I want to teach English in Korea in February. How badly am I seriously going to be treated, assuming I get a position? It's not like America is fat friendly, or Black friendly for that matter, but I hear Korea is 100 times worse. I'm a great person, kind, intelligent, and genuinely interested in learning about Korea and it people and culture. Will that be enough in the long run, or should I just forget going there?
I am a black man, born and raised in the United States. For the past four months, I am been diligently studying the Korean language because one day I would like to start a new life in Korea. I am educated and currently working on my Masters Degree and studying for an ESL certification with the hopes of one day taking my education, teaching skills, and the knowledge of Korea's native tongue to the country and make positives enhancements in a country that is continuously going. But my question is, can I go to Korea and become successful? Would I be able to attain a job other than just teaching English? Will the color of my skin overshadow my education, language skills, and the desire to help better its growing economy in the decades to come?
Dear Geralyn and Jihoon,
To give a better sense of Korean job market, a post by Yeochin will follow the Korean’s post. Also, please take a look at the discussion already happened on this topic at Expatjane's blog.
The Korean talks much about racism of Koreans and Korean Americans. (See for example here and here.) The Korean has also talked about America is much less racist than Korea (and less so than the rest of the world.) Unfortunately, this may have caused a lot of concerns from African Americans who intend to teach English in Korea.
The Korean thinks he is misunderstood in this regard. One way of understanding the sentence “racism in Korea is worse than America” is to understand it as saying “the manifestations of racism in Korea is worse than America.” That is, there are more ugly signs of racism, such as racial segregation or racially motivated violence.
But the Korean does not mean that when he says “racism in Korea is worse than America.” Rather, the Korean means this: “racism, defined as racially inclined thought-process, is more firmly engrained in Korea than America.” When the Korean says “racism”, he only means this: the belief that one’s race is determinative of one’s characteristics which are often negative.
So is racism worse in Korea? Absolutely. Overwhelming majority of Korean people sincerely believe that your race matters in evaluating who you are. But the relevant question in Geralyn’s case is: “Is racial hatred in Korea worse than that of America?” This is the relevant question because on one’s day-to-day life, expressions of racial hatred would be the only thing that affects the racial minority.
The Korean’s answer to that question is – not really. Once in Korea, black folks will be stared at. They will be subject to some rude comments. But there is little danger of malevolent discrimination, harassment or violence.
Here is an example of racism that is typical in Korea. The Korean attended a wedding in which the bride was a Chinese American and the groom was Korean American. (Wedding was in New York.) During the reception, the family members of the newlyweds took turns with the mic to say a few words. The groom’s uncle stood up and said, “I would like to congratulate [the groom] and [the bride]. I know a Chinese woman and a Korean man work out together well, so I am sure your marriage would be great.” Stunned silence in the audience for a few seconds, then some scattered polite applause followed.
The uncle here sincerely believed that being Korean and being Chinese impute certain characteristics to people. That’s racism. But he meant absolutely no harm to the newlyweds, and not too much harm was really done to the newlyweds at the end of the day. Such is racism in Korea.
(Aside: Keep in mind that the above is a description of Koreans in Korea, not Korean Americans. Because Korean Americans often come into contact with African Americans – usually the poor folks who occupy the same ghetto – they have a clear idea how to deal with a black: with suspicion and disdain.)
However, one thing to note is that such racism – racially inclined thought, to be precise – is a necessary ingredient in racial hatred. Racially inclined thought only needs a small spark to erupt into racial discrimination, harassment, or violence. Foreigners in Korea, including African Americans (more so because they stand out even stronger than whites,) do need to realize when such “spark points” happen in order to avoid any trouble.
The spark points happen when the racial minority appears to threaten the status of the racial majority. Remember, the worst violence against blacks in America happened after the Civil War, when their newly enfranchised status threatened the whites. Vincent Chin was killed in Michigan when Japanese carmakers were threatening the status of American carmakers. (And the American carmakers still did not learn their lessons, but that’s a different story.)
When do non-Koreans in Korea appear to threaten the status of Koreans? The Korean can think of three situations:
1. Working at “Korean jobs” – English teachers mostly do not fall into this category, but immigrants from Southeast Asia and China usually receive the brunt of this. In particular, there is a severe racist hatred against the Chinese in Korea right now. If the current trend continues a little longer, a full-blown France-style race riots are just around the corner for Korea.
