“We’ve Always Done It This Way”: A Critique of Xenophobia in South Korea

Recently Andrea posted about Korea and her experience in it – how it’s been neither what she’s expected, nor what she’s satisfied with.

I can’t count how many times I nearly wrote about this very topic myself. I have many embittered half-baked drafts that I’ve always, at the last minute, decided I shouldn’t post for some reason or another.

If I think about it though, “some reason or another” always came down to two things. First, because I didn’t want this blog to be a platform for whinging. There’s a lot of misanthropy and pessimism out there and I genuinely wanted to give my best shot at providing a reprise from that and to join the ranks of the many happy travellers who seem to have nothing but good spirits about life wherever they might find themselves. What’s more is it’s a place I can use to process bad things to come up with a silver lining, and so I didn’t want to taint this space I use as, for lack of a better term, my happy place.

Second, and this is probably the bigger of the two, I felt (and still feel for that matter) that if I was to write about anything negative – or worse, reveal my true feelings about Korea – that it would both discredit my opinion on the place and harm any future writings about it. I worry that by doing so I’ll be tagged as “one of those embittered expats” who’s biased and therefore should just be ignored just as I was told to do of negative viewpoints coming out of this country by those who had contrarily had a good experience.

But, due to Andrea’s bravery in posting about her sentiments, I feel it’s time for me to voice mine too. I still don’t want this blog to turn into a whinging platform, but I’ve found myself struggling more and more to find those silver linings – to the point that I can’t face writing anything at all some days. I stopped writing regularly around July because of this. I’ve hauled myself on the productive bandwagon again, but sporadically. Mostly this is because I’ve felt my emotional dishonestly and self-censorship on this blog began to turn it into what I felt was a fairly sizeable if not lie, then portrayal of a fantasy world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.

So, at the risk of having my opinion discredited and being viewed as biased, I ask you to at least respect my honesty. Obviously as with all subjective points of view, you should also appreciate it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. These things are all based on my personal observations rather than academic or sociological researches, but even so I hope I don’t come across as prejudiced/racist against the people of this country. I will be looking at specific aspects of my experiences here.

And so I skip hence.

This has been a particularly difficult year. They say everyone has a moment when they move abroad and call their parents crying saying they want to come home. Well, I had my share of those, brazen as I was in my belief it’d never happen to determined-t0-be-abroad me. And in those breakdowns, usually my despair boiled down to two closely intertwined things: the soul-crushing, dream-defiling uniformity of Korean culture, and the stupefying although not altogether unsurprising xenophobia that accompanies a society that cultivates sameness.

When I first arrived, I thought there was something genuinely wrong with me for not immediately falling in love with the place. My first day in Australia I’d already decided it was a place I could live forever. With Korea? I distinctly remember looking out the airport window and feeling…dissatisfied. There was the lightly bumped geography of modest mountains, yellowish dry grasses, arthritic black pines, and a low-bellied sky sagging with smog. Everything seemed to hover between beige and gray.

It wasn’t what I imagined, but then again what airport gives a scenic and all-encompassing vision of a country? Still…I immediately felt my soul yearning for something else I wouldn’t put my finger on until many months later.

My arrival in Cheongju is blurred by memories of anxiety and jetlag, but even so I felt an immediate wall. At the time I put it down to a language barrier so concrete you might as well have laid bricks between me and whoever I was attempted to communicate with. But that wasn’t it.

That first weekend, I remember trying to explore the city so I could find an Internet Cafe – or “PC Bang” as I knew they were called. I hadn’t been able to get in touch with my family to let them know I’d arrived safely. It was raining and my feet were soggy and blistering. I walked for an hour past concrete building block after concrete building block feeling like I wasn’t moving at all: every building looked the same; every old woman on the sidewalk selling lettuce leaves and peeled garlic looked the same; every car and bicycle and tree looked the same. Then I intuited, more cognitively than I was aware, that I didn’t look the same.

I had been expecting stares. Everyone had warned me that I’d have people look with delight at the blondeness of my hair – would maybe even try to touch it. They might tell me that I’m beautiful or fat or American. I might get pointed at, or greeted in poor English by those wishing to practice the language, or asked my age by those more adept in the tongue.

Basically, I was expecting a Pleasantville, for better or for worse.

What I got was a factory dollhouse with matching accessories all designed to go together in size and aesthetic – and I’m that “other” doll who’s too tall for the ceilings and can’t fit in the chairs.

