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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.