Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ask a Korean! Wiki: Do You Feel Welcome in Korea?

Dear Korean,

After much deliberation, I've decided to spend a quarter studying abroad in Korea , living in the dorms located on campus this upcoming year. I'm worried, however, about how life will be once I get over there, and how I will get along with the Korean people. Having never been anywhere outside the U.S., I was very excited to see a new culture, but after reading your blog and your constant criticism that Koreans are racist and xenophobic , I'm beginning to worry about how I will be able to socialize and interact with the native Koreans there. I was born and raised in California, but ethnically I would have to identify myself as a mixed Chinese-Vietnamese. In all honesty, should I brace myself for a world of hurt, or am I just exaggerating things and that, despite all the criticisms, Korea really is a warm and inviting place for foreigners?

Hmm, Really..Yon-Don't-Sei???

Dear Yon-Don't-Sei,

The Korean is probably not qualified to answer this question. He certainly knows both positive and negative aspects of Korea, but he just does not have a first-hand experience in being a foreigner in Korea because obviously, he tends to blend in with the local populace rather well.

The Korean can say one thing about the foreigner experience in Korea, however. If you are only staying in Korea for at most six months, bad things (resulting from racism or xenophobia) will rarely happen to you. As the Korean wrote previously, there are few reasons for Koreans (or really, anyone,) to do anything -- positively or negatively -- with someone who is simply passing through, either as a tourist or an exchange student who will certainly leave Korea after their brief stay.

Some people who write to the Korean worry as if they will be stoned on the streets of Seoul for being dark-skinned. Please, relax. Racism is a real problem in Korea, but that has more to do with the way Korea deals with its own citizens or at most, its long-term residents. And under no circumstances is racism in Korea like the Jim Crow South. The worst manifestations of racism in Korea for foreign visitors -- if they happen at all -- will be curious stares, drunken rants or politically incorrect remark motivated mostly out of ignorance (= not knowing) rather than malice.

Nor is racism the only operative factor that determines how Koreans interact with foreigners. In fact, often the stronger factor is that Koreans deeply care about Korea's international reputation, i.e. how other countries -- through the foreigners who visit Korea -- perceive Korea. Because of that, some foreigners who visit Korea receive a royal treatment by Koreans who are determined to show the best side of the country, sometimes to the degree that is disingenuous and uncomfortable.

The long and short of it is that while the Korean can list all these factors, he himself does not know (and will never know) how all these things blend in and form "the foreigner experience" in Korea. So readers, have your say at it. How was your stay in Korea? Did you feel welcome?

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. For a six month stint you'll be fine. You'll most likely encounter a few eye-bulging incidents but you'll be so stimulated and potential overwhelmed by the visual and auditory differences that you won't have time to notice what long term residents gripe about.

    Travel in the country as much as you can. Try everything; never turn down an opportunity to do something here as you have no idea where it will lead you and how your day will turn out.

    In the end, you'll be amazed at how quickly six months will fly by - time seems to operate differently here.

  2. It seems the the original writer is an Asian-American so undoubtedly he might blend in a bit more than "foreigners" would.

    (Yes, I know he's technically a foreigner, but Koreans won't call him as such except on official documents.)

    It might be hard to explain to some people the concept of Asian-American, but in the long run I don't think you'll have much problem at all.

    At Yonsei itself (I'm assuming you're going to Underwood, right?), you'll find that most of your interaction will be with other foreigners or Koreans who have already spent extensive amounts of time abroad.

  3. The "racism" we experienced in Korea was more irritating than insulting. Like The Korean said it was mostly rude stares and uninformed comments.

    We developed some pretty thick skin, let the little things run off our backs and politely let our Korean friends, co-workers and students know when they were crossing a line.

  4. While I'm not a student living in Korea, I have lived in Bucheon / Seoul for 2 1/2 years now.

    Feeling 'welcome' in a foreign country may imply the fantasical Hawaii 'getting a lei after getting off the plane', chocolates on the pillow - people going out of their way to welcome you. If that is being 'welcomed' you'll be in for a real disappointment.

    Of course you're not expecting chocolates on your pillows. Not realistic. You might want to be sure people won't be spitting at you, running you over, or walking into you just because you're a foreigner. On that, I submit the foreigner will be treated about the same as Koreans in public. On a university's campus, everything I've heard suggests that's a more accepting / welcoming environment to the waygukin that venture in.

