Saturday, June 29, 2013

Are Westerners Living in Korea Developing a Persecution Complex?

It has struck me that, for quite a long time, I have noticed a sort of heightened sensitivity in the foreign community living in Korea to any form of discrimination they might receive while living there.

Let's first note that there is quite a lot of racism in Korea, there is a fair amount of prejudice against non-Koreans.  This is usually in the form of general ignorance, however, rather than malice.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule just like there is in almost every country in the world. 

There is also a general, almost institutionalised racism present in Korea that is slightly different to what I have noticed in many Western countries.  In the West, the media, the government and most well-educated people realise that racism is wrong and do not promote it.  General, sober, conversation between people often also has a guarded feel when the subject has a racial element to it.  Any form of prejudice expressed can be jumped upon by the liberal crowd and quite rightly so.  I do think, however, that there is an undercurrent of disquiet and discrimination that is still present pretty much everywhere.  As with most people, if you want to know how they really think, throw a few beers into them - this seems to do the trick quite nicely in the UK with regard to exposing the racists.

In Korea, things are different.  Sometimes it does feel like some forms of discrimination are enshrined in law and general everyday routine and awareness has to be raised about it.  It is easy to understand how laws on HIV and drug testing and mainstream television programs singling out 'foreigners' as specific generators of violence, sexual crime, and immorality make people upset, for example.  This is not just some moron on the street shouting racial abuse because he is drunk or just plain stupid, it feels like voicing your disgust could actually do some good and is needed to break a kind of spell of prejudice over some of the population in Korea.

Because of all of this perhaps, there do seem to be signs of a persecution complex forming in the Western community that live in Korea and in those that have left and tell their stories when they get back home.  Many Korean people do discriminate against us sometimes and what is important to recognise is that this can be both good and bad for us.  Strangely, I have always found it is the times when Koreans do not discriminate at all which regularly upsets me the most and I think many Westerners living in Korea fail to notice this when they are genuinely advantaged by discrimination and when they are disadvantaged by just being treated like everyone else.  Many simply want to have their cake and eat it and this might not be possible, perhaps we have to take the rough with the smooth.

Maybe if you are generous and patient enough to look through some of the negative articles about Korea I have posted on this blog, it might not escape your notice that they are mainly concerning the effect some of the negative aspects of the culture have on Koreans themselves.  Women and young people, in particular, appear to be severely hampered by their duties to older people and petty jealousies and worries over status - so important in a culture with a traditionally Confucian society - make so many people's lives a misery here.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an article about the shabby treatment of native English teachers.  In this post, I readily admitted that Korean and South East Asians have a much harder time at work than Westerners.  Native English teachers have pretty sweet contracts and are mostly protected from any monkey business from their employers, especially if they work in a public school.  I accept that there are many horror stories, however, (which I mentioned in the post) but I have heard far worse from the mouths of Koreans themselves and what is so troubling is that they often just seem to accept it as normal practice in the workplace.  The major problem for most foreign teachers is the lack of discrimination they receive at work, though, and not vice-versa.

The point I was trying to make is that schools in Korea cannot get around their responsibility to their foreign teachers.  Native English teachers are usually young, have traveled from a culture that is completely different, and normally don't speak Korean too well.  They need help.  The fact is, though, that many schools in Korea do this very begrudgingly in my experience,  Trying to have them do something for you, even minor requirements, is a bit like pulling teeth.  This is not down to discrimination, however, it is because they are treating you as a normal member of the group at work.  Actually, we tend to get better treatment than any normal young new employee.  Korean people new to a job often have the hardest time of all; they usually do the most work, run around for their superiors, and may even be bullied.  Most of the time Westerners are discriminated against, in that they aren't made to perform all the duties of a new employee.  Native English teachers should really be thankful for the discrimination they receive in their schools.

There are a great many situations where we Westerners search up our sleeves and play the 'Foreigner card' roughly translated to a 'get out of jail free card.'  This has saved my bacon or avoided a myriad of awkward situations time and time again.  If I was a young Korean man or especially a young woman, I would have had an almost limitless number of mind-blowing situations to sit through in the last 3 years or so.  My good fortune to be a foreigner who is discriminated against is not lost on me.  This does not mean that I avoid all difficult circumstances in Korea, but I do slink away from a good fair few.  Koreans themselves are not so lucky and this is what I mainly get rather upset about, particularly as this often includes my wife.  As well as my natural empathy for her as a husband, I also get a bit of an earache and headache at home when I have to hear about what members of her family or work colleagues have said to her or the trouble they have put her through, all because she is a woman and/or younger than them.

The unfortunate thing about Korea - which is shared all over the world, but with perhaps a more of an ingrained intensity in Korea - is that high status rules.  If you are old and a man, you can expect to be treated well; if you are young, a woman, or an outsider, you will not be considered so much or treated with very much care and attention and perhaps not trusted so much either.  The handy thing about being an outsider is that many older Koreans don't understand us and we can also plead ignorance.  The one thing against us non-Koreans is that we receive even less trust than low-status Koreans because of the fact they can't comprehend us.  People will always fear and distrust things that they don't understand.  Historical isolation, invasion, and colonisation have further fueled a natural distrust of the outsider in Korea.  This is obviously the source of the xenophobic, insecure, and defensive atmosphere that one can experience in Korea sometimes and maybe why many foreigners feel persecuted.