As I walked those rain-drenched streets with increasing desperation, I acutely felt as though I shouldn’t be there – or rather that I was a voyeur. Perhaps a part of me felt excited at this, keen world traveler as I was, but it was also very disconcerting. Was it fatigue and paranoia that made me feel a hostility lurked in the lingering gazes of passers by who looked me up and down one too many times? Then again that feeling had to spawn from somewhere…

The brick walls of my language barrier were translated into the physical concrete of the surrounding shops and buildings, sardined and stacked and identical, and I didn’t want to – didn’t even know if I knew how to find the courage to – go in. I’d never felt so foreign.

Eventually I did find a PC Bang and I talked to my family, but that soggy affair is now ingrained in my memory forever as one that consolidated my many upcoming months of crushing loneliness and isolation.

Compared to Australia, where I had people come into my room to welcome me and tell me to go meet all the friendly and outgoing people downstairs, I might as well as moved to the middle of a desert or built a cabin in the midst of a virgin forest. I’ve never known such complete emotional quarantine as those times in the pressing silence of my own apartment.

Increasingly desperate, I threw myself on almost every opportunity I could to make social bonds: joined Korean class my first week, went to bars, music events, dinners…but I never truly transitioned the acquaintances I’d meet into fully fledged friends.

Part of this was my growing introversion, a necessary self-preserving shield meant to pad the ever-tightening vice of seclusion. Another was that for all the enjoyment of my many 10pm-6am nights out, I recognized that this was neither financially sustainable nor actually true to what I wanted – which, as old-person-ish as it sounds, was often a simple glass of red wine and a TV marathon or game of Cards Against Humanity.

More than that though, I wanted to dive headfirst into my writerly ambitions and pursue my art. Sleeping in til 3pm with a nauseating hangover was not conducive to this, despite what Hemingway might make you believe.

When I first started pulling out of my social surroundings, I told myself that this lifestyle of solitude was an excellent environ in which to cultivate my bohemian inclinations. Hadn’t I wanted some peace of mind? Wasn’t this independence exactly what I wanted when I left Montreal?

What became painfully apparent however was that I may be an introvert, but I required people of like mind around me to share creative sparks with. I could not, I discovered, create in a void. And so I lost my art too and fell into a deep despair of a kind I’d never experienced before: being a dreamer in a world of oppressive concrete realists.

There are many people who enjoy Korea because Korea caters to popular culture – and I don’t just mean the K-Pop scene. I include activities and aspects of daily life which are simply of popular habit. In example, a typical Korean day goes something like this:

  • Go to work
  • Leave late from work
  • Go to the gym/yoga/sports club/music class/extracurricular class of sorts
  • Go out for dinner with friends
  • Go for coffee/drinks/noraebang (karaoke)
  • Sleep

Overtly there’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s probably what a healthy lifestyle looks like. But what this seemingly ubiquitous schedule does is ensure that everyone leads very busy communal lives. It also means that there leaves very little room for personal development and introspection meaning that art and counterculture – both requiring time and effort dedicated to critical thinking and imagining things that weren’t there before – rarely exist in Korea.

Now I’ve heard a lot of people balk at this whenever I bring it up.

“There’s plenty of counterculture in Seoul!” they say.

“People in Seoul are different!”

“Seoul has a thriving artistic community, you just need to look for it!”

And yet all this tells me is that 1) only Seoul seems to possess that rebellious artistic spirt, and 2) if I have to look for it, then it’s underground enough that it is unlikely to affect Korea on a grander scale. I live in Cheongju, the capital of a completely different province. I’ve been to a considerable handful of Korean cities and provinces in my past year here. I am confident in my argument (although will defer should I be shown substantial proof otherwise) that the subculture of Korea on the whole is about as prominent as a pimple on a K-Pop star’s publicity photo. That is to say edited out.

I have been spoiled by Montreal, I’ll be the first to admit. A thriving hipster city where subculture is, ironically, popular culture? Storefronts and apartments boasting as much personality as the tattooed, pierced and fashion-draped citizens? Passionate cuisine that is as experimental and multi-cultural as the many circles of liberal-minded, convention-bending artist communities? To be sure, I’ve been ruined by growing up in a city with virtually no rules except those to break.

It is for this reason that for me a nation which glazes over its subcultures, which scorns individuality, which seeks to shut down festivals expressing anything unconventional (as was done to the tattoo convention this past summer), is a claustrophobic one.

Over the months, it became more and more apparent that most people I met fit into Korea’s neat boxes. Topics of conversation were about sports or gossip or “how fucked up we got last weekend/winter vacation”. Hell, I enjoy my share of those conversations (well, perhaps not about sports), but I felt a more vital side of myself shrivelling with disuse.