    Regarding 'the foreigner experience': ask 100 different foreigners and you'll get 100 different experiences. It really depends on who you connect with, where you live, play, and perhaps even what you like to drink. Fall in love with soju tents? You'll have a much different experience than if you stay in a Western-style bar drinking martinis.

    In short, relax. You'll make it. There's no law that says you have to put up with someone treating you like dirt. Expect to be treated fairly / equally, and be assertive / confident when someone begs to differ.

  5. I've actually felt guilty at times over how well I've been treated. I'm a blond, blue-eyed American woman, and my time here has been a blast-- almost everyone here has been extremely friendly and very helpful. I have light-skinned black American friends, however, who say that a) everyone assumes they're from Africa, b) they're stared at constantly-- and not in a nice way-- and c) that a lot of times they can't get a cab to save their lives. I honestly think I've learned more about white privilege in my three years here than in the 23 preceding them back home. I haven't gotten to know any non-Korean Asian-Americans here, though, so I can't speak to the OP's situation at all.

  6. As a student I doubt one would face much racism at all. Some folks of varied skin colors might have trouble finding employment as some employers would rather not hire Blacks/Asians to keep up with the "western" atmosphere. Other employers don't care at all, I've worked in both kinds of work places. As a student, unless you're abnormally tall, overweight or otherwise extraordinarily unusual I find that people don't even stare as much as they did when I first came 2 years ago... There's foreigners everywhere nowadays...

    As a student, the biggest culture shock I'd expect is the difference between American college life and Korean college life. Not even just talking about in terms of studying, but if one is living in the residence halls it may be quite different than what you're used to. Also the fact that the majority of students live at home with parents makes a campus life quite different also.

    Anyway, Korea does pamper it's foreigners, far more than any other country in the world I've been to. In fact it pampers its residents too. The existence of "service-uh" is one obvious example of businesses treating their clients like kings. And I can't tell you how many trips I've been invited to now that were designed especially for foreigners and were cheap or free of charge for me only because I'm a foreigner (check out to get in on those deals sometimes). Clubs are often anxious to get in foreign clients also, so it's not uncommon to get free cover just for being a foreigner too.

    Korea is REALLY self conscious of their view to the outside world and so, as a country as a whole (not necessarily individual circumstances) is extremely welcoming.

  7. @Yon-Don't-Sei

    First, let me give you a little background info about my experience in Korea. I was an exchange student at Ewha University in 2007 (August-December). Although my primary reason for going to Korea was to visit my then-girlfriend, it also gave me a chance to live in an amazing country that I probably would have never visited otherwise. (In case you're wondering, yes, they do allow guys to enroll at Ewha. Long story short, I was in a transition between majors at college, and the placement office thought Ewha would be a better fit for someone who was majoring in graphic design).

    That said, does racism exist in Korea? Yes. Xenophobia? Hell yes.

    Lucky for you, however, you're not going to be a "visible foreigner" like I was. Will you experience racism? Probably. Although the racism you encounter will probably be different than what I experienced.

    Quick digression.

    In some ways, it is worse to be a Korean adoptee who is visiting his/her homeland than someone who is non-Korean (or in my case, white guy from the Midwest). I knew a couple of adopted Korean guys that went to Ewha who would either be laughed at or yelled at when a native Korean found out they couldn't speak their language. In contrast, whenever I tried to speak Korean, I received a response of either "뭐" or they would just want to talk with me in English. The basic assumption among most Koreans is that a Westerner (i.e. person of European descent) = English speaker.

    Anyway, here’s my experience with Korean racism.

    Almost any white person who has traveled to Korea can tell you that people will try to practice English with you. I was no exception. In these conversations I was often asked the question “When are you leaving Korea?” Most of the time I assumed that they asked it simply out of curiosity because they don’t expect foreigners to stay long term. There were times, however, when I wasn’t sure whether or not there was a xenophobic subtext to the question. With Korea being a high context culture, maybe so…

    My biggest encounter with Korean racism came from the fact that I was dating a Korean girl. Gentlemen, if you are non-Korean (esp. a white guy), then prepare to get the stink-eye. A lot. Especially from 아저씨. Nobody ever vocalized their displeasure with our relationship, but we did receive glares from time to time.

    Most of my experiences with Korean racism were very minor. I was denied cab service in some cases. I would receive patronizing remarks about how well I used chopsticks. Very minor stuff that I would brush off quickly. Had I stayed for a couple of years, maybe my story would be different.

