Posts Tagged ‘discrimination’

Are you an iHerb customer? I am. Love iHerb. Brown basmati rice, organic icing mix, butterscotch chips, herbal medicine, quinoa, macaroni and cheese, glutton free flour…it’s all there. And the shipping is fast and mostly reliable. I use iHerb all the time and so do most expats I know.

I was putting in my latest order yesterday when I learned that there was a new shipping option called ‘Direct Korean Postal.’ It takes only 4-7 business days to get your order, it doesn’t have a 6 item maximum purchase like the CJ GLS shipping option, and until Dec 31st it’s 30% off. Sounds awesome right?

So I put in my order for all manner of things I’ll need postpartum and choose the Direct Korean Postal option…only to learn when it came time to put in my address that I had to include my Korean id number…and surprise surprise…I see the message ‘Resident Registration Number is not Valid !’

You see, Korean id numbers are 13 numbers long. The first 6 numbers are your birth date. The 7th number denotes a) your gender b) the time period in which you were born c) your Korean/foreign status. For instance, 1 is the number for Korean men born in the 20th century and 2 is the number for Korean women born in the 20th century, but 5 and 6 are the numbers for foreigners born in the same time period.

And what does that mean? Most Korean websites will not recognize 5 or 6 as ‘legitimate’ id numbers. We’re foreigners you see. And foreigners are just passing through. We aren’t expected to stay or participate or marry or have kids or be part of society. We’re just backpackers passing through for a year and could never ever need to negotiate a Korean website right?

Except now I can’t even use an American website correctly because it is configured with the Korean postal service which refuses to acknowledge either me or my id number as valid.

I messaged iHerb directly, and they sent me onto the people who deal with shipping to Korea (korea@iherb.com). They responded with a curt email stating, “Korea Postal is available to Korean only at this moment.(customers who has RRN). We are using the system that provided from Korea Postal Service but it only works on Korean RRN.”

Now, I could use the other shipping option…although it’s not really an option if it’s the only thing I can use. But why should I be limited because there is a 6 instead of a 2 in my id? And yes, I could put it in my husband’s name and send it to his work (as we don’t have a security guard in our building, and I’m rarely home, they won’t allow a package to be dropped off unattended outside of our door). But why should I have to send my Mother’s Milk tea which increases’ milk supply and perineum healing spray to my husband’s company? Seriously.
I’ve talked before about how I sometimes feel like a dependent woman not because of some kind of crazy patriarchal husband demands but because Korean society isn’t set up for a person like me who is just trying to live a normal life and get stuff done like everyone else. And so it sucks that I either have to pay more and wait longer (because I have to put things in smaller and more frequent orders than one large order), just because of a freaking number and a freaking system that people refuse to change. And now this nonsense is happening with an AMERICAN website. It’s such a simple change. And it’s such an unnecessary obstacle to being able to participate properly in Korean society. And it’s incredibly unfortunate that iHerb has decided to participate in the discrimination.

Do you think this is wrong? Contact iHerb and share your frustrations… info@iherb.com

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Wow. So many thoughts going on in my head right now.  Today was our every once and a while English speaker’s brunch on the US army base at church.  Mr. Lee and I were sitting with an American expat expat couple – meaning the husband works as a businessman for a multinational corporation, and they live a very American expat experience in terms of living in foreign national housing and sending their son to an international school.  The wife is now heavily involved in a North Korean defector program which helps to bring North Koreans to the South, resettle them, and advocate for their human rights.  In addition to tutoring a young defector in English, she is also involved in trying to make the organization an NGO which is causing some conflicts.  The original mission statement written in preparation for applying for NGO status was rejected by the Koreans involved in the process because, for legal, social, and safety reasons, it was too explicit in terms of defining and stating their actual role.  The Koreans’ position, and the legal advice given to my church friend by an American expat lawyer, is to be very vague in terms of the work they do – perhaps even omitting ‘North Korea’ from the statement altogether.  However, the Westerners (mostly American?) I think, were very much against vague statements.  Therefore, my friend was asking our opinion on the situation.

Mr. Lee, an American English university prof, and myself all agreed that from the Korean perspective, the vague statement was best.  Not only is it necessary from a legal perspective, but also because in these sorts of things Korean just is vague.  I read somewhere that English puts the responsibility for providing meaning on the speaker while Korean puts that responsibility on the listener.  I used to think that so much of my confusion in conversation with Koreans (especially those who are older or in positions of power) had to do with my low Korean ability, but I’ve come to realize that part of it is my inability to read between the lines and speakers’ propensity to make vague statements, especially when the topic requires sensitive treatment.  But in this specific situation with the North Korean group, I also told my friend that I understood the Westerners’ need to have something specific on paper.  With vague statements, it might seem to them that the group was unfocused, or worse yet, attempting to deceive in a malicious way.  In the end we concluded that when it comes to Westerners and Koreans working together, communication problems happen less because of a difference in actual language, but in the expectations each side has because of their linguistic and cultural views.  I advised my friend to go with the vague statement, but also to make sure that the Westerners were told why (culturally, not just legally), such a statement was needed, and to communicate this fact in a way Westerners would appreciate and trust.

My friend also discussed the difficulties in working on North Korean issues because many North Koreans themselves felt it was inappropriate for anyone but North Koreans to be involved in developing programs for defectors, and how many South Koreans reacted very negatively to her helping this middle school aged defector.  Together, we all discussed some of the history behind discrimination against defectors and how Americans could get involved in North Korean issues without angering North Koreans themselves.  It was a good and productive conversation…but it was also tiring.  Tiring because it was about trying to explain South Koreans to an American, trying to explain Americans to a South Korean, and trying to validate everyone’s perspective while bringing them into dialogue with one another.

In the same conversation, by friend mentioned that she was looking for non violent, non sexual, subtitled in Korean English movies for her North Korean student because she wanted to give her some fun things to study and be able to help her conversation skills by discussing the movies they watched together.  However, being an American expat couple, they didn’t have many subtitled movies.  Mr. Lee has over 700 movies, most including subtitles, so I offered to peruse our shelves and find something for her.  While doing so, Mr. Lee remembered that he had a movie called 우리학교 (Our School); the movie is about a school that was once sponsored by North Korea in Japan where ethnic Korean students (often North Korean passport holders) go to school in Japan.  He though my friend might like the movie because of her interest in North Korea.  Well, I was also intrigued by the movie, so I sat down and watched it this afternoon.  Before watching it, Mr. Lee cautioned me that it was important to focus on the sentiment behind the movie and understand that the film was the darling of netizens both because it showed the kind of school that rarely exists in South Korea these days, and also because the movie focused on jung, in this case, the underlying connection between people of Korean decent regardless of country.

