a little stranger’s tiny voice shout “Hi!” and wave with a big smile. While some students are blatantly rude, most aren’t, and it’s the one or two students with great outgoing and friendly personalities who make teaching a great experience.
In the west we take the cosmopolitan aspect of our culture for granted so it comes as a shock to learn that over 40% of Koreans have never talked to a foreigner before. It’s no wonder then that Westerners are a novelty to many Koreans. The reactions that a foreigner will get from store to store, or even out on the street in the middle of the city, range with the personalities of Koreans themselves, and the bright happy smiles a lot of Koreans have when a foreigner talks to them make living here that much easier. At Starbucks, for instance, I’ve been lucky enough to get to know the staff on a personal level. I’m sure it’s partly because of my outgoing personality but I’m positive that it’s mostly due to my foreigner status. People are interested in things they rarely experience. I get these same happy reactions from old ladies at the supermarket when buying chicken, or from high school students on the train when I tease them about my phone being better than theirs or ask them if they are in the army because of the olive green jacket they are wearing. Bright smiles and laughter is the rule.
While it can be very difficult to bridge the Korean-Western cultural divide, it is possible. Being from two very different cultures, it can be very hard to communicate. This is even the case when one of the parties has adopted the other person’s language to a large extent. So much of communication is non-verbal and context based, so misunderstanding is virtually guaranteed with nearly every conversation. Still, the very thing that keeps us apart can be a tremendous source of attraction. This is as much true for friendship as it is for dating. Since both Westerners and Koreans see each other as a novelty, it is natural for them to want to explore their new frontier. All it takes is sometime to break the ice and begin a conversation. Right now one of my best friends in the world is a Korean girl living in Seoul, she’s a constant source of light in my life, and I have had no problem finding attractive Korean girls to date. While most of the time cultural mores are strong enough to keep the races apart, the attraction of “new” and “novel” is still strong enough to pull many Korean women out from under their despotic cultural expectations and begin relationships with Western men.
Ultimately, Korea has a long way to go towards developing a modern civil society. For much of Korea’s recent history it had been a closed society under a dictatorial government. Not only were foreigners bared from entry into the country, but Koreans were not permitted to leave either. In fact, Korea only opened up to the world in 1987 so, combined with the country’s history of victimization, it’s no surprise that the country has this kind of attitudes towards foreigners. With the continued emigration of foreign nationals to South Korea, the country will continue to have it’s commitment to developing a modern society tested. With more foreigners taking part in Korean society, Koreans will continue to show the world just how tolerant, civil, or closed minded they are. The country’s obsession with saving face and being seen favorably by outsiders should help. With this continued pressure, Korean society should transition from one described as ‘a farming community that has been given big cities and advanced technology’ to a nation of people enlightened about the larger world and committed to taking their place in it.