    Most of the complaints about racism and xenophobia in Korea come from white guys. We’re certainly the most vocal about our grievances anyway. The fact is, most of us aren’t equipped to handle that shit. In our home countries (esp. the United States), experiencing racism is just doesn’t happen. So when some white dudes go abroad to Korea (or anywhere else that doesn’t have a white majority) and experience racism towards them, it really gets to them. In a way, I’m strangely glad I experienced not being part of the majority, the default, the norm, etc.

    Look, the best advice I can give you to deal with any possible racism or xenophobia in Korea is this; don’t be an ass. Treat everyone you meet with politeness and respect and they will likely treat you the same. The more positive interactions Koreans have with foreigners, the less likely they are to have racist and xenophobic feelings toward them.

    And this is just one man’s opinion, so I’ll leave you with a quote from the great Henry Rollins: “Knowledge without mileage is bullshit.”

    Now go, Yon-Don't-Sei, and experience the Land of the Morning Calm for yourself!

  8. I stayed in Seoul for three months and had one bad experience only: when passing Tapgol Park early in the afternoon an older lady in the company of the drunk old men there kicked her elbow into my stomach, what the old guys found incredibly funny. Somehow I had the feeling that this had to do something with racism (I'm a tall white European).

  9. I found it fascinating to read about everyone's experiences, especially accounts by Caucasians like Lex and Nexus_6, who shared about experiencing what they believed to be different forms of racism. In no way am I dismissing or discounting their experiences because it may just as have been that. However, it is also true that when you become a minority in a society where everyone else is different from you own, you start questioning whether every instances where someone acted rudely toward you or snubbed you was simply because of your race. In fact, it may be, but in may just as well as have been because the person is just a mannerless jerk. As a result, questions simple as "when are you leaving?" can be re-interpreted many different ways.

    Americans experience rude behaviors in America all the time, whether from customer service, co-workers, neighbors, etc. However, as an ethnic minority living in America, I can't help wonder at every single one of those instances about whether I would have received that same rude attitude from that particular person if I were not of my own ethnicity. In other words, minorities can't help but wonder whether race played a role. Many white Americans tend to dismiss this complaint merely as minorities being overly sensitive, but the reverse seems to be just as true when whites become a minority in another culture.

  10. I can't imagine why someone would be denied cab service for being a "white" foreigner. I know there is often no attempt to logical reasoning behind xenophobic or racist behaviour, but some rationalisation of sort must exist if the behaviour is systemic.
    Anyone care to explain, if possible, about this cad denying phenomenon? THNX

  11. I wrote about this topic on my own blog a few months ago, regarding a Korean-American girl worried about traveling around Korea with her non-Korean boyfriend. They actually came to Korea later, had an awesome time, and spared the time to have dinner with me. I continue to stand by the advice I gave there.

  12. I've been denied a cab a few times in Seoul. For the most part, I have a feeling it was more a matter of "oh crap! how will I ever communicate with this guy" than overt racism; then, in some neighborhoods, particularly near army bases, there are negative dynamics developed between cabbies who try to rip off GI's, and GI's who then set off histrionic scenes of high drama, shouting and such, if they think they might be getting ripped off... a cabbie who had an experience like that might pass up the next foreigner.

    Also, around Jongno and Myeongdong, around midnight on weekends, foreigners have a hell of a time getting a cab. A Korean-speaking friend once asked a cabbie why taxis will pass up foreigners at midnight in myeongdong/jongno, and the answer was this:

    they assume foreigners to be tourists who will want to hitch a ride to a very nearby hotel (most hotels are near downtown); because midnight is both the cab drivers' shift change and the time when subways stop running, the streets are flooded with people needing a cab home, and the cabbies, picking up their last fare of the night, want to pick up the biggest fare they can, and don't want to just drive someone around the block: they want someone whose subway stopped (which happens at midnight on Saturday and Sunday nights) and who needs to get back to their neighborhood in some satellite suburb or something. It's money, not racism.

  13. It sounds like you're doing the same program as me, staying in the International dorm at Yonsei. Other commenters have already said enough, but I had a wonderful experience with this program and my biggest recommendation is that you DON'T just hang around the international part of campus or only interact with the Mentors program people-- venture off campus and make friends there, or you'll only make a lot of friendships based on people wanting to practice English with you. The area around the school (Shinchon) is especially foreigner-friendly.

  14. Has anybody ever experienced this in a jinjilbang? Where a non Korean looking person gets into the tub and all the people already in the tub get out?