So I watched it.  And then it ended.  And then I sat blankly looking at the screen trying to process all the different thoughts and emotions running through my head.  First off, even with my limited Korean skills, there is an obvious difference between the sentiment conveyed in Korean and the sentiment translated into English.  In the film, ‘Korea’ is often referred to as ‘Joseon’ which is the North Korean term for the whole of Korea, but an English speaker would have a very different emotion when reading the translated ‘Korea’.  The students also talk about Korea (North) and Korean as ‘our country’ and ‘our language’ which is the normal way South Koreans talk about their country and language, but when 3rd generation ethnic Koreans living in Japan use these phrases (and when they have North Korean passports), the English ‘Korea’ and ‘Koreans’ can’t really communicate the sentiment implicit in those phrases.  There were a lot of those kinds of linguistic gaps for me, so I wonder how many other things were there for native Korean speakers.

The film also dealt with the discrimination such groups face (difficulty entering Japanese universities if they are educated at Korean schools, inability to compete for school titles in sports, and protests against the existence of such schools), and interestingly enough, it dealt with the graduating class’ trip to ‘the Fatherland’ or North Korea and the students’ feelings of love toward North Korea after returning (exacerbated by protests from right-wing Japanese upon their return to Japan). 

Throughout the whole movie I was trying to understand everyone.  These Koreans in Japan – their grandparents and great grandparents were brought to Japan as labourers to do the lowest of the low work.  And then Japanese rule ends in Korea, but the Korean War breaks out, so nobody returns home.  After the War, North Korea is actually more prosperous for a time, so many of the Koreans in Japan choose North Korean citizenship and allegiance, and they were supported by North Korea at the same time they were being discriminated against by Japan.  So of course this new generation, who has had protests outside their school, and not been able to wear the traditional Korean hanbok at times because it might draw violence feel a connection to a country that is mythologized in the textbooks they use and folk songs they sing.  And then they go there and see the best of the best of Pyeongyang – of course they love North Korea. 

But then I also put myself in the shoes of the Japanese – not those who want to prevent children’s’ sports teams from competing on a regional or national level, or those who threaten violence or impose discriminatory policies, but those who might understandably be annoyed by a group of people who talk about ‘our people’ and ‘our language’ living in their midst when the North Korean government has kidnapped Japanese citizens and put the country at risk with missiles and nuclear tests.  And although the movie glosses over the ideological slant of the school, it’s pretty obvious that the school is very pro-North Korea.

And then I tried to understand how Koreans might feel connected to these people who, although they are interested in South Korea and unification, feel allegiance to the North.  There’s definitely a feeling of connection because it’s often easier to acknowledge a common enemy in Japan than to recognize the massive mindset differences between North and South at this point in history which will make reunification a monumental task if we ever make it to that point.  Of course, the movie really plays on the sentimentality of persecuted people of Korean ancestry trying to rediscover and keep alive Korean clothes, music, and dance even as those in the South are abandoning these aspects of culture.  So yeah, I get why this played well in the South.

But as a non-ethnic Korean who is part of a Korean family, the movie also upsets me because in the present day, bicultural Korean-____ children, especially those with a parent from Southeast Asia, face massive discrimination in Korea.  Here are children with a Korean family name, who were born and raised in Korea, and who speak perfect Korean who are considered other or lower or uncomfortable to be around because as ‘mixed’ people, Koreans can’t feel the same jung for them.  I wish people could watch the discrimination of ethnic Koreans abroad and also apply those feelings of rage to how non-ethnic Koreans are sometimes treated on Korean soil.

And then, because this is just how my brain works, I also had to think of how this movie might play to an American expat with an interest in North Korean defectors.  How, as part of a country with an ideal of people being able to belong to a country based on immigrating to a new land and settling there, she would have a hard time understanding how citizenship, belonging, and nation work in East Asia.  

And then my head nearly exploded with trying to not only understand but also harmonize all these very different perspectives.  Just yesterday I was sitting at Costco eating my post-Lent piece of cheese pizza and thinking (because I do most of my thinking in the middle of mundane tasks), of how my children were going to be blessed because they were going to be raised with three very distinct identities – Canadian, Korean, and Orthodox Christian.  At that moment, I was thinking that they would be blessed because their various perspectives would help them to be more tolerant and able to apply what they knew about harmonizing differences to other situations and contexts.  But now I’m also reminded that although in this modern and globalized a background in multiple perspectives is the future of our world, it’s also easier to just hold on to one identity.  It’s easier just to be a right-wing Japanese protestor confident in your assertion that life would be better without ethnic Koreans in your backyard.  It is easier for a ethnic Korean 3rd generation middle schooler to decide their identity is North Korean instead of a complex North Korean-ethnic Korean-Japanese resident identity.  And it would certainly have been easier for me to have stayed in small town Ontario, stayed mainstream Protestant, and married someone from the same background.  So much easier. 

In the end, I truly believe in the importance of diversity, the beauty of complexity, and the necessity of empathy.  Empathy is really a skill that modern people need to develop to help them to communicate, interact, and solve world problems, but it sure is hard sometimes.  It sure is hard.

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In addition to pink parking spaces (for women who are ‘bad drivers’ don’t you know, and the only ones who take kids anywhere – thus needing the larger parking space), more toilets in newer buildings, and a day off per month for menstrual cramps (at workplaces I’ve never been an employee of), women’s rights are now being furthered in this fair city by discussions about this ‘problem:’

The city government is seeking to add female figures beside the male ones on every crosswalk traffic light in the capital. It has submitted a proposal to a policy-setting committee of the National Policy Agency (NPA) that female figures should be added to the traffic lights.

“It constitutes discrimination against women that only male figures are in crosswalk traffic lights,” the city said in the proposal. In the proposed new signal, a couple wears pants and a skirt, respectively, in the red and green signs.

And did I mention that the whole project is slated to cost 24 billion won ($21 million dollars US)?

I think this is yet another indication of a basic policy making problem which occurs over and over again here. Very serious problems are dealt with by making cosmetic corrections or by applying glossy band aid solutions.

This example actually reminds me some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments I’ve had in the seminar section of my presentation class. While discussing problems and solutions with regard to gender discrimination in small groups, I’ve overheard again and again by female students that Korea is a good place for women because boyfriends carry girlfriends’ bags. Seriously, over and over again. On good days, I hope that this means that my girls have not had to face any serious obstacles in their lives thus far. Girls are just as educated as boys. University age women don’t have to do military service which seems to allow them more chances to travel, study abroad, and enjoy life in their mid-20’s. Therefore, maybe at this point, life seems pretty pro-female….until getting a job requires weight loss and plastic surgery, or female team members start being excluded from decision making or senior positions, or before they get fired for having a child or find themselves overwhelmed by the double burden. Perhaps, (thankfully?) for today’s Korean girls, they are able to get into their 20’s without significant gender barriers, but there must be still the knowledge of what is coming as most of the female students in the class we’re talking about parenting in, wrote in their most recent assignment that they have no plans to get married either because they don’t think they can be a career woman and a wife, or because they think the burden of marriage (their words) is incompatible with modern womanhood. I seriously doubt that those bright girls will see a skirted figure on a crosswalk and say ‘Wow! I think it possible to be a working woman and a wife because society now includes me in its traffic signals.’’

And about that skirted figure – nobody in the government has thought about this?

Some people, including many women, also question whether the signals are gender discriminative, finding fault with the city’s proposal. In representations of the new traffic lights released by the city, the new signals show two people — one wearing pants and the other a skirt.

