On Racism in South Korea

One thing that appears somewhat ubiquitous with any mention of adjusting to life in South Korea is the topic of racism and xenophobia. There are dozens of posts scattered across the internet regarding this topic. I know, I’ve read many of them after occasions where I’ve had a run-in with a xenophobe, and nodded in agreement of the article content feeling like this ranting internet stranger “gets me”. I acknowledge that my article now then is only going to add to the pile of what is already in existence, but equally I want to express my own two cents on the matter.
This article isn’t intended to bash Korea , put anyone off moving to Korea, or group all Koreans together in any form of accusation.  My experiences, as someone who has lived in Korea and spent a lot of time in the country over the past two years, will no doubt differ to someone who has passed through briefly as part of a backpacking trip through Asia.

I travelled to South Korea twice before moving to Seoul, and had you questioned me about being on the receiving end of racism at any point during these trips, I would have hit you back with “Racist? Nooo. The people here are so friendly!” However when you move to a place you see all the issues that you didn’t see in the beginning as a traveler. It’s kind of like the difference between dating and being in a long term relationship – he stops worrying so much about what you think and no longer holds in his farts. Well that’s exactly it. Korea started farting around me.

Identifying the Root Cause

Racism in South Korea
Racism in South Korea

Korea is a largely homogeneous society. Though globalisation is leading to a more multicultural country, it is a slow process when you compare Korea to cultural “melting pots” like the UK and Europe for example. Foreign immigrants or “waygookins” as Koreans like to call us, make up for less than 1% of the countries population with the majority of these individuals being American military or ESL teachers.
Up until fifteen years ago, Koreans were taught in high school that they were the “master race” due to the fact that citizens are able to trace  their “pure” bloodlines and family trees back hundreds upon hundreds of years. Foreign immigrants are perceived by many to be a potential pollutant to these pure bloodlines. As you walk around the streets of Seoul, you will find many interracial couples walking hand in hand. The younger generation are typically much more open-minded, however ultimately hold their family’s approval for their mate in high-standing so mixed relationships frequently come under scrutiny from concerned family members that are afraid of the aforementioned “dirty blood”.

First Hand Experiences

Racism in South Korea
Racism in South Korea

As an “outsider” in any society, you are perhaps likely going to have mixed experiences when it comes to your treatment by the majority group or race, and my experience was no different in Korea.

Though there were those who were excited to have Westerners in their midst, and to learn about their countries (I have several good Korean friends whom I am really thankful to have had the opportunity to get to know), there were also those who didn’t like having foreigners among their society.

Virtually every day I would get on the Seoul metro and take a seat, only to discover an entire circle of empty seats around me and people opting to stand rather than sit next to the “foreigner”. People would snigger, laugh and push each other in my general direction as though I had some form of white cooties they could catch. No different was my daily use of the elevator in my apartment building where people would rather wait for the elevator to go up, drop me off at my floor, and come back down again rather than get inside the elevator with me. When I went into a coffee shop or a store, often the servers would hide or argue over who had to serve me, even though (admittedly unbeknown to them) I can speak Korean.

White women are something of a fetish in the Far East with many Korean men wishing to “ride the white horse” as the term would be so crudely put. As a result, there are a number of eastern European prostitutes in many of the major cities to ahem… service that demand (pardon the pun). As a solo western woman in the country, another undesirable part of my day was being approached by Korean men, particularly older males who would enquire about sex. “Are you Russian?” has become the not-so-secret secret code for use by Korean males to confirm if a white female is a prostitute or not.

Many establishments such as bars and restaurants in Seoul have signs on the door to clarify that they will refuse to serve any non-Koreans and it is not uncommon for public spaces or events to be divided into “foreigner only” and “Korean only” sections because you know, god forbid the different races should mingle.

Racism as a Result of Ignorance

Racism in South Korea
Racism in South Korea

As much as I detested the way I was stereotyped in Korea as a western woman, it was still a marked improvement from the way that black people, or people of Indian or Arabic descent were treated. Since their actual exposure and interaction to people from other races and backgrounds is somewhat limited due to the small number of foreigners living on their home soil, Koreans make a lot of assumptions about people based on what they see in western movies. For example, many Koreans assume white women are promiscuous and “easy” because of how they tend to come across in Hollywood movies. From these movies, they also assume that Black people are dangerous and are mostly involved in gangs and crime.

It seems to be both the first hand lack of exposure to people from different backgrounds, and the lack of education in Korean schools about different religions, races and cultures that leads to this. A lot of Korean racism comes across in a sort of unintentional, childlike ignorance way. For example, I could be eating something spicy in a Korean restaurant or using chopsticks and I would find myself the subject of many fascinated giggling Koreans who would query how on Earth I knew how to eat with these utensils and why wasn’t I eating a hamburger? (since that is obviously what westerners eat every day, seven days a week). An African American friend of mine was asked if he kept lions in his garden. (I can understand that these things almost sound laughable if you aren’t living among this madness and subject to it every day).

Lack of Accountability

Honestly, the worst part of racism in South Korea is people’s lack of accountability for their actions. Bars and restaurants can openly reject patrons based on the colour of their skin and there is no law that protects foreign residents or condemns this racist notion. Equally, foreign residents, particularly entry level migrant workers are often exploited or treated differently in the workplace and there is nowhere they can go for support.

Racism exists virtually everywhere in the World, I acknowledge that. However I would like to think that if you were in a public place in the UK or the US and someone started being openly racist and aggressive towards someone, another bystander would swoop in and stop the offender. This is absolutely not the case in Korea where I would probably have a heart attack and die of shock if anyone swooped in to defend a victim. People have yelled at me in the street for being a “stupid American”, or put their feet up on the seat next to them on the subway so I wouldn’t sit by them, and of the dozens of people around, not one spoke out about what was happening.

As a white British woman, I suppose it seems laughable that I am one to complain about racism in other nations, since Caucasian British people are never really the victims of racial prejudices or slurs in our home country. We will never truly understand the negative experiences that our dark-skinned friends and coworkers face, and it is difficult to empathise with a situation that is so foreign to us. If there is one positive that can be taken from this experience in Korea it is my heightened sensitivity to these issues around the globe whereas previously although I acknowledged its presence, and obviously condemned racism in any form, I had never known how it felt to be a recipient of racist attitudes.

Do you live in South Korea? What are your experiences with racism in Korea? Have you had any notably negative encounters during your time here?





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