2. Being loud in a group, especially in an enclosed space – This could easily happen in a bar with several friends, for example. To Koreans, it could look like the foreigners are “taking over” the space, which may cause resentment. (Yeochin's post touches on this.)
3. Dating Korean women – Interracial relationship is a racist’s greatest fear, especially if it involves a minority-race man and majority-race woman. When a minority-race man dates a majority-race woman, other majority-race men feel their position threatened, because they feel that their possession is being taken.
So, here is the actual advice: if you are going to Korea as an English teacher, do not worry too much about racism in Korea. The worst you would receive most of the time is the incessant staring and some really ignorant comments. You are not in a situation to threaten the status of any Koreans, so you will be let alone.
However, if you are going to Korea as an immigrant as Jihoon is trying to, brace yourself. Korea is not a kind place for immigrants, because immigrants who stay in Korea often pose a threat to the status of Koreans. Again, the Korean would stress that there is no violence or harassment. But the quiet bias would often be enough to dash your job hopes, for example.
[The following is written by Yeochin.]
There really isn’t any specific racism in Korea as far as black and white are concerned -- it’s more of a numbers game. Koreans are afraid of large numbers of foreigners. Any foreigners. It could be a group of blond super models. If there is more than four, they will be denied entrance anywhere in Seoul.
There are a lot of examples of this. A few weeks ago a group of friends were denied access to a club. There were almost ten of them. There was a Korean with them and she was kind enough to translate “there are too many foreigners, you can’t come in.” Schools work in the same way. My school hired a man and my boss said – OK, we have a guy, no more guys.
Yeochin’s school just hired an African American. She spoke in a perfect non-regional diction over the phone and is very well qualified to teach. There were two positions open and three candidates; two white and one black. Yeochin was very surprised that the African American candidate was the first one hired. The girl was even demanding and wanted things in her contract changed. Yeochin thought that her boss would forgo this teacher who he described as “Difficult and unappreciative.” Instead, he gave into her demands while announcing to the office that he had just hired a black person, and aren’t we so diverse!
It was like when he hired a male teacher and he kept hinting at the Irish teacher that finally there would be a man around. He acted like he was doing the female teachers a huge favor. Irish teacher kept feeling insulted, like maybe she seemed desperate for a man or something. Our African American teacher was toted around the office in the same way.
So guess what happened when my boss interviewed a new girl and she turned out to be black? He told her ‘no thanks’ of course. We already have one. When the African American teacher who secured her job first heard about this, she just laughed -- she knew Korea was going to be ridiculous about that.
As it turns out, she was worried about getting hired as well. So nervous that she started to learn Korean and knew a lot of basic phrases before her plane even landed. She even prayed at lunch in Korean. She even gave the bosses gifts for hiring her. All this because she was afraid they would look down on her for being black. She was afraid they would not think she was as capable as her white peers. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Truth is, Koreans think all foreigners are lazy and incompetent regardless of their skin tone. This is sadly true. The Korean work ethic is above and beyond anything you would expect. The Korean teachers work twice as hard as the foreign teachers and they don’t get a free apartment and they get the same pay. It’s not a color difference, but a culture difference. hey don’t look down on you for being black, they look down on you for never being taught to work insane amounts of hours for no overtime pay. See?
This goes for Korean Americans as well. Yeochin’s school just hired a Korean American from the Bronx and already they think she will be inadequate compared to her native Korean co-teachers. To quote my boss “This is not America, this is Korea and our teachers enjoy working Saturdays.” A concept that I don’t think has caught on in America unless you work at Burger King.
So go ahead and apply to work in Korea. YOU WILL BE HIRED. You will get a job. Don’t settle for a lame job because you are worried about getting hired. You can have a great job where you want, for how much you want. You just have to be patient.
Yeochin wishes she could put a good word in for you to her boss, but like she said, that quota has already been filled. And if my boss needs to hire another teacher and they turn out to be a man, black or a Korean American my boss can proudly say in all of his diversity training “no thank you, we already have one!" What a hero.
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.