“The idea that a woman should wear a skirt is more sexually discriminative, I guess. I think the figure in the current one doesn’t have any gender,” an Internet user said.

Sigh. There’s so many other things that money could be going to: maternity leave, parental leave, safe childcare facilities, childcare facilities in government offices!, shelters and support for victims of domestic violence, training for police officers as to how to deal with rape and domestic violence victims……and oh so many more. But those are hard things to develop (properly) and implement (properly). And then we couldn’t point to a visible sign on every street corner and say ‘see, men and women are equally represented on crosswalks, so of course they are equal.’

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Well this story keeps on popping up every month or so – the idea that Korean men marrying women from abroad should do some kind of ‘education course’ to reduce the amount of domestic violence and prejudice some women face in these kinds of marriages. The difference is that this article actually provides some specifics. The article states that Korean men will have to attend a three hour class on the countries in question and incidents from the past. Men whose prospective brides come from Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Thailand are going to be targeted first because the vast amount of visa applications from immigrant wives (and bicultural divorces) come from these countries. Men who stay in these countries for 45 days will be exempt, and men whose brides stay in Korea for 90 days will be exempt from the course.

Ok, so I feel like a bitch for complaining about something which seems on one level to be a positive step in acknowledging the shameful behaviour some of these husbands have with their ‘gonna-go-‘n-by-a-virgin-bride’ mentality. But I think there are some things that have to be critiqued here.

Have you ever been through an ‘education session’ about Korean culture? I have. I have been to many. And it’s mindboggling how Koreans themselves in charge of such sessions can be a) so horribly boring talking about their own culture and b) so perpetually out of touch in terms of what expats really need to know about Korea. The standard curriculum is kimchee (it’s healthy don’t you know?), Korea’s miraculous 4 seasons (what do you mean other countries have 4 seasons? i.m.p.o.s.s.i.b.l.e.), Koreans respect their elders (really…other people around the room give up seats to elderly people?…but then I don’t know how else to explain what Koreans mean when they respect their elders?…), and it goes downhill from there. Now, I know this class isn’t going to be Koreans telling expats about Korea, but unless they bring in actual women from the actual target countries, I worry about how the vast differences and nuances of these 7 countries are going to be presented…and of course, how all this information is going to be put into 3 hours. I actually don’t blame the presenters for the most part. Usually the vision for such sessions is woefully underdeveloped which is not very helpful for presenters. But then if these classes lack vision, organization, and development, even if the presenters are from the countries in question, I still don’t think they stand a chance.

But beyond worrying about the kind of info and method of presenting the material, a larger concern remains. Just what good is three hours going to do? If we sat all the men in the world down together and said, ‘You know what? It’s not very nice to hit/slap/punch/smack/kick/beat/rape or abuse women in any form,’ do you think violence against women would cease to be? Would men raised watching their mothers abused or within a culture where violence is acceptable suddenly say ‘Oh yeah! You’re right! I’ll never do that again!!!’ ‘Education’ is less important in international marriage abuse than systematic sexism and other social problems including the prevalence of all forms of domestic violence, cultural superiority (Koreans are better than South East Asians), and economic differences.

It seems I’m not alone in these thoughts:

“International marriage matchmaking firms have Korean men choose the nationality, age, school career and several other conditions of their future wives. Then the men are like, ‘Oh, my friend said Vietnamese women are good, and considering my age of 42, a woman in their early 20s will be nice as I like young girls.’ Then the firms give them a list of several candidates meeting the conditions. It’s like selecting a product,” said Kim Jun-gu at the Daejeon Migrant Women Rights Center. “That is the basic system of many interracial marriages here, and what will three hours of education change?”

There’s also this very important point which differentiates many brides from these target countries from Korean brides:

Kim said such a mindset partly results from the fact that the men pay money to go to foreign countries…

Yep, that’s right. There’s a money and a marriage broker angle here, and until major changes are made to this system, many potential Korean grooms using these services will continue to see women from a product/possession standpoint. And then there was the case that really sparked the outrage that I posted about a while back: a Vietnamese woman murdered 8 days after her marriage to a Korean man. The groom had been married before and had a history of severe mental illness. That’s an issue that disclosure – not education of Korean men – needs to address.

I think Korea is very good at surface solutions. When I was showing around a visitor from home one time, he remarked that Korea must be a very good place for disabled people to live because there are many special blocks on the sidewalk which help the visually impaired. It’s true, we have brail on the elevators, audio sounds at crosswalks in certain neighbourhoods, signs saying people with disabilities or certain injuries have priority in seating….but the actual way people are treated is very different, and the opportunities and view on people with disabilities’ potential are very limited. Likewise, we’ve got ‘pink parking spaces’ for women (larger spots cause you know we can’t drive and we’re the only ones who care for the babies), a day off for menstruation every month (never worked at a place where I could actually get such a day off), and a push for more female washrooms….but we still have the lowest participation of working women in the OECD, major glass ceiling problems etc etc. I know a lot of Western women who praise some of these initiatives and other surface changes like nice nursing rooms in department stores. These changes can make your daily life a little easier as you struggle to get a car seat between two cars forced ridiculously close to each other because of parking space constraints. But as outsiders, partners of Western men, or spouses of men in high positions in Western companies or the military with major perks meaning their wives do not work, many of these women do not have to really live the systematic sexism embedded in society.

So I would like to see this solution as a positive step forward, and I would like to applaud the idea that certain men need to be more sensitive to their wives and knowledgeable about the cultures they come from…but I’ve seen enough of these kinds of policies to know that most likely these classes will be a waste of 3 hours.

In other international marriage news,

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) ruled Thursday that street banners advertizing marriage to women from other countries treated them as merchandise and was a violation of their human rights…The commission also advised it to come up with measures to prevent such advertisements from being put up in public again and give supervising civil servants courses on human rights…The banner read: “Blowout sale for 9.8 million won for men wanting to marry Vietnamese women on the commemoration of Korea’s advance into the second round of the World Cup.”

The happy part of this story for me, other than the fact that at the very least the NHRC and local government recognize that this kind of stuff is unacceptable and damaging, is that the complaint was filed by a 45 year old man named Jang. I wish we had more information about him. Is he a human rights activist? I personally have the secret hope that he is the husband of an expat wife. But anyways, well done him. If only all those business cards on the subway advertising virgin Chinese brides would go away too.

And finally, an article about international marriage that talks about a Western woman marrying (and then divorcing) a Korean, a Korean woman marrying a Westerner (shocking!!!), and a Western husband musing about international marriage successes and failures. I really really believe that women from South East Asia/China/Mongolia etc should be highlighted in stories about international marriage. These women are the majority in the statistics, these women tend to, as a group, experience the most prejudice, and these women have the most disadvantages working against them (money, class, education, lack of family in Korea etc). And I do think that stories of their mistreatment must be told. But…I also really feel that stories which highlight Korean men marrying Southeast Asian women are meant to distract people from the culturally more uncomfortable fact that Korean women also marry expat men. And expat men are almost always left out of international marriage discussions (except when fluent Korean white men with grown biracial children are paraded out on tv – and then it’s more about family than dissecting the white man-Korean woman relationship). I think highlighting these other groups fills out the larger picture of what is happening in international marriages, and since KW/WM or WF/KM relationships tend to have fewer gaps in terms of social or educational factors, I think these marriages can also serve as a different example of what is possible for international relationships.