I attempted to cage my more eccentric side. I learned to refer to my interests of writing and art – the very things that I at times feel make up the only real fibre of my being – as “hobbies”. I remember using that word for the first time and suppressing a cringe. More and more, I began to feel bitter and even angry at myself for not “trying hard enough” to adapt or make friends. Eventually I came to resent everything about both my surroundings and myself and stayed at home stewing for weeks on end with no social contact with anyone but my students and co-teachers.

And then there came the refreshing breaths of fresh air, just when I thought I was fully off the rocker, when I went to visit Andrea in Wonju.

These trips became absolutely key to my sanity. Through long talks in her kitchen or on her couch, we validated each other in everything we’d been similarly ruminating on: that Korea is chokingly bland, sharkishly forward moving, and above all lacking any noticeable variation from clothing to food to individual points of view. We usually were rather harsh due to pent up frustration.

While I think part of us each wanted the other to dispel those feelings by finding evidence against our respective observations and opinions, all we ever managed to bring to the table were more stories of vexation. In truth, we eventually found what I would probably classify as vindictive pleasure in tearing apart with complaints this place that had personally let us down so thoroughly. We’d set out on an adventure to immerse ourselves in a soul-expanding experience. What we got instead was exactly what we’d been trying to escape: a 9-5 desk job leaving little to no time to engage in our creative pursuits and a social world wherein doing things against the grain is for forgettable movie plots or bestselling novels. That is to say, for someone else.

It was also through these trips that I managed to finally put my finger on what bothered me so much at the airport when I first landed.

It had taken me a while to work up the courage to take the bus to see Andrea, and as such for the longest time my only experience of Korea was Cheongju. Cheongju’s buildings, Cheongju’s shops, Cheongju’s restaurants.

When I arrived in Wonju, therefore, I was a little disoriented. Not for its difference, it turned out, but for a little while I thought I hadn’t left Cheongju at all.

Buildings? Same blocky concrete plastered in bright an unappealing text signs.

Shops? Same brands, repeated every other ten stores.

Restaurants? Same chains, food stalls, and even style of family-run diners.

I don’t know how it’s possible, but it’s not just Cheongju-Wonju. I’ve also been to Daejeon, Boeun, Masan, and Gangneung as well as a few others that I passed through whilst traveling. How an entire country can look as though it was designed by a single architect is beyond my comprehension already, but what really blows my mind is that at no point did any city planner seem to want to give a sense of identity and pride to their metropolis enough to develop past the cookie cutter rectangular buildings that you learn to draw in perspectives class. I know it’s still pretty freshly built up, but this is truly on a whole other level.

Surprise wasn’t something I should have felt though, considering one end of Cheongju is identical to the other. I once had a friend try to direct me to where she was via bus by telling me, “Get out at the stoplights when you see a Dunkin Donuts and a Pizza Hut on the corner opposite.” Not only was the way made up entirely of stoplights, but the number of Dunkin Donuts and Pizza Hut juxtapositions was enough to make me run out of fingers on one hand.

I had noticed the bland exterior of Korea when I first looked out at the airport. I had wanted something more, had been certain that I would find it elsewhere. The sad truth set in eventually, however, that the textured, vibrant, vivacious world of South Korea in my head existed only there, a fantasy fed with the carefully selected photos of my Lonely Planet guide. Where I imagined this –

Or this –

Photo by Ricky Jones.

Or even this –

– what instead exists is this:

Photo by Ricky Jones.

And so Andrea’s and my conversations, ie. rants, continued in the face of unending bleakness.

What frustrated us almost more than the cookie-cutter-dollhouse world around us, however, was the attitude towards difference or variation – or worse still, foreigners.

I remember in my preparation to come to Korea feeling that I’d never be comfortable enough to act as anything other than a guest in the country. Indeed, everyone I spoke to insisted on the importance of assimilating and adapting with flexibility. Priding myself in being open-minded, I figured this would be no problem.

The problem lay, bafflingly, in being open-minded.

In a country where the majority of the population have not had the luxury of traveling outside of their country (certainly something I don’t blame them for – travel is expensive and the common Korean isn’t what you’d call rolling in financial security), it means that their concept of the world is unfortunately limited. And by limited I mean to the point of what in most other countries we’d call racist perceptions and beliefs.

I don’t mean to say that Koreans are all racist because that statement would be in and of itself racist. Very many are, however, extraordinarily ignorant for a populous that considers itself to be living securely in the 21st century and in a first world country. Black people will be asked if their skin washes off; other times they and those they’re with will be ostentatiously filmed as if they’re a spectacle. Waiters will only speak to the person who looks Asian at the table – even if they’re also a foreigner, and even if a more obvious-looking foreigner is speaking in very decent Korean to them. Andrea has been put on speaker phone while trying to order take out while being mocked for speaking Korean with an accent. I’ve had people ask for my photo on the street and to pose with their child – and sometimes not been asked permission at all but had my picture taken as I go about my business as if I were a zoo animal for their entertainment.

