Race relations in South Korea


There was an interesting article in the New York Times this week that highlighted the struggle with race relations in South Korea.

South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” and where the words “skin color” and “peach” are synonymous, is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate.

Many of the foreigners come here to toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. Southeast Asian women marry rural farmers who cannot find South Korean brides. People from English-speaking countries find jobs teaching English in a society obsessed with learning the language from native speakers.

For most South Koreans, globalization has largely meant increasing exports or going abroad to study. But now that it is also bringing an influx of foreigners into a society where 42 percent of respondents in a 2008 survey said they had never once spoken with a foreigner, South Koreans are learning to adjust — often uncomfortably.

Unfortunately, it is true that Korea is almost completely homogeneous and only in the last couple decades, have outsiders even been coming into the country in enough numbers for Koreans to notice.

It is true that there are unfair stereotypes pegged to Southeast Asian migrant workers in Korea, an issue that needs to get better in time as the country works to become more global.

But as a foreign English teacher (albeit with white skin) I could not have been treated with more respect.

As xenophobia is an issue that often comes up, I wrote this piece for Transitions Abroad last year. For an idea on how I dealt with what sometimes feels like living in a fish bowl, check it out.