Korea's multicultural disconnect
Expats and Koreans alike raised a firestorm of criticism over the May 28 news broadcast by Munwha Broadcasting Corporation titled “The shocking reality about relationships with foreigners,” whose English translation went viral on the Internet shortly thereafter. Thousands of people flocked to Facebook in particular to join together in solidarity against what we regard as irresponsible journalism — for its xenophobic portrayal of Western men as predators of Korean women, as well as for the weak, helpless “victims” it made Korean women out to be.
The incident directly contradicts the image the Korean government has tried so hard to promote to the world — a safe, friendly and welcoming environment open to foreign workers, investments and businesses. To establish themselves, to contribute to Korea’s economy and society, to raise a family.
In reality, Korea’s rapid economic growth has far outpaced its cultural maturity in the past 50 years. Older generations who grew up in a mostly homogeneous world are less inclined to accept that the tolerance of a multicultural society is a growing necessity. Their children, in turn, have not been raised to be open to the idea either, despite the country becoming more heterogeneous.
The government has, for its part, taken many initiatives to address this issue. “Multicultural” and “global” centers are being built around the country to help new immigrants adapt to Korean society. Acts of racism are now punishable in a court of law. More teachers are being sensitized to the needs of biracial students in an effort to stem their shockingly high dropout rates. The government has also opened “multicultural schools” exclusively for biracial children.
But support centers and anti-discrimination laws can only do so much. The more important and more difficult challenge is to come to a national consensus on a more inclusive definition of “who is Korean.”
How Korea handles the next step in its quest to be a multicultural society has social and economic implications. Make no mistake: Korea is not a multicultural country; having 1 million foreigners does not make a country multicultural, especially when just a fraction of them will ever be considered Korean.
So how can a nation that has been mostly composed of a single race until only five or six decades ago not only accept this idea, but make it an integral part of their lives? For me, the next step is clear: start with the children.
Tolerance of differences is a concept not inherent — it must be taught. The shift to multiculturalism must begin in Korea’s schools.
As of last year, there were 151,154 biracial children in Korea, a drastic jump from the 5,000 it had in 1965 and even the 44,258 counted in 2007. However, Korean public schools have not traditionally been equipped to deal with these children’s needs. Biracial children with low Korean-language skills often struggle both scholastically and socially within the walls of public schools. While the government’s solution to create special schools exclusively for them may help the students study in the short term, at the same time it creates a wedge between ethnically Korean children and the very children it was hoping to help.
Biracial kids certainly confront unique problems here, such as language and discrimination. However, how does removing them from their fluently Korean-speaking peers help them learn the language? More importantly, how does removing these children, whom society already regards as different, facilitate their acceptance?
If the acceptance of multiculturalism is the ultimate goal, then segregation, especially at such an early life stage, is not the answer. This institutionalized discrimination is testament to the idea that Korea still has a ways to go before it can call itself truly multicultural.
Furthermore, ethnic Korean students still do not receive enough education on what is expected of citizens in a multiethnic society. Parents and schools both have responsibility here. A survey conducted last year found that 70 percent of Korean students had not received any education on multiculturalism and another survey found that 86.5 percent of Korean nationals think “Koreans” should have Korean ancestors.
My daughters are not yet old enough to articulate the discrimination that older biracial children—along with many in the expat population — confront on a daily basis. But that time is coming soon enough. And when they do begin to articulate their feelings about these issues, I want the conversation in Korean society to have matured to the point where they both can feel comfortable talking about it.
The country where I want my daughters to grow up is one where their “Korean-ness” is no longer questioned.