The thing is, foreigners are viewed as many things, but not (it increasingly feels) like people just the same as them. There feels to be a huge divide – an “us and them”, an Othering.

Sometimes it’s almost spectatorial, as described above. Other times it seems as though all we are are vessels from which to learn/practice English. Still other times we are objectified as status symbols to those we accompany. I’ve also encountered relationships which aren’t overtly negative but which simultaneously can only be described as something between being an endearing family pet and a mentally challenged relative. There’s also a frustrating number of Koreans I’ve encountered who genuinely believe all foreigners are all the same.

Now I know these are all rather judgmental claims, but they don’t come out of nowhere and I’m happy to go into examples.

In an exchange that I think best demonstrates the situation of us being English vessels, one of Andrea’s coworkers asked her what was the best way to approach a foreigner. She asked what context – a bar, perhaps?

“No, just in a cafe,” came the response.

She asked why he would want to start up a conversation.

“To practice English.”

Ah, yes. This happens quite a lot. Koreans coming up to you because you look foreign and expecting either a free English lesson or to convince you to give them private tutoring. I can’t recall how often I’ve been propositioned in this way – in a store, on a street corner, on a crowded bus as we stood shoulder to shoulder. Every time it’s the same.

“Hi! Where you from? How old are you? You teacher? Oh sorry, English not good. Can I have phone number?”

The conversation rarely lasts longer than five minutes before they start – very pushily – asking for your phone number.

Andrea had to explain to her coworker that this type of conversation is not only rude but invasive.

“What?” he asked, startled. “But what if they’re only working on their computer?”

Yes, Andrea confirmed, that only cemented the rudeness as they’re clearly already engaged with something. She had to explain that while it’s great to want to practice English, after working all day giving English lessons most expats want to unwind. If the only reason they’re being spoken to is to be solicited, the conversation isn’t likely going to go down well.

“It’s not like you’d go up to a Korean and do that, right?”

“Of course not,” he said, but looked confused as to how it was in any way the same thing.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful for my job. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been hired by the Korean government. It has given me an opportunity of a lifetime and the chance to pay off my looming student loans.

I do, however, resent the fact that accepting such a job makes it so I all but walk around with a sign on my forehead saying “I’m a foreigner” indicating a complete surrender to exist as a human being in the face of being a communal tool to be used, approached, even harassed at every whim. If you compare to other professions – such as being a doctor – they aren’t expected to continue diagnosing and tending the sick in their free time. Their privacy should be respected, as should ours.

For the moment I want to address the view of the foreigner as a status symbol. It’s a huge deal to be seen with a foreigner just as the ability to speak English has become a booster of self-import.

A Korean friend of mine has described this to me on several occasions. She boasted to her hairdresser that she was going to meet her waygook friend (me). He responded by being impressed that she could speak such good English as to have made a waygook friend at all. Later she commented on how she felt so special sitting in the cafe with the only foreigner, and how later still in the park people seemed to be looking at her more because of her white-girl company.

Don’t get me wrong: I love her dearly and she’s one of my closest friends I’ve made here. If not for her, I don’t think I’d have got through my first year here. I don’t think for a moment that she’s just using our relationship to bolster her social standing – but I do think that’s a perk of it, much like how you’re proud if a friend of yours gets famous and you’re seen around them.

Being very unfamous, however, it’s stuck with me as an unhealthy view of the foreigners in this country. It’s no wonder we’re not treated as human beings when the very nature of our ethnicity is enough to make some starstruck. It’s uncomfortable and dehumanizing and quite frankly damaging for Korean culture which in considering us different will perpetuate a xenophobic attitude indefinitely.

Obviously not each and every individual Korean feels this way, but it’s common enough to bring it up.

On the flip side is the somewhat condescending attitude of the foreigner being a slightly simple but likeable pet. I get this mostly at work where the older women see only my smiles of greeting contrasted by blank bewilderment when they speak to me in top speed Korean.

For the record, I have enough Korean to get me around a city, order food, and answer basic questions about where I’m from. I doubt, however, that even if I were to study every day for ten years that I’d be able to hold a comfortable staffroom conversation such as they’d expect. As such, I’ve developed a reputation of being sweet but otherwise daft. It doesn’t really bother me because, being a socially awkward introvert, I tend to avoid socially awkward interactions and this gives me (albeit guiltily) a good excuse.