I also enjoyed the final musings in this article about miscommunication in marriage which I’ll end this post with.

But neither, he stressed, should cultural differences be overemphasized.

“Do not put all your arguments and misunderstandings on the account of the cultural gap. It is sometimes a convenient way to avoid the real issue, which is not always culture-related.”

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I recently started toying with the idea of inviting guests to this site to blog about relevant issues, and last night it hit me that I knew the perfect person to kick this project off. I emailed him at 8:40 pm my time, and like the super blogger he is, he deposited this gem of a post in my inbox at 7:29 am. He has an important voice often ignored in discussions about international marriage in Korea, and I do hope that he’ll return now and then to share his thoughts and experiences because he really is a fabulous writer with an important perspective to share.

So without further ado, the story of Messrs. Stephen and Kichan Song.

Hello all,
I am feeling rather honoured to be asked to contribute to this fine journal of an interesting and valued life. It is nice to think you have a perspective on things that might comfort, entertain or ultimately annoy but let’s see if we can get through the next 15 minutes and emerge friends or at least polite acquaintances.

I am not an aggressive individual nor do I shy away from confrontation when needed and/or required. I have reached a milestone in my life ( 31). It is a fabulous moment when you stop worrying about conforming to anyone else’s ideals except your own, similar to the moment when you pack away the hot pants, stop caring about fashion and start caring about style. Everything becomes clearer, age becomes less relevant and student politics give way to things that bloody upset you and you take to the blogsphere.

Let me enlighten you and your confusion to the strange ramblings of this Irishman.

Five months ago I was married. It was the culmination of a four year relationship, a change of continents (Asia to Europe) and two years of paperwork which nearly drove me to applying for a firearm license and bringing justice to a lax bureaucracy. It wasn’t easy getting to “I do” but yes we did and thankfully we could in the Sangria soaked land of Spain we had chosen to call home. I say it was possible for the following reason; my other half is a man.

Now I am aware that this is very much a proverbial hot potato in the world at present, some countries do, most countries don’t, many support, many are against. I am not interested in the debate anymore, in the same way I am weary of discussing whether teenagers should have access to free contraception or women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. These are the issues that beggar belief that they are STILL being debated in the year 2010. Less intercourse is undertaken before invading a sovereign nation. Anyway, there, rant over, that is for another day, I am here to discuss how this nonsense disseminates from a central source and slowly filters down until it lands in your inbox bearing the following legend:

You do not exist.

Let me whirl back further a little. I mentioned I am married, what I share in common with Msleetobe is that I am also married to a Korean. A wonderful, challenging, dwen-chan jigae making Korean. He is a photographer, a fellow traveller and most wonderful of all, my husband, legally, unequivocally, certificate-provingly, my husband.
We were married in a simple civil wedding in Madrid in June this year. Our family and friends in attendance followed by a good old nosh up on tapas and champagne and a honeymoon in South America. It is a story repeated all over the world by couples everyday. At the registry office no mention was made of anything unusual or extra-ordinary, no special room or official was designated, we were not required to sign a pink certificate instead of a blue one, we simply married and that amigos was that. We. Are. Married.

Now, let us zoom forwards again in time. As I am writing this in fact, sitting in my apartment in Buenos Aires there is a feature on the T.V. about the fact that Argentina recently passed the same-sex marriage act and the first licenses have just been granted. ( I am on a 6 month transfer to the city in case you’re befuddled) The news crews and their various background leanings are out to get the reactions and of course you can imagine the different rhetoric being passed back and forth, I switch it off. I am longer interested in people’s opinions on the matter only that it IS. My husband and I have been talking recently about the future, we agreed to come to Spain for 5 years and then reassess. We are about half way so the inevitable chat happened, what we miss, what he wants to do , that fabulous sam-gyup-sal (BBQ pork) restaurant in Namsam, his family and my in-laws, friends and opportunities. We have been through the hurdles on the family front. A traditional, country family is his origin and concerns were naturally high about their reaction to the marriage. For the first four years of our courtship I was the nameless, out of sight ‘lover’, who was mentioned only in passing at national holidays and never presented for inspection. With the marriage looming it went from being a strong suggestion to a demand from me that he must tell them, our shared Korean friends also expressed this sentiment and so he did.

There was a stunned silence for a while. Luckily his sister who is married to an Australian and lives in Melbourne, thereby being a little more exposed to the world and it’s ways, acted as a selfless bridge of love and understanding and helped thaw the ice which as it turned out was merely more of a frost. They accepted us, because as reason and logic would have it, what else could they do?
I cannot say that as yet we are as bosom buddies, sadly my Korean is not at the level it should be and living in Spain and conquering that language had to take priority but I will continue to improve and one day I hope it is me in the kitchen during Chuseok ( Harvest festival) feverishly frying vegetables and seafood and cursing the laziness of the men folk before sitting down to a thoroughly mind-numbing game of go-stop while politely declining the soju.

In fact interestingly, the biggest challenge to date is how to address me. Korean being the title loving language that it is, every body has a certain honorific/ pet name in every branch of the family. Unfortunately for the Song family, they are very much gender specific and I and they find themselves in the awkward circumstance of perhaps offending me by what they say. In English we could euphemize and say ‘partner’ or ‘significant other’ but this won’t do at all in Korean, it belittles status but calling us both ‘nampyong’ (husband) would cause blushes and guffaws all round. I am a linguistic refugee on the peninsula. They have settled for calling my by my name for now, which is as it should be. (although my sister in law confided that more often than that I am known as Kichan’s Stephen, thereby placing the honorific squarely on his shoulders. Confucius would approve.

So to bring this back to my point. While contemplating the future, I was curious to know by what means I could return to Seoul, having been there previously as a teacher on that damnable E-2 visa I wanted to know what I would now be allowed in on. So, as a matter of course, I typed a respectful email and sent it to the embassies in Madrid, London and Dublin, the countries to which I am a paid up citizen. Madrid and Dublin simply ignored me even after re-sending 4 times. Finally, perhaps tired of my name in the inbox the consul in London responded. He had been in touch with Seoul and they had stated that under current Korean Law:

You do not exist as a legal entity.

When I called to question this a very angry consul simply reiterated his email. I questioned whether he meant I am not legally recognised as an individual or that my marriage is not. He said that in Korea I am not legally married and neither is my husband, therefore I cannot be treated as the equal of a wife. When I further questioned the possibility of this changing or another avenue for to explore, he simply responded “Not in Korea” and put the phone down.

Needless to say I was a little peeved. It is one to tell me that at present I am unable to apply for a visa, it is quite another to tell me that I am not legally married when I clearly am. Following our marriage my husband immediately gained the right to permanent residence in Spain and the right to apply for residence in both Ireland and the UK. I actually lost legal status in Korea.

