Friday, November 2, 2007

Racism and Xenophobia

A quick search on the Internet will reveal that racism and xenophobia is quite prevalent in Korean society. There's tons of blogs, articles, and forum posts to define the treatment that non-Koreans get within Korea. While it's not quite as pronounced as in some other countries, both do exist and are an unavoidable by-product the Korean monoculture.

Damn Foreigners
As previously mentioned, financial institutions recently created some extra restrictions for foreigners and these extras hoops, based more on fear than reality, are a good illustationg of Korea's institutionalized xenophobia:

Foreigners who stayed here less then three months will be banned from opening new accounts, raising concern about possible discrimination against foreigners.

For those foreigners who lived in Korea for more than three months, they can open accounts with the provision of their qualification papers, including work permits and identification certificates.

But they will not be able to access online banking and ATMs in the first three months even after they opened an account. They will need to directly withdraw and transfer money over the counters at banks during business hours.
The industry essentially said that they hold the entire foreigner population responsible for recent incidents of scams and in turn exonerates any Korean national. From a western stand point this seems like trying to swat a fly off your nose with a shot gun withought any though for your head. But in this case it somehow made sense to punish the many to get at the few. When the policy went into effect this fall it wasn't long before the short-sightedness was made apparent and criticized:
When a Chinese resident in Korea went to an ATM machine run by the Korea Post during the Chuseok holidays, he was taken aback by a text that appeared on the screen asking him to confirm his identity at the service counter. Since it was a holiday, the post office was closed, leaving him without cash throughout the break.
But the blameless Chinese man felt it was discrimination. "They treat us as if we're some kind of imposters," he said. Korea Post says it only meant to protect innocent citizens from fraud, but admitted the measures could have affected another innocent group.
The policy is suspended but there are other laws still in place that specifically target the foreigner community based on an institutionalized foreigner fear; consider the foreigner-illusive credit card:
...I cannot get a credit card in South Korea because I am a foreigner. The banks say giving credit cards to foreigners is risky because they might leave. They give credit cards to unemployed teenagers ... In Australia, anyone can get a credit card. So most foreigners in Korea believe that the Korean banks are racist. We also think that the Korean treatment of the tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese who have been born in Korea or lived here for 50 years - but who can't get Korean passports - is institutional racism.
In the simplest of terms, financial institutions do not trust foreigners. All of them. And the portrayal that foreigners get in the national media doesn't help calm these fears. Starting with the image of foreigners as a illegal migrant workers, news agencies paint their stories with themes of illegal drugs, miscegenation, and the ever popular Chester the Molester (sex-hungry foreign men preying on helpless Korean girls) spin. And all while subtly equating foreigner crime to English teacher crime. Gusts Of Popular Feeling incredibly details the entire history (since 1996) of Korean media's construct of male English teachers and Mongori has a nice couple of examples for viewing:

While the main institutions stop at the Korean & non-Korean divide, the more omnipresent monoculture continues the segregation and actually divides the foreigners into the good and the bad. A quick peek into the adventures of foreigners gives us this racial hierarchy:
Thais and Malaysians are ignored by taxi drivers or humiliated in department stores, and Africans are called all sorts of names by uncouth Koreans who see black people for the first time in their lives. Africans actually say that they have never faced such severe discrimination in any other country. In contrast, Caucasians from so-called advanced nations such as the US or European countries are given royal treatment that borders on the absurd even in the eyes of the Caucasians themselves. It is ironic and also disgraceful that Koreans, so sensitive to the discrimination they suffer as the ethnic minority in the West, are so used to discriminating against foreigners at home.
A job posting for North American Caucasians (more on this here) seems to celebrate this pecking order and firmly places African or the visibly similar down at the bottom. Unfortunately, this hierarchy is so tightly bound to the monoculture that most Koreans simply cannot understand this as a violation of human rights.