That said it’s happened that I’ve been working in the staffroom before until right up to the end of the day and without realizing that I’m there they shut off the computers and I lose all my work. Upon noticing my horrorstruck face, the person responsible laughed in the same way one laughs at an adorable animal in peril.

To my considerable consternation, she then also told everyone who passed the staffroom about what had happened and they had a good laugh too. It’s one thing to experience something extraordinarily frustrating, and it’s another to be patronized whilst being completely helpless to express yourself or in any way make a fuss when everyone around is taking pleasure in your distress.

Because that’s another thing: if you don’t act as a model ambassador for your country 100% of the time, 1) you become vilified, and 2) suddenly every foreigner is aggressive.

This latter happened to me when an incident happened at a separate school one of my coworkers also taught at. I won’t go into the details of this incident, but it involved a misunderstanding on the guest English teacher’s part, unnecessary disciplining, several kids in tears, and a general blowing-out-of-proportion deal. It wasn’t the first problem with this teacher, unfortunately, and wouldn’t be the last either.

My coworker was understandably upset by the affair and confided in me. Or so I thought. Ultimately it came out that she was telling me so as to tell me never to do the same as him.

Somewhat offended, I asked her, “We’ve been teaching together for almost a year – have I ever given you a reason to think I’d do something like that?”

She looked confused. “You are both foreigners, so maybe you might not understand.”

I made to bite my tongue in a monumental effort of civility, but not before I got out, “Not all foreigners are the same.”

“Yes, but you are both Canadian, so maybe you are the same,” was her answer.

I had weathered quite a lot of her oblivious racism towards expats – her criticizing my clothes, my teaching, my pronunciation of both English and Korean words, my use of chopsticks (she took it upon herself to teach me despite my having learned since I was a kid), and at every opportunity pointing out my ignorance of “cultural differences” – but this was certainly the worst to date. I was incredibly hurt. We had never developed as close a relationship as what I had with certain other coworkers, but I had thought we had managed to get to a point of at least respect.

Obviously I can’t base a whole nation off one individual’s point of view, but I can say that this incident did open my eyes for the first time to the extent of blind prejudice that can exist in this country. There are no such things as discrimination laws, and as such my explanations that it was not correct for her to consider all Canadians/foreigners the same fell short of making the impact I’d hoped.

Though this was my first personal slap in the face, there are many stories of this coming up. Recently an Irish girl was sent a rejection letter to her job application due to the “alcoholism nature of [her] kind” (see full article from the BBC News here). There are also many bars – mostly in Seoul, the place claimed to be the most open minded – which refuse to admit any foreigners.

Some of these bars (such as the one in this article from the Korea Observer) try to justify their discrimination, saying “that customers should respect his decision as he has a lot more to lose than gain by having foreign customers in his bar”. Ironically when the issue was reversed and Koreans weren’t allowed into a bar in the Philippines, it was met with outrage. (I’ve tried to find an English news source for this, but to no avail; trust me though when I say I heard unending complaints about this in the staffroom).

On a much more serious note, sexual assaults on foreign women are dismissed lightly and often aren’t pursued by police at all, as outlined in this Korea Herald article. But it can be worse even than that.

Last year a Canadian English teacher pressed charges against the man who raped her. Though she initially won (despite being bribed by him and his family to stay quiet and leave the country), the case was appealed and she lost on the technicality that the police neglected to write down that she was raped in their report. Now she the victim is facing charges for testifying in court against him (see full article from CKNW here) and there’s next to nothing she can do about it (though crowdfunding support was set up for her by other local foreigners).

This second-class citizen standing of non-Koreans in this country is shocking and aggrieving. What’s more is that it’s both very difficult to find articles on the subject anywhere and rare that my Korean friends ever know what I’m talking about if I bring it up. The problem is that this mentality is so ingrained that it’s an invisible issue completely under the radar, except to those who are more sensitive to issues of ethnic prejudice due to growing up in countries where the shoulders of many social groups are constantly rubbing.

It must be said that in no way do I believe such prejudices are unique to Korea – it’s a sad fact that it’s ubiquitous throughout the world and to much worse extremes. Nor is the issue I take with the racism found in Korea due to the fact that “white people” are the ones a disadvantage. Obviously not. And for the record, the prejudices extend all the way across the board from Caucasian to non-Korean Asian.

The issue that I take is that though racism is so glaringly present within the Korean social workings it is not only is it overlooked, but if on the rare occasion anyone draws attention to it, then it is defended.

Another reason I felt so emotionally isolated during my time here is that I was never able to be honest about my opinion on Korea without being shut down and essentially shamed into tolerance.