It should be stated how much I love Korea and Korean culture, how much a part of my existence it is now, the pride I have in the cultural heritage and legacy of my husband’s people and we still share the dream of one day retiring to Gangwon-do and buying an old house to do up in out dotage. What fills me with despair is the absolute black and white philosophy of the ruling and domineering belief in what Korea is. What it means to be Korean and how deep a people can shove their heads in the sand about the world and the nasty elements they don’t want from it. Including me.

I am impressed by the brave efforts of the individuals who are trying to change the perceptions from within. I remember the angry boiling heartache of hearing ‘educated’ college kids and adults refer to homosexuals as strange and scary and ugly. I remember a principal of a college referring to the gay corruption of Korean youth by foreigners who then attempted to commit suicide due to the shame of being caught. I remember the unfortunate woman who knocked on my door to explain the evils of homosexuality to me ( after being tipped off) and I particularly remember her fleeing in terror down the street about 6 minutes later. I told her what I want all of Korea to know, it is an old sentiment but an important one. It will prevent your children and grandchildren from being scared, alone and ashamed.

Open your eyes, embrace diversity, get used to it.

We. Do. Exist. ( I have the certificate to prove it!)

Stephen Paul Song (Spwilletts@gmail.com)

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Last night Mr. Lee arrived at my house carrying a huge box filled with…our invitations!!! (More on those later)  With great glee I ripped open the box and started pulling out invites and snapping pictures of them which I intend to put on this blog at some point.  Mr. Lee took the camera out of my hands and started trying to take pictures of me + invitations, probably because he wanted to capture the glee on my face. 

But contrary to his expectations, I snatched the camera out of his hands in horror shouting ‘No – No pictures of me on my blog!’  He became very confused.  From his standpoint, why should do I have a blog if I don’t have pictures of me on the blog?  This story here is the reason why.

Sometimes people tell me I’m paranoid because despite having deep seated opinions, I refuse to write anything for a publication where I have to attach my name.  A friend of a friend wrote a letter to the editor and it was pulled out on his next visit to immigration.  I don’t post my name on my blog, I don’t post identifying information or pictures…Korean cyberspace is too dangerous. 

It’s strange because in terms of anonymous posters, Korean netizens have an incredible amount of power.  They are said to bear a considerable responsibility in the deaths of several celebrities shamed or hounded by malicious rumours or comments posted on the Internet.  When the same judge who had disqualified a Korean in favour of Apolo Ohno in 2002 disqualified the Korean women’s speed skating team in Vancouver, netizens posted his house and directions to it on the Internet.  And when a university student said ‘short men are losers’ on Chatterbox Beauties, netizens quickly found her personal information and posted it online.  These people are scary.

However, there’s the flip side where bloggers themselves whether they identify themselves or not, can be subject to criminal prosecution, libel laws (even if someone is found guilty of a crime in Korea, they can sue others (and win) for writing negative comments about them), and in this latest incident with Brian, confrontations with immigration. 

I admit, that after I read Brian’s post, I thought deeply about whether or not this blog was a mistake.  On one side, this blog is pretty tame compared to a lot out there in Korean and English.  I mean, I just posted pictures of my wedding shoes for God’s sake.  At the same time, whether it is because Koreans are often very sensitive to even small critiques by ‘outsiders’ or because (and I’ve seen this several times in class), it’s hard for non-native speakers to grasp the nuances of language, seemingly small issues have the potential to snowball. 

It’s true that I only have 21 days left of the ever-hated E2 visa which has been used in this case as a justification for the harassment Brian was subjected to.  Technically, on an E2, you are only allowed to work at one address of a place of employment (teaching English) for one employer unless they the employer gives you permission to work at a second location (rarely happens).  However, when immigration wants to press the point, they have also interpreted this ‘one address for one employer’ to mean volunteer work is not allowed.  There have been cases of people running into trouble for volunteering at say an orphanage because immigration figures if you are doing anything but working at that particular address, you must be getting paid for it.  There was an article a while back about how foreigners are ‘confused’ about volunteering and it’s perfectly legal, but the author himself had to call immigration several times because they kept giving him the wrong information.  Needless to say, the fact that immigration officers themselves do not know the laws they are enforcing and/or have the ability to interpret it at will whenever they feel like it, is a cause of considerable stress for expats.

However, the new visa I will be getting (F2 – marriage visa with ‘residence’ rights), is not my end goal here as my F2 is actually owned, controlled, under the responsibility of my husband.  I hope in a few years to get an F5 or residence visa which I myself would own.  The problem is that this visa is difficult to get precisely because of the interpretation of the individual immigration official you get.  It is at this point that they could easily refer to something I have written as a reason to deny me an F5.

Nevertheless, despite all of these issues, I’ve decided to keep blogging (under Msleetobe not my real name) because a) very few people read this blog, and even fewer read it in Korea b) the times when I have written about my frustrations with my life here have been incredibly cathartic, and I hope maybe helpful for the few people who find it in similar situations.  The problem with the case with Brian is that it shows how the authorities still think that foreign workers should be actively recruited by the Korean government and Korean business from abroad, but that they should not have any real place in Korean society.  We are supposed to stay indefinitely in the classroom and never participate in outside society. 

Koreans abroad are applauded and lauded in Korea (as they should be), when they reach high positions, make inroads in industries and businesses not previously inhabited by Koreans, and win awards.  However, there are still many people here who do not want to see the same happen with expat residents who care about this country, are married to/deeply connected to Koreans, and/or are prepared to share their abilities to benefit society as a whole. 

Some people might say that when Brian called a certain horrid journalist the worst journalist in Korea that he was not benefiting society as a whole.  I strongly disagree.  By pointing out the fallacies, the lies, the misquotes, etc. etc. Brian is advancing journalist integrity here and fighting against discrimination.  As I’ve said before, it’s because Koreans and other minority groups in North America have fought against discrimination that many individuals and groups have achieved considerable success in their personal and career lives overseas, and if we expats are being asked to come here and participate in education, business, or whatever field, then it is within our rights to fight against people or forces which discriminate against us.

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I try to live by what I call the 5% rule. Often when people are conducting surveys or evaluations involving a large number of people, they throw out the best of the best and worst of the worst. It could be 5% or 5 results on the top and bottom depending on the amount in question, but the idea is that there will always be people who will give top and bottom marks regardless of the situation. There may also be friends and enemies in the crowd who will try to pad or obscure the results either way. However, when you remove these exceptional marks, you are left with something more resembling the truth.

I think that rule is important when we look at culture, racism, sexism, discrimination, crime, etc. December 6th of this year for example marked the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre when a disgruntled male student separated female engineering students from their male counterparts and shot them because he hated female engineers. Many commentators at the time, and even today, consider this a mark of how little women have gained in these decades of feminism. However, I don’t think that this event is a good measure of feminism or sexism or the patriarchy in Canada. It is thankfully bizarre to meet such incredible resistance to women in the field of engineering and an extreme rarity to find examples of women in Canada being killed for being educated. We can look at the numbers of female students enrolled in engineering programs and the number of females at the top level of their fields to debate the level of participation women have in the workforce, or we can point to domestic violence statistics to talk about prevailing problems with violence against women, but we should not use the top 5% of bizarre actions to point to a trend.

