Racism in Korea: Bringing it on Yourself?


BUSAN, South Korea — Some people are more sensitive than others, and therefore there is this never-ending debate in the foreigner (oh gosh, had I better say “expat”?) community over the extent to which Koreans are rude or racist towards people from other countries. Everyone has their own opinion, informed by their own experience, and it seems that we will never agree: Do Koreans hate foreigners? Is it rude to stare? Can you even be racist against privileged young white people?

If we are to accept that yes, Koreans do by-and-large resent or dislike foreigners, then of course we come to the question of why? Is it centuries of isolation and invasion? Is it related to the one-blood theory? Or do we bring it on ourselves?

This last question is the most problematic, particularly when you step back and realize that we’re not just talking about ESL teachers. As K-bloggers love to point out, and the K-media refuse to believe, ESL teachers are either surprisingly law-abiding, or they’re quite good at not getting caught.

Statistically, ESL teachers are very well-behaved compared to other immigrants, and phenomenally well-behaved compared to Korean citizens. In 2008 the crime rate for ESL teachers was 0.50%, compared to 1.4% for all foreigners –both much lower than the 3.5% among Korean citizens. If we choose to accept that unskilled migrant laborers are hated even more than ESL teachers (and this is hard to deny), then we come to the conclusion that they might just be hated because they’re in trouble more frequently. They bring it on themselves, as the saying goes.

However, that just sounds unlikely, and downright racist. As we know, hating people of a particular ethnicity or social grouping is wrong. Not all migrant laborers are criminals; not even close. Even if the percentage of them that were charged with committing a crime was staggeringly high (and it’s not) it still wouldn’t justify the contempt that they receive from the general population. Therefore, we explain this prejudice by saying that it is down to skin color.

This is a video put together by EBS Korea, looking at how Koreans treat foreigners differently based on skin color.

Yet among those who accept the fact that Koreans – not all, but generally – are somewhat xenophobic, there is this idea that foreigners (referring exclusively to ESL teachers and US military) are to some degree responsible for the negativity they experience. Indeed, it’s an appealing idea, and not without a glimmer of truth. The US military has been in Korea for around sixty years, and they have put forth about as positive an image as they have anywhere else on this earth. They have been involved in countless scandals, and anyone who’s lived within a few miles of a military base or a red light district will be familiar with their particular brand of medieval behavior. Unfortunately this doesn’t just reflect on service members, but rather upon all Americans, all white people, all black people… More or less, it reflects badly on all foreigners.

On a less obvious note are the “teachers” who’ve flocked here over the past decade or so, and in particular those who’ve wound up in Korea thanks to the combination of an economic downturn and cool photos of temples that pop up in their Facebook feeds. One can hardly blame them for taking jobs that are on offer in these troubled times, and so the jealousy and hate they receive for being under-qualified is somewhat unjustified, but certainly contributes to the overall sense of resentment. Sure, they have stayed mostly out of trouble, and any scandals and news items that appear in the Korea Times have largely been blown way out of proportion, but are they really doing themselves any favors?

A shop sign in 2007 (Courtesy of the Metropolitician)

These days, Korea is almost a rite of passage, a sort of coming of age experience for young graduates, rather than spending a year backpacking around Thailand and Vietnam. We duck out of real life for twelve months, end up in a place where we get paid to act like idiots, and drink and screw our way from Seoul to Busan and back again. Sure, Korea has a big drinking culture, and promiscuity is hardly the sole domain of expats, but in a land where all eyes are on the foreigner (who is, most likely, working as a kindergarten teacher) the rules are suddenly changed.

So to some extent, foreigners are digging their own graves. It’s unlikely that the teachers who make complete asses of themselves each and every night are in the majority, but that’s not important. Take a look at that “black guy on a bus” fiasco. It doesn’t matter if it’s just one guy. It doesn’t matter if every other foreigner in the country condemns his actions; he has tarnished the reputation of… of who? Of black people? Of foreigners? Of anybody without a Korean passport?

There are ESL teachers in Korea who take education seriously, love Korea, learn the language, and immerse themselves in the culture. These people find it hard enough to break into a fairly closed society, but it is not made easier by those among us who bring shame upon the entire foreign population. That doesn’t, of course, excuse the crude ignorance required to associate the actions of one – or even some – with the entire group, but still… that’s how it works.

Korea is a peculiar place, and the notion of Koreanness is very strong, resulting in an equally strong notion of Otherness. It is what we in the West would consider a racist ideology, and maybe we’re right. But regardless, foreigners in Korea are evidently struggling to be taken seriously, and this is for a combination of reasons, but partly because of the actions of a few buffoons, savages, and drunks. The sad thing is, in a country like Korea, for whatever confluence of reasoning, it only takes one idiot to label an entire race, and indeed – to view the world through Korean eyes – all foreigners.

David S. Wills’ book The Dog Farm, can be purchased at Amazon.com or through his website, davidswills.com

The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of Haps Magazine.


For more on this topic, check out Marcus Williams' piece written for Haps earlier this year: The Sudden Minority




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