I wasn’t “looking at the big picture”.

I wasn’t “trying to be open-minded”.

I had to “give it the benefit of the doubt”.

I had to “take it with a grain of salt because Korea’s new in the world of internationalism and is still building itself up”.

Worse still, I was “just being negative”.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever tried to be so god damned positive in my life. With the energy I expended on taking grains of salt with everything I experienced I might as well have been taking a pickaxe to a salt mine.

It came down to this every time:

was looking at the big picture, at Korea nested within an international setting and yet cloistering itself tighter than a nunnery.

My open-mindedness, as I mentioned before, was the issue in that I am blessed with having been raised in a very liberal country (by even more liberal parents) and therefore am painfully aware of the determinedly close-minded policies still rigidly guiding the people of this country into xenophobia.

And sure, I will give this country the benefit of the doubt in that its past is one full of turmoil, but a country that has propelled itself forward at the rate it has while attempting to go big on the international scale cannot be excused from multi-racial intolerance. The people who tolerate and even justify such intolerance are no better than the people who, when a child has done something wrong, say, “Oh, she just didn’t know any better”.

If there’s anything my time as teaching has taught me, it’s that this helps no one: the wrong remains and will likely continue, and the child learns that they can get away with it because its actions have been enabled. In the same way, every time someone defends Korea’s xenophobic policies, the bigotry continues unchecked.

When I heard about the Irish girl rejected for a job because of prejudices against her nationality, I shared it to my Facebook wall. Instead of equally indignant people commenting on it, I immediately was met with, “Well this happens everywhere”.

Yes, yes it does. But how does that make it okay? Intolerance is not justifiable anywhere. Wherever it might show up – and to whomever it might marginalize – it should be called out for what it is.

I’ve also been met with disgruntled Korea defenders who heavily imply that my Caucasian ethnicity robs me of my right to criticize (or even have an opinion that isn’t positive about) Korea and its people.

“You just don’t understand,” I am told.

This is fairly common and is actually another reason I’ve hesitated on speaking about any of these issues. I am the whitest white girl you’ll ever meet, yes. Does this mean my ethnicity should shame me into silence?

Last summer, I was sexually harassed and molested by a drunk older Korean man on my way home in front of a full bus load of people. Though all of them were staring, none of them did anything to intervene. I got off the bus a stop early in hopes to shake him off and to avoid him knowing where I live, but hampered by a 10kg box worth of groceries I wasn’t able to get off before he could follow me out, chase me down the crowded street, and physically assault me to the point that I had bruises and scratches on my arms the next day.

I ultimately managed to take refuge in a shop where the manager threw him out and sheltered me while I swept up my shattered nerves, but what had me shaken almost more than the violence was the nightmarish feeling of everyone watching but doing nothing. The people on the abnormally quiet bus were able to clearly hear everything he was saying to me (and my poor attempts at rejecting him in Korean). The people standing around the bus stop I got out at had stood around and actually laughed as they witnessed my struggle and increasing hysteria (much like how my older coworker had once laughed at me when I lost my work). It was this that made me feel so much more vulnerable than anything.

Although this was the worst of the experiences, I’ve been harassed by drunk old ajeossis regularly since arriving here. It’s an occurrence I’ve come to realize that is without doubt caused by my pale skin and blonde hair as these are the things they comment on most when asking if I’m a Russia-saram (prostitute).

As for whether or not anyone would have come to the aid of a young Korean woman in a similar context, there’s obviously no way of knowing, but I can’t help but feel that no one wanted to get involved because I was a foreigner. I don’t say this as self-pity, but as fact; it’s the same blasé attitude that led the aforementioned police officers to write up an incomplete report of the Canadian teacher’s rape, a standoffishness that is destructive in its inaction.

After all this, however, and shook up as I was about being both targeted for my race and then ignored because of it, a friend essentially told me, “Now you know how it feels to be a minority”.

White shaming indeed. Despite bristling at the unjustness of her implications – that just because on the outside I am a “privileged” Caucasian who’s faced no prior discrimination in her life (not even remotely true) – I felt that there was no arguing. There’s no getting around the infallible rhetoric of saying a non-(insert ethnicity) can’t criticize said ethnicity because to do so is considered racist and discriminatory. And yet if it’s directly affecting me, if my feelings and opinions are based on experience rather than hearsay, if my criticism comes from legitimately living and taking part within a social system, do I still not have the right to speak?

But I let it be. I festered in frustration. I bit my tongue into silence. I numbed my fingers from writing about anything that wasn’t positive in my life here. Eventually I became so waterlogged with depression that I didn’t leave my apartment for days except for work and to pick up ramen and milk.