There is this sense, though, that some feelings of persecution are going too far.  Often, some foreigners get so down on Korea that it seems as though everything Korean people do and say to them is an example of prejudice, suspicion, or even hatred.  I do not believe this is at all the case, most of the time we are not receiving special unwanted treatment.  I have a grumble every morning when I cycle to work when I notice about 10 examples of dangerous or at least inconsiderate driving in 10 mintutes, but this is not directed at me because of my big nose and blonde hair, many Korean drivers are just indiscriminately terrible with regard to others while driving, whether it be pedestrians, cyclists or other motorists.  My non-Koreanness has absolutely nothing to do with it and I suspect this is the same for many other situations that rub a lot of us up the wrong way while living in Korea.

Korea is topsy-turvy land, I do believe it can be a very odd place to live and I think the evidence from many foreigner's complaints is that it can certainly be infuriating, especially to Western eyes.  There are many things I personally don't like accepting, I want to change them or at least try, yet at the same time acknowledge that I cannot do that much (I do not think it hurts to try, though, one should not be defeatist about everything).  I don't believe that any of it is down to a special malice or nastiness within Korean people, however, they are generally as nice and kind as anywhere else I have lived or visited and there are many joys and lessons to be learnt from them and living in Korea in general.  They can sometimes make me annoyed, even outraged, due to some of their attitudes that are mainly caused by a cultural difference, but I have to say that persecuted is not a sensation that I feel while living here.

There are examples of persecution sometimes for sure, but let's not go over-board, not every problem that afflicts us in Korea is down to discrimination, far from it.  In my experience at least, my biggest issue is when they treat me like just another Korean.  I want to be understood as an individual, not as part of the group, I require some special attention and special understanding because I am not like them and I am not like anyone else either.  Indeed Koreans are not all alike, they differ from one another and one of my major complaints with the culture in this part of the world is that too often people aren't treated as individuals.  The group ethic has some huge drawbacks because of this and I believe the foreign community identifies and feels this with a greater degree of sensitivity.  It could be that this is the root of many of our problems with Korea and not persecution or discrimination.  We want to be recognised as individuals but instead get lumped into groups, sometimes with the Koreans at work and sometimes the best of us are thrown in with the bad and the ugly, like when the inevitable odd  foreigner turns out to be a criminal and all of us are tarnished by them.

A natural tribalism exists everywhere; grouping people into, 'us and them', is something that almost everyone does to some extent, it is an incredibly hard urge to resist.  Treating people as individuals without prejudice is the way forward and maybe a group-centred culture makes this more difficult.  Being outraged about poor treatment certainly has a place, but foreigners in Korea should stand-up for everyone receiving it in Korea, not just themselves.  It is not, 'us against them', we are all in this together.


  1. Hmm, it must be me or so, I've ran into "Korea and racism" far too many times this week. It must be me? lol

    I've noticed racism quite a lot while I was in Korea, I was born there and lived my secondary education life in Korea, so in some sense I know what I'm talking about.

    However one of the sad things that I always confront is that, I see lots of foreigners come to Korea and kind of "judge" it's culture based on their concept of life. Yes, in a Westernized view, Korea is very racist, but in our view, we were just Koreans all the time. And gradually, the market opened up and bunch of ppl around the world with different race has came into Korea. All of the sudden we are responsible of the way we live. Far too many things happened all of a sudden while the common sense of the view point of the world didn't follow along in Korea. I think that there's a huge gap between the generation nowadays especially.

    Also the history of Korea as you said plays a good role on the view of foreigners. As you might noticed, Korea really didn't have that much positive experience with Foreign culture. we were invaded, the U.S GI are always causing issues, therefore the negative view on foreigner s did spread out a lot.

    Additionally, Korea's culture was a strong agricultural based culture. that means, we didn't really move or travel, rather stayed in one place to live our life. I've read in some articles that the stronger agricultural based cultures have tendency to reject "outside" culture more often.

    I'm not trying to say it's right or wrong, but rather the more ppl want to be understood by Koreans they need to be also understand the Korean culture at the same time. practically this isn't really happening :)

    My father is a faculty member in English ed dept in one of the Korean universities, and believe me, I've confronted so many issues with both sides. I think it's really important for Koreans to understand that there are more/other views to look at the world, and for foreigners, understand what Korea is actually about :)

    But yea, I feel ya, even a Korean like me had a hard time because I spent half of my life in U.S. Most of the blame was on me because I didn't spend my youth life in Korea. But I kinda understood that I need to understand that culture and learn my way to survive in it. And I did. But again, the experience is brutal...

    1. I have long thought that South Korean people have a natural inclination towards wanting to be left alone, precisely because of what you say about history, agriculture, and their traditional way of life. I do think this urge is stronger than in most countries and it is no coincidence that North of the border you have a state like North Korea.