Similarly, when a man pointed at my mother and repeatedly screamed ‘foreigner’ at her in the subway last Christmas, I didn’t take this as an example of what expats regularly face in this country. I’ve never seen that before (and I ride public transit every day), I’ve never faced it personally, and it is not a usual complaint that I’ve heard through my networks. And when a Korean friend told me about a Korean boy who had been hit by a beer bottle in New Zealand possibly for being Korean, I didn’t understand that incident as a commentary on all Kiwi’s views about Koreans. These are the 5% of experiences we should exclude when considering how a people or a nation deal with ‘an other’ because the numbers are skewed by one time circumstances, certifiably disturbed people who choose a different looking person as their target, being at the wrong place when karmas collide, or someone just having a very bad day.

However, I do think that something like immigration rules is a good place to start when thinking about the place ‘others,’ ‘foreigners,’ and the ‘disadvantaged’ hold in a particular country. In theory, government laws and regulations have at least been debated or discussed to a certain degree in a democracy, thus hopefully weeding out some of said 5% of crazies whether they be in person or ideas. (I did say in theory…)

And so, to the main point of this post….the article in our favourite English language newspaper (by our favourite reporter!) which appears to have gone through somewhat of a transformation and dulling down overnight. (The original was much more sensationalistic than the current online version).

The Times reports that Korean public schools will soon evaluate native English teachers. Now, a whole bunch of posts could be written about the evaluation system in Korea, the evaluation overload in Korea, and the complete inability of many managers to adequately create a coherent and fair evaluation form…let alone the actual administration of it. But Korean teachers are also slated to be evaluated soon, so I’d like to dwell on the ‘special measures’ for native English teachers in public schools. If they don’t pass their evaluation, the schools want to create a blacklist and send it to immigration to prevent these teachers from receiving another visa ever again.

If this indeed happens, it will have severe labour rights consequences for expat teachers. Perhaps my dear readers, you do need to know a bit about Korean eval systems. They are not a ‘pass’/’fail’ or a ‘satisfatory/unsatisfactory’ system…or even a system based on evaluation of a person’s own merits. The system is based on a grade of S-A-B-C-D (S being the highest). There is not an unlimited amount of ‘S’s available – the allocation must happen based on not only a bell curve, but a knowledge of what certain people need to be eligible for promotion/raises etc. Therefore, if person A needs an ‘S’ for a promotion, person B automatically receives a ‘D’ regardless of her actual ability. The choice for ‘D’ person is often made based on their age, personal connections to the person in charge of grades (did they go to the same school? Are they from the same hometown??!), or lack of bribery and ass kissing.

Now, a Korean may get a ‘D’ one year as the sacrificial lamb for the person needing a promotion, but overtime, she has the ability to even out that score, and be the beneficiary of that ‘S’ needed for advancement at a later date. Her contract may be protected by a union or up for general review with all other contracts by a central company office. And in the worst case scenario where she hates her job, she can quit it, and find another one with an employer and company culture that suits her talents and personality.

However, if ‘John teacher’ objects to the filthy apartment overrun with cockroaches his school so kindly provided, or having to work Saturday without overpay compensation (again), or uses a crazy newfangled teaching technique like ‘conversational role playing’ that his co-teacher is unfamiliar with, he might find himself not only in trouble with his employer…but BANNED from working in the country ever again! (unless he marries a Korean or buys property on Jejudo in which case he can come and go as he sees fit…because we like foreign investment…..)

Imagine if you will every minor dispute you have ever had with your boss – every contractual negotiation – or even that time you bypassed a great opportunity to allow someone else to get the promotion – and then imagine how that could mean being denied a work visa.

It makes sense to deny someone a work visa on the basis of a criminal record or fake documents because it is immigration’s duty to ensure that criminals are not teaching children. If an expat commits a crime while in Korea, that person should also be denied another visa. However, immigration should not be involved in policing a particular skill or industry. If Korean teachers are being subjected to these evaluations (as dubious as they may be), it is only right in principle for expat teachers to also be included in this system. But Korean teachers are not being denied the chance to ever work again because they ask for a raise or didn’t buy the director that nice whiskey his office is stacked with.

This is not the crazy 5% drunk man who yells at you to get out of his country – this is a xenophobic policy. Why specifically xenophobic? Because it is a displacement of the ills the Korean education system – which everyone complains about ad naseum – which everyone writes about ad naseum in the papers – on expats who are recruited to be teachers – and then blamed for the state of English education. Why aren’t Koreans perfectly proficient in English after so many decades of study? Ah! It’s because the FOB guy who arrived just yesterday didn’t realize that students learn English in Korean!

It’s also part of a long list of irrational stipulations placed on expat teachers – including drug and HIV tests – which demonstrates a general disgust on the part of the education system – and Korean government (both who actively recruited and demanded that these teachers be placed in every school in the country) against native English teachers. I can ignore the 5% crazies, but I can’t ignore the underlying stereotype that these rules and measures speak to which is the belief that native English teachers are drug addicts, perverts, pedophiles, and now….bad teachers. These stereotypes speak to the problem of xenophobia here, and also obscure the real problems in the public school system which have been created by, and are being exacerbated by Koreans themselves. I don’t think that 8 000 teachers – teaching children on average 1 hour of English a week are the main reasons why their charges can’t speak English fluently.

So for now, I will continue to ignore and tolerate the 5% – but I can’t ignore the increasing demonization of the group I belong to whether I am an E2 or an F2.

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Recently, I’ve become pretty impressed with the Korea Herald. They now have an ‘expat life’ section, and they get normal people – usually expat bloggers – to write pieces pertinent to issues surrounding being a foreigner, and perhaps more importantly, living as a foreigner in Korea. Here are a couple of my recent favourites for those of you who don’t read the KH.

First, there have been several articles about Bonojit Hussain, Indian-national professor who was harassed and assaulted by a drunk Korean man for being Indian and (shocking!) traveling with a Korean woman. Unfortunately for the Korean man, Hussain is actually doing his PhD on unions and activism and has taken the issue to court instead of accepting a settlement. Fortunately for the expat community, the issue of racism is finally making its way to Korean courts. As it stands, there are currently no hate laws or laws pertaining to making racist remarks or threats in Korea. Of course Hussain has also had enormous problems with the police taking his complaint seriously and also was discriminated against by the police themselves.

The situation reminds me of the time when I got my wallet stolen and my credit card was used. When I went to file a report, they sat me at a table with an African American girl..and when we said ‘hi’ to each other, they decided that we must be friends who had our credit cards stolen at the same place since we spoke the same language. Then, although the American girl had video of the thieves using her card at a hotel in the area (she had done some sleuthing work!), they said she knew the people because they were also black. In fact, the police officer said ‘that guy…he looks like your brother…he’s black…like you! So he’s your brother. Why don’t you just call him and tell him to bring your card back?” Of course, the police officer also asked her what his phone number was…because you always ask the person who stole your credit card what their phone number is while they are stealing from you…..Yes, the police are extremely effective and culturally sensitive here.

