The first half of 2017 witnessed a plethora of discrimination episodes in South Korea. Early this year, a mixed family rose to fame after the father’s live interview with the BBC was interrupted by his toddler who frolicked into his home office. Dr Robert Kelly’s family was dubbed the ‘World’s Most Famous Family’ on the Ellen DeGeneres show. The video of the candid incident garnered over 24 million views on YouTube, brought laughter and highlighted the reality of working parents around the world.
On the other hand, this incident also shone the spotlight on multicultural families in Korea. Some audience assumed that the lady who was frantically trying to contain the commotion in the video was the child’s nanny. However, the professor of Busan National University clarified in a press conference that the lady was indeed his wife and the mother of his children.
In June, an Indian Sogang University PhD student, Kislay Kumar, was denied access into a club in Itaewon which is ironically known to be the multicultural district in Seoul. In a footage of the incident circulating online, the bouncer can be heard saying “No Indians. It is a rule. No Kazakhstan, no Pakistan, no Mongolia, no Saudi Arabia and no Egypt.”
With all that has been reported and more that are kept under wraps beg the question if Korea is really moving from homogenous to pluralism.
With the slew of foreign companies that set up their branches here, many jobs were made available. However, the increase in rate of literacy in the 1980s resulted in the lack of unskilled workers who were willing to take up positions in construction sites, manufacturing factories or the likes of it. These jobs were categorised as ‘3D (dirty, dangerous, difficult) jobs’. This led the country to open its doors to a flood of migrant workers, particularly those from Southeast Asia who hoped to seek upward mobility to improve living conditions back at home to fill this vacuum.
A decade after, Korea witnessed a period of ‘rural boycott’ where women from the countryside moved to the city to gain economic independence by working in urban industries. This mass exodus of women resulted in bride shortages for rural men. According to The New York Times, “every month, hundreds of South Korean men fly to Vietnam, the Philippines, Nepal and Uzbekistan on special trips” to look for potential wives who could bring back the sound of crying babies to the countryside where the rural population is shrinking.
While a few marriages end up successful, there are also some that failed to achieve their happily-ever-afters. These ‘mail order brides’ fantasized about achieving their ‘Korean Dreams’ — apartments with elevators, manicure and hair appointments and fully immersing themselves in the city life. When faced with harsh realities of living in rural areas where the bus comes once every four hours, their ‘Korean Dreams’ turned into ‘Korean Nightmares’. More often than not, these women were also cut off from their natal families and were forced to ‘Koreanize’, removed from their native culture and customs.
In 2010, a Vietnamese bride was murdered by her mentally-ill Korean partner and this incident called on President Lee Myung-Bak to urge the public to pay attention to welfare issues of multicultural families.
Since the country’s inauguration of multiculturalism, the government attempted a couple of trial-and-errors to help integrate foreigners into the mainstream society. However, their concept of who is considered ‘multicultural’ is narrowly defined. Most of their programs are directed toward marriage migrants and multicultural families, excluding migrant workers.
What went wrong and who needs to change? Foreign migrants, government policies or the mainstream society? It all boils down to which integration model the government adopts. It seems that the Korean society is leaning heavily towards aggressive assimilation where the responsibility and the burden for ‘multiculturalism’ are being placed heavily and solely on the foreigners. In my opinion, at the moment, the impression of Korea being open to embracing new cultures is merely ‘lip service’. To make things work, the country needs to stop treating foreigners as commodities to solve their social problems and genuinely study the term ‘multiculturalism’.
Problems need to be carefully identified in order to meticulously design a program that can work. Conducting endless Korean cooking programs, culture and language classes just would not make the cut anymore. Quality of programs should be prioritized over quantity. Rights and welfares of foreigners should also be revised. If the country dreams of ‘Global Korea’, they need to put their head in the game by introducing a working system where natives and foreigners can coexist in harmony this instant. An anti-discrimination law needs to be ratified and aggressive assimilation at the expense of the ‘other’ should halt immediately. Enough is enough.
Essay review by Faculty Advisor Shin Hi-sup
Koreans have been pursuing the dream of globalization for decades. For some, the term bodes for a bright future where the nation’s elites and hard-working people dominate in the global arena of incessant competitions and challenges. For others, it means the high-end lifestyle of consumerism enriched by the influx of global products all delivered to their doorsteps. In this mania of globalization sweeping the nation from business world and education to pop culture and entertainment, Koreans have turned a blind eye to another reality of globalization emerging as forms of racism and labor abuse in the treatment of foreign migrant workers and mail order brides. Nadia’s essay is not only a loud wake-up call for all Koreans who are implicated in this ugly crime of cultural bigotry and xenophobia in the age of globalization, but it also patiently tells us that we can change. Thank you Nadia!