Anyone from the West who has had the chance to live in Korea has, beyond any doubt, felt or at least observed racism while there. Being a Korean American with the outward appearance of an ethnic Korean afforded me a unique view of this phenomenon in which the openness of the racism there would be considered appalling even in a place like America where we learned long ago to hide racism below the surface. And after reading a post from the Korea Observer about the systemic racism being perpetrated in country, I thought I would revisit this issue, one that I have seen affect several friends in my two years as a resident of the peninsula.
Historically, Korea has been a fiercely nationalistic country. Some historical records say that the peninsula had been invaded in excess of 900 times by various conquerors, not just the most recent occupation by the Japanese. This has bred a culture that is distrustful of non-natives and normalized racism and stereotyping. While the accelerated modernization of the nation following the Korean War has done much to change the once third-world-esque region, not much has changed in terms of the underlying culture of prejudice.
This is evidenced in the recent Ebola scare that has gripped the international community. One viral pic surfaced months ago depicting a pub that refused to serve black Africans (it was reported that the bad did not apply to whites from South Africa) because of the outbreak of hemorrhagic fever, in AFRICA. Perception over reality has been and is still now the norm. This can be seen in countless examples both documented and anecdotal. When speaking with Korean natives, they often refer to stereotypes in what they feel are logical and rational discussions of a mundane nature. For example, when I first arrived in country, I thought it would be easy to pick up part time work since I was a fluent Korean speaker in addition to having a double bachelors in English and Comparative Literature. However, when I began interviewing for private tutoring positions, I was told that I was not getting callbacks because my Korean was “too good.” Obviously, since I spoke Korean well, this meant that I would not be able to speak or teach English effectively. While I did end up getting several tutoring and side gigs based on my qualifications, I would have to say that the majority of parents could not accept that I would be effective as an instructor.
This culture of prejudice has permeated all parts of the Korean psyche. Countless times, I have been in mixed groups, especially in instances where native speaking staff and Korean nationals would be taking part in company functions together, and there would be several Korean staff members taking advantage of the fact that Westerners did not speak the language. The Korean staff would make off the cuff remarks about individuals in Korean right in front of them. Things like, “Of course, the black guy would be best at this. It’s physical.” Or, “Yeah, we should ask [white guy], I think he’s much easier to talk to than the gyopo” (gyopo – english speaking / western-born Korean). Or better yet, “I think he’s gay. That’s so dirty.” Several friends who had lived in Korea long enough to pick up the language have told me that they caught people making derogatory comments about them in Korean right in front of their face every day.
The icing on the cake is that Koreans, for the most part, know that this is wrong. However, and in spite of this knowledge, they continue to be extremely forward to a point of being absolutely tactless. But when others point these instances of prejudice out, the typical Korean reaction is to silence the criticism as opposed to looking at the problem and trying to address it. As a curriculum writer and editor, there were many times when we wrote about popular Korean mythos or misconceptions, we were told to rewrite the pieces or remove them entirely. This wasn’t just the norm at my place of employment, but a common thread found in many, if not most, teaching environments. This isn’t to say that there aren’t individuals that can overlook the external appearance and popular perception, there are, but it isn’t the norm from what I saw and observed.
While this article does focus on racism, it is just the byproduct of the much bigger problem of Korea valuing the appearance of things over how things really are. Manifestations of this issue can be seen everywhere. For instance, during my time as a curriculum researcher, we were getting bogged down with a daunting production schedule and our company decided to contract out some of our lower level textbooks to a writing house. We were told that several interviews took place with multiple contractors and were given a sample workbook from what they felt was the “best” option. When we received the text and started reviewing it, we were appalled. All the grammar lessons were incorrect and while there were indeed sentences written correctly, they were few and far between. When we brought this to the attention of the management, they assured us it was OK and that the contractors were Seoul University graduates ranging from those with bachelors degrees all the way to PhDs. The fact these books were written by people with good looking degree and titles was enough for my bosses. However, the reality was that my co-workers and I ended up rewriting all of their work, while our company continued to contract with them for more writing.
What does the future hold? I can’t say for sure. Clearly this is a problem, especially for a nation that relies so heavily on Western nations for survival. Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy fix. Changing perceptions is one thing, but changing a culturally indoctrinated reaction, much harder.