I felt fully rejected by Korea by that point, that it would never be a place I could consider home because it by extension could only ever be able to see the differences in me. I look back to when I said I’d never feel fully comfortable enough in this country to not be a guest and shake my head. Eventually you want to feel like more than a guest in the city you’ve lived for over a year and a half, but I don’t think Korea will ever give me that liberty.

In a way, I guess my first impression that Korea was equivalent to a Pleasantville wasn’t that far off. The movie is centred around a stylized 50’s world in which things follow a regimented social order and are intolerant to difference and change.

If there’s anything that Korea feels like, it’s stepping back in time into the modest and conservative mentality of the 50’s. I guess I’ve always been curious about the past, part of me romanticizing it to the point that I have wondered what it would have been like to live through it.

And yet experiencing the social retrograde of moving from Canada to Korea has proven anything but romantic. Conservatism has individuals in a chokehold. Traditions have the future by the metaphorical balls. And xenophobia has all hopes of integrating into being a true part of the growing international world a pipe dream.

Everyone tends to critique North Korea for its cloistered attitude, its xenophobic extremism, and its unhealthy obsession with blood purity. Yet after reading extensively about my northern neighbours (particularly in the excellent book Nothing to Envy), I’ve found that what alarms me most is the similarity rather than contrast to the very country in which I inhabit. The only difference is that one shows the extremes to which the ideals of this country could be taken (though thankfully never were on this side of the DMZ).

Maybe I have no right to make any of these observations let alone arguments, but I don’t feel anyone should be making excuses for a country capable of taking care of itself. There are far too many posts out there pandering to an audience who wants to hear a one-sided argument. Then again, there are a lot of angry and embittered rants online about how much hate is felt towards Korea.

Although by nature of being a critique this post falls more into the latter, my aim was only to expose those things which I feel are often neglected when speaking about Korea. Granted it is a subjective post, but I did want to present it as objectively as possible too. Korea is not a place with sunlight shining out of its ass, pardon my French, but a place with sizeable flaws even if it tries to conceal them with cosmetics and Photoshop. That is to say it’s a place like any other human place.

To end on a positive note, because it is in my nature to persistently act the optimistic fool, I am hoping that things will be changing in the future. It’s beating a dead horse at this point, but the Sewol Ferry Accident was a huge wake up call to the nation as to the dangers of extreme conservatism (ie. not thinking for yourself but following the rules to the letter).

Then there are also kids like this who raise my hopes for the country heading in a better direction as the older generations phase out.

Even now, coworkers who are my age are doing things that in their parents’ eyes seem liberal: traveling, considering bigger career options, fostering dreams for what they’d really like to be doing.

Yet even as they tell me they can’t do their dream jobs (being locked into the social construct of set-path careers from which you cannot deviate else they suffer the consequences of never being able to reenter their previous profession because of job scarcity), it’s my hope that they’ll raise the next generation to be more daring. Many of the youth seem to be waking up to the inherent flaws in the system. It’s just a matter of whether or not they’ll make the changes for which they feel that distant itch.

As this is being written, however, the conservative government is tightening the noose. Xenophobic crackdowns are happening everywhere from ESL jobs being cut dramatically – up to 50% in several provinces including mine and Andrea’s – to absurd increased security and import taxes on incoming post. Over the summer, white collar workers were banned from (though they later changed the wording to “strongly encouraged against”) leaving the country on vacation so they spent their money in Korea rather than abroad. Things like this are only making the nation go backwards.

An appreciation of variance would do wonders for this country, especially within their own people who, in fostering their unique identities, could ultimately grow to think outside the box for the nation itself. As a teacher, I’m deeply saddened whenever I see a free-spirited student being hammered out by strict Korean regimens. Much like an assembly line in a factory, deviations to the canon are rejected if they come out as anything but the norm.

The result has a detrimental effect on the people who then have an abnormally high standard of “normal”. Consequences of this are feelings of self-loathing and low self-esteem (much like what I experienced), a roaring plastic surgery fad, and suicide. It’s not hard to believe when there is such a singular vision of what it means to be successful or smart or even beautiful:

Many years worth of Korean beauty contestant winners.

The people are breaking under the weight of such expectations even as they try to uphold the traditions for which they’ve been made responsible. An unfortunate result of this is that as far ahead in technology and economics they have rocketed, they have shackled their own ankles of social progress.

“We’ve always done it this way” is the most dangerous phrase in the world, and I hope Korea realizes that sooner rather than later.


