In 2017 I started working in Korea. I was full of excitement to visit the country I had learned so much about. But after living in Korea , I started to notice subtle forms of racism. The classic example that I can give is when I went to a restaurants and was refused entry as a solo diner. I never saw this happen to any Koreans. In fact, the only time I ever saw anyone denied entry was when they were foreign.
It got worse at work in the hagwon. Whilst a few of the Koreans made an effort to be friendly, a lot made it clear that they didn’t want anything to do with us. Perhaps the worst thing that happened was when a large bottle of air freshener was left on our desks – implying that even our body odour was offensive. I looked around to see if anyone had left any air-freshener anywhere else , but no. ours was the only desk to have a large bottle placed none-too subtly on our desk.
Now I know you might be wondering why all this matters? Maybe it’s just a few companies that are like this. And I understand that the majority of Koreans will not be racist.
But here’s the thing. With millions of fans of Korean music, food and culture, Korea is positioning itself as the cultural capital of Asia. For example, the images you see on the Korean tourist board are of beautiful geography, food and costumes which are hard to match up to reality. Less developed Asian countries have bought into the Asian wave that the Korean government worked so assiduously to build. Yet people from South-western countries are often discriminated against for being darker-skinned and coming from poorer countries. It can’t be right that a country with so much cultural power should be able to be so backwards when it comes to acceptance of other races.
Now another thing that makes it hard is when foreigners come to work in Korea without being able to speak much Korean, they get taken advantage of, not just that they miss out on a lot of experiences that would be available to them if they knew the language, but there’s this uncomfortable feeling that a lot of Koreans will speak abusively about foreigners who they assume cannot understand them. I know that foreigners could make a greater effort to learn the language – but where’s the motivation? If I knew that a lot of Koreans would refuse to acknowledge me or talk to me in Korean , I would never have gone to the trouble of learning the amount of Korean language that I did.
For a lot of foreigners living in Korea, the level of Korean that they have learned already won’t be enough to make them easily understood to people. You can bet that this makes them an easy target for even more discrimination. You see, Koreans don’t really expect you to be able to speak Korean. Even if you can, they might act like they don’t understand you. Or laugh and simply ignore you, or speak over you without listening to anything you have said. So you can’t blame the foreigners who want to study and learn Korean only to lose motivation and interest. It’s too easy to give up; there aren’t decent resources available and Koreans refuse to speak to you in their language.
Right now, you could be thinking that I should be giving up. And it’s true that Korea is less of an interest to me these days. But its sad when I think that Korea was the first Asian country I visited, my girlfriend was Korean, and I studied Korean for years.
You often hear it said that Korea has the world’s fastest internet speeds. But that hasn’t led to Koreans becoming as developed in social affairs. But if you have ever bought Korean products, listened to K-pop, or even owned Samsung, you might want to take another look at the politics of the country that is behind them.