Tag Archives: racism

Racist Korea

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.

Wearing a kimono; cultural appropriation or not?

These days, there’s so much talk of what’s appropriate or not that you worry precisely when you’re going to be called out for some lack of political correctness.

Remember when Katy Perry wore this to the American Music Awards? Some of the comments at that time ranged from ‘she looks so pretty’ to cries of outrage and a sense that the outfit was cultural appropriation. There were some who felt that Perry had no right to wear the kimono – a Japanese cultural emblem that dates back to the Edo period. Most of the haters failed to realise that it was just a performance – nothing different from a stage show , or let’s use Madame Butterfly as another, slightly different example wherein white singers play the parts of Japanese characters.

Katy Perry’s infamous Geisha dance

Scroll through the negative comments on Youtube and you won’t find any from Japanese people. It seems that nearly all Japanese people are pretty much fine whenever someone not Japanese decides to wear a Kimono. Yet, many still feel that whenever people step outside their culture to wear ethnic clothing they are committing a crime tantamount to racism, or at the very least, cultural appropriation.

I got my own taste of this recently when I borrowed a kimono to wear for the day. Most people understood what I was doing but I was blind-sided by the comments of some. What right did I, as a privileged white male – have wearing a Japanese garment that Japanese people have been mocked for wearing? The argument being that I can never wear a kimono with good intent? Did it make any difference that I was wearing it correctly? Or that it was assembled and sewn by a Japanese person? Apparently not. By this point, I couldn’t think of a good argument that would sufficiently counter these claims.

My head was spinning. Were these people actually saying that people of certain races should be prevented from wearing the clothes of other races? Weren’t they guilty of the same racism and intolerance that I was being accused of? Still more fantastic was the argument that those of true Japanese culture had no say in the debate because they couldn’t appreciate the discrimination that second generations of Japanese had to face in America.

the good news is that I went away with more enthusiasm for the kimono than ever, and I resolved to wear it again as much as I can. I looked for examples of people like me who love wear Japanese clothes (plenty, it turns out). And I looked at examples of famous people over the years and found so many. David Bowie proudly wearing one as ‘Ziggy Stardust’; Bjork for her album cover ‘Homogenic’. Perhaps there are many more for those who care to look. The kimono has permeated our clothing habits so much that we are not aware that a dressing room is a simplified kimono – see Obi Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars film. No-one cried ‘cultural appropriation’ then, and they shouldn’t now. If we aren’t careful, we risk creating a world where no-one can ever really understand the culture of other countries or experience it – something that would make the world a much less diverse and interesting place. I say let everybody wear whatever they want.

The real Korea

I realised recently it was naive of me to think that I could go to Korea and make all my problems disappear. cause when you move to a new country, you replace your old problems with new ones.

When i was living in London, I though that everything about Korea was good but now I live here and can see it up close I am aware of all the problems. And, and I can see all the good things about London that Korea doesn’t have. Like basic human rights and customer service….. Or at least, the standard of human rights is lower here. visitkorea

It sounds harsh but Korea still feels like a very undeveloped country in many ways. The technological advances don’t change the fact that Korea is still a very backwards country in many ways. Luckily I’m not a woman but I still get some of the negatives living here. A case in point: I’m supposed to stand up if an elderly person needs my seat, even if I was on the train first, or I’m tired.

Or i should respect old people no matter what (why)? I guess people don’t usually want to mention how conservative Korea is (but they should!) because they are too busy mentioning the good things.

The train system is not the only bothersome thing (although I recommend taking the bus instead). Like why do I have to order an anju every time I want to go out for a drink? And even though I haven’t found any places that explicitly ban foreigners, there are many places that will do whatever they can to stop them coming in (which is bad, if not worse). Recently I went to a restaurant but they wouldn’t let me order anything because they said I was on my own. The next time i was with a group of Koreans so it was fine. The point is it shouldn’t have happened at all.

Koreans travelling outside their country would expect to treated fairly but it’s naive to think that foreigners will receive fair treatment at all times. I’m seeing a lot of campaigning for tourism in Korea but if the government wants more visitors they’re  going to have to do a hell of a lot more to get people to come here. Like improving service in shops and restaurants. And making sure that there are adequate signing in transport areas. Otherwise, people will go to Japan instead and who can blame them?