      I think South Korea is a damn interesting place to live but at the same time can be incredibly infuriating for these reasons. I think a traveller to other countries would fail to get a more genuine place to go (that is also highly modernised) also for these reasons.

      I believe that there are times when Korea can be xenophobic, but there are also a great many times when foreigners feel persecuted when they are not. There is too much negativity at the moment in the foreign community and it goes beyond issues that could make them justifiably upset. There are misunderstandings aplenty and in my experience, most of the time these are caused by awkwardness or misunderstandings of each other. Most Korean people I know do their best to be kind to me, just not sure their doing their best to try and understand me. However, I am trying damn hard to understand them.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. "Yes, in a Westernized view, Korea is very racist, but in our view, we were just Koreans all the time"

    Thank you.

    "And gradually, the market opened up and bunch of ppl around the world with different race has came into Korea."

    A bunch? Hardly. A handful at best.

    People who actually go to Korea and actually speak Korean know that the world of Kdramas is 100% pure fantasy. I know. Shocking. However there is a group of naive fangirls who think Korea is paradise for foreigners. Oh how adorable. Ignorance is bliss.

    The only discrimination English teachers feel is that they will never be welcomed as permanent residents, either through marriage or migration (just like Japan). Once you get over that, there is no problem. Just need a bit of a reality check.

  3. While I agree with the majority of what you say. This is not a matter of cherry picking when we can compare cultures and when it is inappropriate. The Korean government has opened up its borders to foreigners for a myriad of reasons I do not have the time or inclination to delve into. The main problem is that the media continually portrays foreigners as 1 lump sum of savage, brutal, sex crazed, STD spreaders who have barely evolved beyond cave man.

    It's fine and dandy to write every country is this and that, but in the few months I was in America with my fiancee, I never once heard someone call her a hooker and try to fight me, where as in Korea that has happened multiple times. I realize that the US is not that far removed from this type of behavior and there are still parts of America that are this way, but it should by no means excuse the racism. The Korean media in effect is a propoganda machine perpetuating steriotypical vitrial falsities and should not have people make appologies for it because Korean people are hard working and generally good natured.

    I will admit that foreigners are overly sensetive about being catagorized and lumped together, but when the news fixates on one item (foreigner=negative), there will be some negative feeling. I get the feeling from my four years here that many Koreans just want to view foreigners as a traveling circus show. Come in, entertain, don't really get involved too personally, then leave the same way.

    Just my two cents.

    1. I think this post has been somewhat misinterpreted on here and on the 'Action Against MBC' facebook page I posted it on. I am in no way saying that foreigners in Korea over-react or are over-sensitive to genuine racism or xenophobia, which I expressed in the post the Korean media often do. Let me spell this out clearly: WE HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO BE UPSET ABOUT RACISM. Absolutely no apologies should ever be made to anyone who promotes racism or bigotry. Some of the furore that was created over some of these famous TV shows, however, can quite easily give the impression that all Koreans share these shows beliefs, so I don't think it hurts to make it clear that there are a great many Koreans that don't share these views; I don't see any problem with doing this.

      There is no excuse for racism in any country, and my purpose in pointing out that racism exists everywhere was not to excuse it, but merely to point out that it is not only Korea that has these troubles. As a Westerner writing this post, I think it is appropriate to point out that the situation is not perfect in the West either, and contrary to yourself the racism I experienced in the UK with my wife around was more in your face than in Korea, but this might just be our own personal experiences.

      Where I think foreigners living in Korea are becoming a little too sensitive, is to a great many circumstances where it is unclear that the interactions that annoy them in Korea are caused by prejudice or not. I have heard people complaining that Koreans are always saying that they speak good Korean and how patronising they are. Well, maybe they are being patronising or maybe they just trying to be nice. I think we can give most of them the benefit of the doubt.

      I sense a great negativity among many in the foreign community in Korea. While there are definitely times to be upset and sensitive about Korean culture. We should remain specific and attack those aspects of Korean culture that are causing the prejudice against us and indeed the mistreatment and unhappiness of their own people and not the people or the culture as a whole.

      While I acknowledge that Korea can be an infuriating place to live sometimes, things are not as terrible as some of the doomsayers would make out. Just the same; I love my own country (the UK) but it is not as wonderful as many people make it out to be. There are some specific areas of my culture that I don't especially like at this moment in time.

  4. you hit the ultimate foreigner in Korea dilemma squarely on the head. The problem for foreigners is that they so badly want to be included and accepted into the group, especially for work functions, but recoil the second their individualism is taken away as a consequence of being accepted.

    1. Yep, I tend to be happy being on the outside, although it is not always easy when I have Korean in-laws. They desperately want to include me in everything, I'm not so keen.

      A lot of foreigners here complain and moan about not being included or taken care of and ,you're right, then complain and moan when the opposite happens as well. I can, however, understand the dilemma they face. It ain't always easy living in Korea, it is interesting though.