The African Problem
A long post by Jasmine on a 2003 thread in Dave's ESL Cafe illustrates the two main factors in the Korea's African problem. First there's the blatant discrimination,
We were told repeatedly by recruiters that the schools they were hiring for wouldn't hire black people. It took us months to find a job in Korea this time around...always the same story - "I'm not prejudiced's the parents, it's the directors". Not only are they racist, but they lie about it and deny it - which I think is worse.
and then there's the cultural ignorance
Not a day goes by that my boyfriend doesn't hear - "Oh! A-puh-ri-ka saram". He's American. On top of that, he been asked a barage of stupid questions like: are you in a gang? Do you own a gun? Do you play basketball? Nice raggae perm! Like people can't grow curly hair naturally. And, oh, my god, the staring.
The more you look at the discrimination problem, the more you understand that Korea is not alone and in fact all of Asia appears to have the same unfounded belief that lighter skin is righter:
European imperialists are often blamed for bringing the "lighter skin is righter" mentality to indigenes of colonized lands in Africa and Asia. Critics of this mental colonization don't always acknowledge in the same breath that many North African and Asian cultures had placed a premium on light skin PRIOR to European exposure. Indian folk songs praised the beautiful woman who has "the color of butter" (Indian butter is white, not yellow). Pre-colonial Indonesian women used plant-based skin treatments to make their complexion pale.

However, the fact that pre-colonial colorism exists does NOT absolve Europeans of their responsibility for indoctrinating non-European populations with harmful racial ideologies. Pre-colonial colorism in many cultures is fundamentally different from modern Western racism; the vocabulary and assumptions used in the discussion of modern racism are not necessarily helpful or relevant in understanding pre-European-contact attitudes towards complexion.
And within the Asian historical context there is some economic reasoning behind this colorism:
Pre-European-contact colorism occurs in the context of members of the same "race" (quotes being used because "race" is a modern Western concept we are applying anachronistically). Wealthy people did not have to work in the sun, and thus were lighter-complexioned than poor workers and peasants. Light skin became a symbol of wealth and class. Fatness, another physical characteristic associated with a lifestyle of prestige and plenty, was also deemed attractive. Famed medieval North African writer Ibn Battuta described "the most perfect of women in beauty" as "pure white and fat."
But attitudes remain relatively unchanged since the day of feudal landlords; this article about China could have easily been written about Korea and illustrates the modern mentality.
"According to your status in society you receive different benefits and power. Rural people and city people; ordinary people and officials. In such a social structure, we can predict that the Chinese will have very strong feelings of racial discrimination."

Yu believes dark-skinned foreigners are likely to face more obstacles than whites, as many Chinese see them as inferior.

Many have ingrained impressions of African wars, famine and disease from the mass media, says the sociology professor. Plus a perception of a dichotomous West with exclusively well-educated and prosperous whites, and poverty-stricken ethnic minorities.
If colorism is the basis of Asia's African Problem, then, like the rest of Asia, Korea has done little if anything to correct the perception and continues to exacerbates the situation. The Korean monoculture still irresponsibly applies the skin dichotomy to immigrants and continues to construct incorrect images of dark skinned people; the stereotype of the tribal Negro is instilled during childhood and runs around almost unchecked in Korean adult life.

They Don't Mean to be Racist, but...
There's something to be said about those embarrassing moments when you make an ass out of yourself. And then there's something to be said about those embarrassing moments when you make an ass out of yourself on tv. But what is some culture's comedic blunder is another's comedic gold. The recent Misuda scandal is a good example to illustrates a cultural ignorance that's almost understandable when displayed in the vacuum caused by the Korean monoculture.
All was as it should be—maybe—until lovely African-American Leslie Benfield was performing a rendition of a Korean song. It was then that one of the panel—singer Cheon Myeong-hun—jumped up on stage wearing a rasta wig and began chanting "sikameos, sikameos," a reference to a black-face routine made famous by comedian Lee Bong-won."

The anger from the incident shows that Koreans understand that racism is bad thing, or at least that it is wrong to insult a pretty girl, but the producers somehow didn't know that Black Face Comedy in front of the African American may be considered a social faux pas. At first the show refused to apologize:
The show’s production team, however, told StarNews there was no racist intent behind Cheon’s stunt. They explained Cheon did what he did to give the show’s atmosphere a bit of a boost. They also said they have no intention of dropping Cheon from the show.
A couple months later an apologetic interview with the woman in question, Leslie Benfield, emerges and tells a different story.
"Oh, you mean the Shikamoes thing? Yes, I was really surprised they left that in." I was perplexed expecting her to be livid, given that "sikeomeotta" (from which "Shikemoes" derives) means "jet-black." However instead of siding with recent public animosity and demanding his head on a proverbial platter as many of Korea's legions of online "netizens" have done, she surprises me again with, "I feel sorry for him. I heard he got fired for it."

