Last semester, one of my best and brightest asked me if I was able to sit down on the floor with my legs crossed, “Indian Style” as we used to say in the 90’s (although it might be a politically incorrect phrase now…oy) and so I immediately took to the floor of my classroom to show off my stuff. I wasn’t sure if it was a practical joke or just another strange inquiry to which I have now become accustomed, but I did it anyway. And asked her, “Why?” She responded, “I heard foreigners can’t sit like that!” #truestory
It’s been a while since I’ve written about xenophobia in South Korea, even though it constantly pops up in conversation and in so many of my daily routines. Although there are 10,000 English teachers, 28,000 American soldiers, a large presence of various other expat groups, and droves of international tourists in South Korea, this peninsula is sadly a difficult place to be a foreigner. At least more difficult than I imagined it would be. I’ve mentioned this before, but South Korea is allegedly the 2nd most homogenous country in the world after…North Korea.
Even use of the word foreigner struck me as odd when I first arrived; before living here, I always associated the term with a tinge of negativity. Someone who doesn’t belong, unfortunately different, or simply other…and not in the exotic way. In Korea, it feels like a massive group of us have had a big fat sticker plastered to our faces, that entitles every ajumma and ajeoshi to stare at us in E-Mart or at the bank.
Sometimes it feels wrong to complain. Korea has given me an unmatchable opportunity: an interesting job with great pay, loads of vacation, normal working hours, and the chance to cheaply travel throughout Asia in my early 20s. But then there are times when I read, see, and hear things that I simply cannot brush off – no matter how nice my free rice cooker is – such as MBC’s recent “expose” on “The Shocking Reality About Relationships with Foreigners,” as part of their “Think Different” series. Take a look.
So. Much. To. Say. First off, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, this isn’t a joke. This is actually supposed to be journalism, and aired on one of Korea’s main news networks, MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation). The segment has struck a nerve in the waygookin community, and rightfully so. I’ve read vehement responses from expat K-bloggers, spoken to friends dating Koreans, and needless to say, my newsfeed was blowin’ up…bro. There is even a petition on Avaz.com, asking the CEO of MBC to produce a statement of apology for the video. The response from MBC? In “Korea Real Time,” a Wall Street Journal blog, Evan Ramstad reports a defensive reaction from MBC. No apologies, and cluelessness as to why the alarmist language, extreme xenophobia, and blatant bias presented in the segment might be offensive and discomforting to foreigners living in Korea. “I don’t understand why foreigners get angry about the issue while they are living with their spouses and having no problem,” an MBC spokesperson said. “Foreigner-Korean women couples are living happily, but why are they angry over an issue that has nothing to do with them?”
Wrong. The issue has everything to do with every foreigner. I can’t speak for all transplants, but I can tell you that each time I walk down the street and people take a second look at me, I wonder…I’ve seen it, maybe they’ve seen it…do they think something is wrong with me? Am I actually unwanted in my quaint, peaceful town of Yeoju that I’ve come to call home for the last 10 months? Is the hostile tone in which cab drivers address me in fact due to my big eyes and curly hair? I’m not a western man with a Korean lady attached to my arm, but that isn’t the point. I’m an outsider to them, and now I’m an outsider who is associated with messages like this one. Moreover, messages that my students will see and will affect the way they see me.
Another upsetting component in this video is the way Korean women are dealt with. Phrases like “our women” is not only objectifying, possessive, and archaic, they also paint a picture of women who lack self-respect or intelligence – a picture I can whole-heartedly argue is untrue. Women here – although a little too obsessed with skin whitening cream and hand mirrors for my taste – are decisive, altruistic, and highly intelligent. Especially the open-minded ladies I’ve met who choose to spend time with people not of their own culture. There are obviously low-caliber humans of every race and gender, and Koreans are not exempt from that. But it is always wrong to group, generalize, and characterize. I believe that is called stereotyping.
Although I would like to wholeheartedly say that I think this is changing with each new generation, I can only express this half-heartedly. Stories like my quirky opener are not uncommon in my life, nor in the lives of my other English-teaching friends. However, these kids have had considerably more exposure to non-Koreans than their elders, and this will certainly impact the way they treat foreigners in their adult lives. I guess I’ll just have to come back to Korea when my kiddies are all grown up, and our 5-year age difference will seem much less significant than it does right now.