    Simon one of my mates states this occassionally happens in Japan but never in Korea.

  15. Have a look over there,

    I think he is having fun in Korea. Shit can happen to you in pretty much any country. But I'm sure you will have a good time in Korea. Be open and interested about the culture, try to understand the differences if you can.

  16. From what I've observed with my non-Korean Asian friends out here, the biggest difficulty you'll run into is the constant assumption that you speak Korean and the fact that nobody will believe you're American. Tell them you're not Korean and keep it moving. lol

    Other than that, have a ball. Like somebody mentioned, people may want to practice English with you and indeed, you may find that makes your life more entertaining. (or not!)

    The other thing is, most people don't talk smack in English. They say it in Korean. That being the case, if your Korean skills are low enough, you'll really enjoy yourself. ;)

  17. Korea .. I hope to visit it one day :) .. and I hope that racism and being dark skinned isn't an issue down there.

  18. Whewww, this is a delicate and complicated subject... but I will do my best.
    First things first, I have been living here in South Korea since May 2009. I am a teacher in a public school and have numerous (5-8) Korean friends of varying age, gender, and professional backgrounds. I have dated a few Koreans and am still dating a Korean woman.
    I do not think you will have much, if any incidents of OVERT racism while here (especially in Seoul). You may sense some weird things, but most likely nothing will be absolutely confirmed as racism. The Korean is spot on that Koreans do bend over backwards trying to be so nice to you since you are a foreigner and they want you to go back home after your visit and speak well of Korean Society (hopefully you might note how polite people were). I have experienced this exaggerated politeness/niceness. With some people is a not at all genuine and just a facade to save face. With others, I believe it is genuine. However, as a foreigner (especially if you are white and American) here for a short time you will get lots of treatment (favors, gifts, and trips) that Koreans do not receive.

    Koreans often will not say something unfavorable or racist to your face. It will usually be behind your back in or Korean in your presence. Racism is very real here (especially towards darker skinned black or Southeast Asians of lower classed migrant workers or industrial labor immigrants). However, the racism and xenophobia like many things Korean are very subtle and in context. When I first got here I met expats that had been living here for 5 plus years and were married to Koreans. They told me things that at that time seemed unbelievable or that were just a wacko opinion from a bitter, overly sensitive foreigner. However, after a year a lot of what I THOUGHT was ridiculous turned out to be very true. You probably won't be here long enough to notice, so don't worry about it. More time and experience living in Korea will reveal these things to a person.

    To answer your question: No, all things considered, as a foreigner I DO NOT feel welcome here. Some people are helpful and genuinely warm, but often times that is because the person wants something from you (English practice, business, friendship only so they can practice their English...etc). As a foreigner, you are a second class citizen in the eyes of the law and especially in the practice of the law.

    If you read the English newspapers (Korean Times, Herald, Seoul Times, Yonhap News, Chosun Ilbo, etc.) these papers sometimes hint at attitudes which one may encounter in society.
    I feel more like an oddity that Koreans can look at, talk to, (maybe pet or touch) experience before moving on with their lives. Many people I meet are very curious to know what I think and interact with me so they can tell their friends they know or met a foreigner (or in my case an American).
    If you learn about the government's legislation and current laws; they are not that foreigner friendly.
    Sometimes when I am on the bus, I get strange looks of uncomfortable fear or a person with a look saying to me "I am watching you you untrustworthy foreigner...". That is the feeling I get.. often in a crowded bus, the seat next to me is the last one taken or sometimes not at all. I have traveled for the past 15 months to Seoul three times a week (one and 15 minutes each way) on three different buses to study Korean at a university language institute in Seoul. So, I have plenty of field research on this matter. My feeling is that many Koreans(especially if they are older or working class and not wealthier) have not engaged with a lot of foreigners and are afraid of the unknown.
    All in all Korea is good place and you should enjoy yourself. Just DO NOT criticize Korea or anything Korean in ANY way...not in ANY way when you first arrive...if ever. Be a polite, positive, agreeable, and a pleasant observer. That will help you get along during your stay. Good luck!! :)

  19. I will star with this visiting South Korea (was) my dream.After all comments I am not sure that this will be "dream destination"I was thinking that Koreans are polite and hospitality.It was very difficult for me to find friends
    (and I am still looking for) from there to talk with.I was very curios about koreans customs and habits.Say/write something nice for Sout Kore that will make me visit this country someday. Pleas excuse me for my broken english this is not my first language and I am still learning.


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