She continues, "Anyone who lives abroad experiences ignorance." She said instead of singling out one person and demanding an apology for their actions, we should think about why we find certain things funny. It was a statement that really made me think, especially as I watched Sacha Baron Cohen's infamous character Borat.

For those who are still not satisfied, he apologized to her in person after the show.
Cultural ignorance isn't just limited to television. It creeps up now an then in unexpected ways. Take, for example the entry for advertising that is the only graphic used within the entry. Ruminations in Korea has more on the entry and a brief peek into the history of Slavery in Korea.
Or, better yet, take the Hitler Bars, a series of Nazi themed bars sprinkled around Korea. An interview with an owner reveals that, like the producers of Misuda, he simply didn't know that spending 50,000,000 on a bar who's patron was responsible for one of the worst genocides known to mankind (let alone ignoring the imperial Japanese connection) would be a bad idea. And, while yellow star cocktails may seem like an amazing black-humour novelty drink, when Koreans add anger to this ignorance and they create their own Konglish style of anti-semitisicm:

Like the African problem, the fascination (and consequential) ignorance of German Nazism goes beyond the Korean monoculture and is prevalent is other parts of Asia thanks to a lack of education:
In some parts of the world, World War II is not taught in schools as a battle of political ideologies, but as a conventional war. This type of education means that Hitler and the Nazi Party are not treated as war criminals or evil, but merely as charismatic and powerful leaders of countries during wartime. Some east Asians are interested in what Adolf Hitler said about east Asian history and philosophy; the Nazi work ethic; as well as militaries that wore Hugo Boss uniforms and drove tanks made by Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.George Burdi, the former head of the neo-Nazi record label Resistance Records, claimed to have sold many CDs to Japan, because some Japanese believed themselves to be the white men of the east. In Turkey, Hitler's book Mein Kampf is an annual bestseller.
From a Korean perspective however it seems that both scandals could be avoided if somebody in charge took the time and effort to understand the cultural difference. While Koreans make so much effort (at least from personal experience, here in Mokpo) to educate the foreigners to the Korean Way™, they don't recognize anything outside of their monoculture and in turn fail to establish cultural equivalents. Equivalents like the emotions generated by Golliwog and Comfort Women toys.

The Uncategorizable
A system that enforces a racial hierarchy breaks down when dealing with Mixed-Bloods; the monoculture segregates pure and impure Koreans the same way that it segregates Korean against Non-Korean and White against Black. How close Multiethnic Koreans get to the respect jackpot depends on how well they blend into the hierarchy's good kind of people. Again this phenomenon isn't localized to Korea and different Asian countries have their own take their own emerging multiethnic populations:
I recently noticed that TV in Japan is filled with half Asian and half White people, who are simply called “half”. I was shocked to find that even kid’s programs on TV have many “half” people. I suppose the “half” people represent the Japanese desire to be more international. What is interesting is that they no longer are interested in 100% White people. The overt idolization of white people is apparently over. They now prefer somewhere in between. I would imagine that this trend is also being fueled by the popularity of White-male Asian-female couples in the 80s and 90s. Their kids are now in their teens, ready to sing and dance.
The popular Korean example is Hines Ward, the first Korean-American to win the Super Bowl MVP award. The monoculture (imported by his fellow Korean immigrants in U.S.A.) at first shunned him because of his African-American father and his Korean mother but later, after he became famous, he was suddenly Korea's favourite son. The news agencies create the impression that any Korean, once they have found fame and fortune, would naturally love to return their ancestral home. The story outside of the media tells a different story:
From April 3 through May 30, 2006, Ward returned to his birthplace of Seoul for the first time since his parents moved to the United States when he was one year old. Ward used his celebrity status to arrange "hope-sharing" meetings with multiracial Korean children and to encourage social and political reform. Ward cried when describing the discrimination he faced. At one hope-sharing meeting, he told a group of children, "If the country can accept me for who I am and accept me for being a Korean, I'm pretty sure that this country can change and accept you for who you are." On his final day in Korea, he donated $1 million USD to create the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation, which the AP called "a foundation to help mixed-race children like himself in South Korea, where they have suffered discrimination."
And the agencies that did acknowledge his mixed parentage did so by highlighting his Korean mom and downplay his African American dad:
One dangerous tendency I noted, from not only conversations with my friend, but also with the way the Korean media talks about him, is the way Ward's mother's "good" seems played against the African-American father's "bad." This is what's responsible for my friend's easy assumption that Mr. Hines may have a contentious relationship with blackness, which resembles the somewhat "disciplinary" tone that I sense in the way blackness-as-deadbeat-father is or may be played against sacrifice-as-Korean-mother.
Korea the Multicultural
If Hines Ward did anything, he at least became a poster child for anti-discrimination in Korea, being herald as the symbol of South Korea's multiculturalism:
Capping it all was Ward’s triumphant visit last month to his native South Korea, where he was feted by its president and hailed by the local media as a Korean hero and a symbol of new South Korean multiculturalism.
The monoculture's dominance should be evidence enough that the level of multiculturalism is at best a novelty in Korea; calling Ward a symbol of Korean multiculturalism then borders on irony since, at last count, most English teachers have spent more time living in Korea than Ward. But there's now a celebrity associated with the problem and that in turn is stirring up some self reflection. But a another hidden factor for that self reflection is that Asian countries have the same aging population problem as other industrialized countries:
The name Sony summons visions of all things Japanese. Yet its board chairman, Iwao Nakatani, recently called for mass immigration, opening Japan to different faces and influences.