8 thoughts on ““We’ve Always Done It This Way”: A Critique of Xenophobia in South Korea

  1. You go girl! I am SO very proud of you for writing such an honest and eloquent piece. I am proud of you for sticking it out and for always trying to find the positive of your choice to live abroad, in a country where you are feeling so claustrophobic and unwelcome. I would have come home months ago! I am sorry that you have had to live through all of those experiences, with no family and few friends to support you. You amaze me. You are so strong and so courageous and so wise and I think you need to keep writing like this. People need to know and understand – all of the good and not so good things that are going on with both you and Andrea. Keep writing, don’t ever stop. I for one will keep reading. xx

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  2. Now you’ve taken your own advice of not saying “We’ve Always Done It This Way” as to keeping your blog more upbeat even if you have to lock your realities in a trunk and hide the key. Write it ALL. The truth. That is what is meant to be written and shared. This is your reality page, not a fantasy. I think you treated the topic maturely and fairly. Everyone will always come away with their own experiences in their travels abroad. But you must write about YOURS. The real deal.
    Well done, my brave, brilliant daughter!

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    1. “What became painfully apparent however was that I may be an introvert, but I required people of like mind around me to share creative sparks with. I could not, I discovered, create in a void. And so I lost my art too and fell into a deep despair of a kind I’d never experienced before: being a dreamer in a world of oppressive concrete realists.”
      “I attempted to cage my more eccentric side. I learned to refer to my interests of writing and art – the very things that I at times feel make up the only real fibre of my being – as “hobbies”. I remember using that word for the first time and suppressing a cringe. More and more, I began to feel bitter and even angry at myself for not “trying hard enough” to adapt or make friends.”
      The worst feeling…to feel a traitor to what is the Gift that is so uniquely yours in a world of clones and conformity.

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      1. And to do with that first quote from you…Albert Schweitzer said “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
        May your flame always be rekindled and fanned!!!

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  3. Amazing post! Thank you sharing your experiences in such a thoughtful, authentic manner. I realize that you learn from being tested, but I still wish that you had an easier time.

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  4. OMG! I just watched the student’s video. Again, OMG!

    (Thank you so much for reminding me.)

    Quick initial thoughts on this:

    Is he going to be (or already in) trouble for this stunning, amazing, brave, thoughtful and technically well done production? (From it I’m not sure if he’s back in Korea.)

    Is there any chance at all this might fall unto sympathetic and powerful ears and that his excellent suggestions might eventually see the light of day?

    Here’s an old but totally related sad experience in my life that backs up what he was saying late in the video:

    About 30 years ago I went on a blind date with a Japanese professor attending classes at a local college in Vermont known for its exchange programs with Japan. My long time friend’s wife (a U.S. non-Japanese woman who was active in that exchange program) arranged the dinner date and she and her husband went with us. It was pleasant enough, but with significant language difficulties, I didn’t learn a lot about her. This was just at the end of the program and she went home within the week.

    Later I asked my friend’s wife (I don’t remember her name right now — for simplicity let’s call her Julie) about her (let’s use Aiko). She said that she had not heard from Aiko. Months later Julie told me that she still hadn’t heard from her.

    Perhaps a year after the blind date, Julie called me. She had been in touch with Aiko’s family, but they claimed not to know where Aiko was.

    By using all the contacts she had in Japan had only now found out what had happened to Aiko.

    Aiko was about 30. She had not attended any of the top Japanese universities and had been teaching a non-technical subject at a lesser college. She hadn’t ever married. Julie told me that her family — particularly her father — was not proud of her for all the above and that Aiko had told her of how that weighed so heavily on her.

    When Aiko got back to Japan, her father had confronted her about what a disappoint she was.

    Shortly thereafter Aiko walked into the sea.

    Her family refused to confirm the above with Julie … and denied knowing anything about it.

    So the young student’s mention of suicide was no exaggeration at all.

    I am so tempted to post his video for the world to see, but I’m not comfortable with that thought at the moment.

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    1. That is really tragic…all the more so for it being so common. I’ve heard my co-teachers talk about the stress they went through in taking their exit exams to determine which university they’d go to and it’s madness. Law suits are made about best possible test answers that are disputable/ambiguous (ex: do we write a date that was taught wrong but is technically what was according to our textbooks or the real answer but which is technically wrong because of the official exam answer sheets which follow the textbooks?).

      There’s also a saying that if you sleep less than 3 hours a night, you get into the top university. If you sleep 4 hours a night, you get into a good university. If you sleep 5 hours a night, you get into a bad university. And if you sleep 6 or more hours a night, you don’t get into university at all.

      It’s absurdity and, as the boy wisely says in his video, child abuse.

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