Also, Brian from briandeutsch.blogspot.com has had a couple of good articles recently, including this one on ubiquitous ‘thoughtless’ English words strangely incorporated into daily Korean life. He makes a good case for not only why Koreans themselves should reevaluate the way English has been imported and used in advertising/signage etc. but also how a possible return to using Korean words in place of Korean-English hybrids should not turn into blaming ‘English’ or ‘foreigners’ for a situations created by Koreans in Korea.

A few months ago, FI’s family members were remarking that because there is a trend to name apartment buildings/restaurants/offices/businesses by using English-Korean hybrids and then writing them in English, there are now many older people who can’t read or understand the name of the apartment complex in which they live. Seriously?!

And lastly, also in today’s paper is a good article about the need for expats to come together and stick up for each other. My favourite part?

First of all, expats of any stripe need to recognize that, for all our differences, we have a lot in common. When a story like Bonojit Hussain, who was victim of a racist attack on a bus, appears, we owe it to ourselves to give him support, however we can. The same goes for racial discrimination or scapegoating in business, in government, or in the media, because even if it’s not our sub-group this time, next time it could be. Racism doesn’t stop to check visa status, years in country, skill with children, diligence on the job, or ability to eat spicy food: We’re in this together.

It harkens back to my feelings about a ‘foreigner’s rights and responsibilities. We have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in Korea, but we also have the responsibility to advocate and work for this respect for ourselves and others. God helps those who help themselves.

So good job KH! There are so many more articles in this section that I’ve enjoyed reading and passing on. Hopefully other media outlets will also start to publish thoughtful pieces by and about foreigners so Koreans and foreigners can have a more nuanced view about ways to make this country a better place for all to live.

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Okay, I admit it…I spoke too soon.

A couple of days ago, I posted on the issue of a rapist convicted of raping and mutilating a child to the extent that she now has a permanent physical disability in additional to her horrific emotional scars.

I was generally positive and upbeat in the post because I felt that the public outcry over his lenient sentence (and attempt to make it even shorter with his appeal) because of his claim of being drunk at the time, signaled a shift in Korean’s perspectives on personal responsibility for sex crimes and the beginning of positive changes to the current application of the law.

Well I should have known foreigners would eventually be blamed for everything.

This is an article from yesterday’s ‘esteemed’ Korea Times. If you are a reader of this ‘venerable’ paper, you will know how much they just loooooove foreigners!
(The paper also enjoys printing the opinions of people we might consider ‘way right of centre’ when it comes to issues of non-ethnic Korean rights, including those of our very own government Ministries and lawmakers.)

I’m sorry to say that I believe much positive debate has now turned into red herring country with unreasonable and unfounded blame being shifted to foreigners.

From the title of the article to the tone of the piece, the emphasis seems to be placed on the ‘abundance’ of foreign pedophiles filing into Korea. On closer reading however, there are no examples of foreign teacher pedophiles given. The only example is the recent case of Cho Doo-soon who is…Korean…and not a teacher! I’m not trying to deny the fact that there are sexual predators here who are foreign. I believe sexual violence happens everywhere and is caused by people of all different ethnicities and backgrounds. However, if there are SO MANY…or even one particular case, why does the government, and the author of this article, not name them? Koreans try to avoid naming Koreans who have committed crimes in the news, but the media loves naming foreigners! If there are several cases of teachers abusing students, the public needs to know these numbers!

There have indeed been reports of ‘foreigners’ being convicted as sex crimes. However, ‘foreigners’ refers to everyone who is not a Korean citizen. Unlike in Canada, this means the vast majority of people who are not ethnic Koreans, are not citizens. E2 (English teaching visas which are limited to citizens of the UK/Ireland/US/Canada/NZ/Australia/South Africa), already have to submit drug test, HIV tests, and criminal records. The implication of this article is that it is the E2 visa holders who, despite the most stringent requirements of all of the visas, are still committing these sex crimes. However, there is a much larger group of foreigners – ethnic Koreans/non citizens (F4), migrant workers, international school teachers, spouses of Koreans, business owners, ‘entertainment’ visa holders (ie. prostitutes), workers at Korean companies, students, who do not have to submit these kinds of checks. For the record, I have had to take 4 HIV tests in less than 2 years…but I don’t know any other foreigners on different visas (or ANY Koreans!) who have had to take and submit these kinds of tests. ALL non citizens get lumped into this category of ‘foreigners,’ but we really are a widely diverse group of people!

In addition, the article careens wildly around through different crimes. In fact, half way through the article it turns to the subject of forged documents (code of fake university degrees), and immigration violations. How in the world is a forged university degree related to rape? It harkens back to another recent article where rape, drug, and traffic convictions were rolled into one to show how ‘foreigner crime’ was on the rise!! (Of course, the article didn’t seem to realize the number of foreigners has increased over time…and the crime rate among foreigners is actually MUCH lower than that of Koreans). Crime should be unacceptable and foreigners should be punished if they violate Korean laws. However, treating all crimes by foreigners the same…and using a fake university degree as a reason to suspect a person of rape is not only racist, but illogical.

Above all though, what I am most upset about with these charges and implications is that the focus should be not on the ethnicity of a perpetrator, but rather on the fact that there ARE sexual predators in society. Shifting the blame to an ‘other’ is racist, but it also places children, women, and yes…men! (sexual violence against men is a fact no matter how much we want to cover it up), at further risk. If parents believe that only foreign teachers are rapists, they will not demand closer inspection of Korean teachers and proper prosecution of teachers who abuse students or school administrators who look the other way when children rape children. If Korean children are taught only to be wary of the ‘bad foreign stranger,’ they will trust the Korean man who takes their hands and leads them to the public restroom. And finally, if only non-ethnic Korean violence on Korean is recognized as ‘true’ sexual violence, there will be (and are today) an enormous amount of hurting, broken people whose stories are not recognized and who will never receive the love, support, and help they so desperately need.

So yes, lock up or deport foreign rapists….but do so with the Koreans too. Criminal checks for foreigners (not just foreign teachers!!!)? For sure – but make sure that the Korean teachers working at private academies who see your kids more often than you do, church youth leaders who take kids on overnight retreats, and day care workers also submit VALID criminal records.

Korean kids need to be protected from ALL predators, not just the red herring fuzzy number foreigner kind.

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What right does a ‘foreigner’ have to critique another culture?

This question is often asked here by ‘foreigners’ and Koreans alike. It’s something hotly debated in online forums and more subtly in our workplaces and classrooms. I have been told by foreigners and Koreans alike that if outsiders don’t like something, they should just go home.


Let me start by saying I was educated in the field of Religious Studies, a discipline which seeks to observe, record, dissect, and understand religious communities and traditions. It’s more like anthropology than theology. The reason I want to make this clear is that I am educated in how to approach different cultures in a sensitive but academically critical way. I have two well earmarked copies of Orientalism. I did the post-colonial lit classes, and I grew up in a milieu of radical diversity and a national discourse of multiculturalism. I ‘know’ that all cultures are to be respected; differences preserved; that cultural logic should be investigated and understood on the basis of its own logic.

This was all very clear to me before I moved to Korea.