Mr Nakatani is worried because Japanese are living longer, yet having fewer children. The result is a shrinking workforce which threatens economic growth.
The real challenge to the Korea's racism and xenophobia is its own desire to maintain economic growth; more and more Koreans are realizing that the monoculture must change if they're going maintain their western-like standard of life:
As many as 10,000 Vietnamese brides enter Korea each year, and with an ageing population and low birth rates the country’s dependence on foreign labor is going to intensify. We should not look down on these people because our economy is better off. These are pillars of the Korean economy who work in the “three D” (difficult, dangerous and dirty) areas of Korean industry, working hard for low wages without complaint. Is it not overly cruel to put them to work, directing them with body language, the day after they arrive still confused? They are not slaves sold here for low wages. We need a mature attitude that recognizes their human dignity and individuality.
Even though it will look like Hines Ward single handily brought multiclturalism to Korea, behind the scenes it'll because of Korean economic policies. As a brilliant counter-example, the neighboring North Koreans who have a different, internal economic model are free from such financial pressures:
Such changes have prompted North Korea's Rodong Shinmun (the Workers Party`s paper) to fiercely criticize the South Korean government.

It said, "South Korea is denying its national race and its 5,000-year history by professing to be a multiracial nation. Such moves will Americanize Korea, ruin its past history and weaken the power to combat dominative U.S. forces."
The North Korea idea to associate America as the source the multiculturalism is somewhat incorrect. Recently the pure foreigner population broke the 1,000,000 mark but it's the Chinese immigrants who make up the largest group, following by Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Thais. And the increase of foreigners implies that the multiethnic population will also grow:
In fact, demographic trends indicate that by 2020, there will be considerably more than 1.5 million mixed-race Koreans. One in three newborns will be multi-racial, and one in five people under the age of 20 will be multi-racial. For the next 15 years at least, South Korea is going to be an easy target for those wanting to highlight its xenophobia - but given its dynamic demographic nature, a multicultural Korea may not be far away.
While economic policies will break down racist and xenophobic laws in Korea (and in theory make everybody sign and dance in a big happy circle -- just like America), the mechanism that will create the new generation of multiethnic Koreans is the monoculture itself:
Tens of thousands of South Korean men look to China, Vietnam and beyond for wives, in response to a shortage of brides caused by a generation of gender-selective births. Since ultrasounds became widely available in the 1980s, parents in South Korea could screen out undesirable daughters, resulting in a gender imbalance of 113 males for every 100 females. The countryside’s shortage of marriage-age women is exacerbated, with young women migrating to the cities and escaping the patriarchal lifestyle of their youth, in search of careers and urban husbands. The trend also diversifies the homogeneous country while aggravating comparable shortages of women in China and elsewhere. With men willing to pay up to $20,000 to tie the knot, the global trade in wives is quickly becoming big business.
With a poster boy, economic incentives and a bunch of babies who are a byproduct of a self-destructing monoculture it seems like Korea (well, South Korea) is slowly warming up to the idea of a multiethnic society that against racism and xenophobia:
Office worker Lee Eun-yeong (30) received a proposal from a Canadian friend, a man working at a Korean company, to go to a sogaeting. Eun-yeong happily said yes. “Thinking that your lover and life partner must be a Korean man is so old-fashioned, isn’t it? My parents? I’ll think they’ll be ok with having a foreign son-in-law.”