However, this background and worldview was based on the concept of always being an outsider. As an outsider observing and researching cultural assumptions and rituals, I needed to respect and understand the gulfs between people and ways of life. However, when you not only observe the people…but start to participate in the life…and then find your life bound to the culture you thought you were an outsider of…things get a bit more complicated.

I think there are different kinds of ‘foreigners.’
1) The foreigner who visits a country for a short time. They are the tourists who see the major historic sites, indulge in the food, sometimes go off the beaten track and experience life outside of Seoul and Busan.

2) The short term or repeat term foreigner. This group lives in Korea for a specific length of time but have an exit date in mind. They experience certain parts of regular life: living in a Korean neighbourhood, working for a Korean company, or making a group of Korean friends. They are usually English teachers, sometimes business people or military, and they sometimes even have a Korean spouse. They are part of Korea for a time, but they also have a plan to leave within a certain time frame. They are concerned about the hear-and-now more than their future in the country.

3) The long term no-ties foreigner. I’ve met some people who have been here for 10-20 years. They have long term experiences here – have had multiple employers – lived in a multitude of places – and have seen long term changes in the country. However, they also live on the periphery of Korean family life, are able to leave without familiar ties and have the ability to disassociate themselves from many issues by virtue of ‘foreignness.’

4) The long term ‘tied’ foreigner. This group has or plans on staying in Korea for an extended period, and they live…or are expected to live more or less within Korean cultural standards or expectations.

Some would say that ‘foreigners’ never have the right to critique another culture. They should always respect the cultural milieu, the differentness, the assumptions, and the social issues ‘warts and all.’ They are expected to feel ‘lucky’ to live in another place and should only meditate on the goodness of their new home.

I used to think I believed this. I now know I don’t anymore.

The first group of foreigners might have less to say about Korea. This group does not stay long enough to acquire a nuanced position on the culture or the lifestyle. They tend to see the most beautiful and the most stunning, and go to places where people are used to foreigners. They experience things for the first time, and have that beautiful wonder of encountering newness. However, of course, although they do not have as much time and experience to make a sound judgement of the nation, they are the people the government – who is avidly for increasing tourist dollars to Korea – needs to court and keep happy if it wants to keep these goals. They are also awesome spokespeople for the country. Their short term experiences are carried back to their respective countries with either positive or negative effect.

The next two groups are trickier. In many cases they can leave the country if they are unhappy, but teachers, investors, and skilled/unskilled labourers are courted by companies. For the most part, they increase the GNP, they develop industries, they spend inside the Korean economy, and in the case of migrant factory workers, they do the jobs most Koreans would never do at a fraction of the price. These groups have often encountered workplace discrimination or major management differences from their home countries. They live in neighbourhoods and are thus concerned with crime rates. They work the long hours of Korean citizens or are charged with motivating and educating the exhausted elementary school students who experience extreme fatigue because of long hours spent in ‘schools.’ They are recruited from abroad only to be told on arrival that they have to find another teaching job or pay their own way home because their employer didn’t realize they were black. These foreigners might have less to say about elder abuse, apartment development, or political ranglings, but it seems strange to assert that a person cannot have an opinion about what they are experiencing simply because they don’t hold citizenship in that country. How can a teacher wipe from her mind the fact that her student will get beaten if he doesn’t get a good test mark, or ignore a child’s panic attack because she is 8 and has to do homework until midnight every night? How can a migrant factory worker not be concerned about safety when he, not the citizens of Korea, face the dangers imposed on him by his stingy-let’s-do-this-in-the-fastest-and-cheapest-way-possible-damn-the-consequences employers everyday?

The last group…the one I am part of…is a whole other mess of blurred lines. My foreign friends who are males planning on leaving Korea after a few years will never have to deal with worries they might be fired if they decide to have a baby. They don’t have to worry about their children facing discrimination because they are bi-racial in public schools, or wonder if they will be denied a bank loan for a house because they are a foreigner and therefore a ‘risky borrower.’ Those of us with Korean partners, half-Korean children, and Korean families could leave and never look back. We could forget about our Korean ties and focus on the social issues facing the countries we left long ago….but doesn’t it make sense that we are engaged in the social issues around us?

In fact, I would argue that often ‘foreigners’ or to use the more pc ‘immigrants’ or ‘newcomers’ or ‘long term residents’ may have more to say about certain issues than citizens. A white Canadian-born citizen with a plain Anglo name has less to say about racial profiling at the Canadian airport than a dark skinned person with a beard because they will never experience that kind of discrimination in that kind of way. Likewise, an ethnically Korean citizen will find it difficult to fully understand the bizarro land which is Korean immigration with its shape shifting rules because they will never have to go through the process.

However, even if people are not directly involved in something doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I don’t own a car, but I still care about road safety because I am a pedestrian with a higher chance of being hit and a bus passenger with a higher chance of being involved in a bus accident when the rules of the road are not followed.

A woman whose husband works late every night – in part because he is ordered by his boss to participate in mandatory drinking sessions – can still have an opinion on working hours, the Korean drinking culture, and management styles. She is also impacted by her husband’s health, his time (or lack thereof) spent at home, and the stress he is under. To say that this woman has no say in this matter is just as strange as a man being told he shouldn’t care about sexual predators of minors because he is no longer a child.

It makes no sense to me that people who work, pay taxes, walk on the roads, live in apartment complexes, send their kids to public schools, shop in stores, live in the shadow of the DMZ should have no opinions on the matters at hand. It would be a sad world if every time we not only saw, but experienced injustice, misery, and untapped potential, that we shrugged our shoulders and refused to get involved.

Now I certainly see the difference between complaints and critique…between bashing and meaningful conversations to discuss how to enact positive change. I am certainly at fault for being a complainer and a negative critiquer…I’m a very cynical person after all. I also fear. I fear being too vocal – even among foreign teachers who would sometimes separate themselves from foreigners with less social standing in Korea to preserve their more elevated space. I fear the wrath of Korean management and administrators who all too easily dismiss concerns voiced by ‘selfish’ foreigners when they complain of an injustice. And I also fear myself…and the lack of positive options that I see before me…that all my thoughts will come to nothingness without the opportunity for action.

But even with these fears and these opposing opinions, I still assert that to say that foreigners have no right to an opinion about their lives – and that they have no responsibility for others in less fortunate and more discriminatory positions than themselves – is incomprehensible.

The reason why Koreans have been successful in North America – why some have become politicians – others lawyers and doctors – others franchise and small business owners – and others – happily settled people living in a quiet community they fully engage in – is because Koreans stood up and worked for positive change. And the Koreans worked with and stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. And the work that past generations have done will set a framework for newcomers.

Our Southeast Asian mail order brides…our Arab restaurant owners…our Bangladeshi factory workers…our college professors from abroad…our ethnic Koreans from China…must all have the right to voice, dissect, and debate legitimate concerns about their own lives. And their voices must be heard as a way to forge positive developments in society that affect all those living within the boarders. Through this process Koreans can learn about newcomers, and newcomers can come to understand Korean methods and viewpoints at a deeper level. Community is formed through participation not apathy. We all have the right…and just as importantly-the responsibility to be part of this community.

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