Korean society is quickly becoming multi-cultural with a diverse population. The number of foreigners living in Korea passed 1 million on the 24th of last month. That is 2% of our population.
Of course the country calling itself multicultural because of 2% seems, by comparison to other more, establish multicultural countries, a bit boastful:
By the beginning of the 21st century, the proportion of people with British, French, and/or Canadian ethnic origins had dropped to below one-half of the total population (46%). (The term “Canadian” ethnic origin was first introduced in the 1996 census.) An ethnic diversity survey published by Statistics Canada in 2003 showed that 21% of the population aged 15 years and older was of British-only ancestry, while 10% reported only French origins, 8% were Canadian only, and 7% were a mix of these three origins.

Jesus. This one hell of a blog post.
Since I'm only a couple rungs down from True Korean on the Korea Racial Hierarchy™ my experience differs from other people. I can however recognize the different levels of treatment I get here Mokpo, be it in the staring contests I get into with stragers, random children yelling "Hello, how are you!" from across the street, or even in the service that may be a novelty not shared by some:
The men sitting next to us bobbed their heads and smoked. We made a sort of wordless toast to the music, and the three of them, Yoo-te and the men, asked us if we were familiar with the Korean concept of service-ah. "Service," Konglish again, and yes we were. Free stuff (sweet!). Yoo-te took down a fresh bottle of Hennessy V.S.O.P, and cracked the plastic. Woaaahhh, thought we, hold on a sec. Free?, at over $160 on the menu, we had to confirm. The men poured shots, and together, to a fuzzy-bliss soundtrack, we shouted "gambay!" and took in the smoky pleasure that is good cognac.
But I haven't been confronted on the street, made to give up my bus seat, asked how much money for sex or even stand up for my right to eat with chopsticks:
This Thursday one of my schools decided to take me out to lunch. Beautiful! They even took me a to a vegetarian restaurant, because they weren't sure what I could eat or not. But then they started to pick me apart for the way I eat with my chopsticks.

I eat with these people every week in the cafeteria, they've seen how I eat with chopsticks, and have never said anything. Now we're in a restaurant and they're making a big deal about it. It was so embarrassing. They were being very loud and making a big scene showing me how to do it. People were starting to watch.
I guess I'm pretty lucky in that regards.

I know that I'm just wading into the this area of Korean social studies; Scribblings of the Metropolitician, The Marmot's Hole, Foreign Dispatches, and even ROK Drop are all better places to hang out for recommended reading since they love this stuff and do a better job at me at following the day to day stories.


ExpatJane said...

Thanks to linking to me. It seems like you're still adjusting. I've been here for years and I'm still adjusting.

Anyway, whoever said you can't get a credit card in Korea as a foreigner is lying to you. I've had three. One BC Card (useless, don't bother) and two Samsung Cards. I changed my card type to the Samsung lady card (don't know what that gets me, but it's got an E-mart logo on it.)

I think your mileage my vary depending on where you are and your attitude. I started off in Yeosu in Jeollanamdo and, for the most part, I really liked it. I've most definitely had some bad moments here, but I also had my car broken into yearly when I lived in San Francisco, had someone run into and total my car in a hit and run in San Francisco and, another San Francisco moment, had my apartment broken into and robbed while I was in the other room watching the Super Bowl one year.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, she's right. I have two credit cards of my own, one of which is one of those fancy Master Card platinum cards (costs 30000won per year, but it gives me travel insurance coverage and free car insurance for when I travel).