Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Outer Edges of Korea's Racism, and the Tourist Rule

Dear Korean,

I would like to visit Seoul and spend a little bit of time being a tourist over there. One of my good friends from high school wanted to possibly come along if we can work out a time period to do so. However, some of what I have read about Korea's situation with ESL teachers and tourists in general has me somewhat unsure of whether or not it would be a good idea to bring him along.

My question to you is to what extent would bringing him along not be a good idea? There are certain specific cases I have seen written on the Internet suggesting that South Koreans are, generally speaking, somewhat less tolerant of darker skinned people, at least when they work as English teachers. There is also a popular news video I watched about a white tourist from Canada and a South Asian tourist from Indonesia (I believe) having vastly different experiences asking passerbys in Seoul for directions. Seeing how we would both just be there as tourists, and I fully intend on not acting like the generic "dumb tourist" with the map in my hand looking all confused, do you think I might have an issue buying tickets for an exhibit, being served at a restaurant, etc... if I bring along my dark-skinned friend?

Landon G.

First, the video that Landon mentioned is very much worth a look.

Beyond this video, there is no shortage of materials on the Internet discussing racism in Korea, including this blog. Allow the Korean to be quite clear about this: racism in Korea is real. If you are of a different race in Korea, you will be treated differently. That is a fact. But at the same time, the lack of experience that people have with Korea tends to distort the perspective of just how bad racism in Korea is. Like Landon, a lot of people have a problem putting Korea's racism on a scale. This results in a lot of unnecessary worries.

This is not an easy subject for the Korean to write, because he knows firsthand that the racial majority will never have the full understanding of the racial minority. The Korean is a minority in the U.S., and a majority in Korea. The difference of his experience in the two countries -- especially when it comes to how he is perceived, talked about, and treated by other people -- is an uncrossable ocean. If he was not the same person, the Korean in Korea would never understand the Korean in America.

This, in turn, means that the Korean is not fully cognizant of the entire experience that non-Koreans undergo in Korea. Not only does he not know, but also he cannot know, except for occasional glimpses gleaned from what he reads and reflected back into his own experience. This makes it a perilous venture for the Korean to describe the scale of racism in Korea. A lot of non-Asian-Americans are surprised to find out that "Where are you really from?" is quite annoying for Asian Americans. Similarly, as a member of the majority race in Korea, the Korean cannot describe the every last details on the contours of Korea's racism.

What the Korean can do, with reasonable certainty, is this: set the outer edges of Korea's racism. He cannot describe every corner of the realm that is racism in Korea, but he can at least tell you where that realm ends. That alone should have some value. Again, the Korean would emphasize that Korea's racism is real. But it is ludicrous for anyone to worry about, say, getting pelted by stones on the streets of Seoul just because one has the wrong skin color.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Here is one illustration of the outer edge of Korea's racism:  generally, no matter what color you are, you will be fine as a tourist. Let's call this the "Tourist Rule," a similar concept to the "Foreigner Rule."

Of course, your individual mileage may vary. But generally speaking, there is no reason to expect that, based on your skin color, you will be denied admittance to a tourist attraction or a museum, or that restaurants or other service facilities would decline to serve you. Has that happened before? Definitely. But does it happen frequently enough that you should reevaluate your decision to travel in Korea? No. In all likelihood, nothing bad will happen. (As far as racism is concerned, that is, as tourists are globally a target of crimes and rip-offs.) But even if it does, by and large, what is shown on the video above is probably the worst that one will get. There is no question that what is shown in the video is shitty and unfair. But not having your questions about directions answered is hardly the worst thing in the world, and it should not be enough to discourage most people from travelling and experience a new and interesting place.

Moreover, it is a mistake to measure your potential interaction with Koreans simply in terms of racism. In fact, this is another instance of overestimating Korea's racism -- the idea that Koreans would base their interaction with a foreigner based first and foremost on some kind of rigid racial hierarchy, as if Korea were the Jim Crow South. Be wary, but not scared. Koreans are eager to show off their country, and they love to hear what foreigners think of their country. Again, this is not a guarantee that truly racist things will not happen while you are traveling in Korea. But like everything else in life, if you took a little bit of risk, you might end up being pleasantly surprised.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. I agree with the Korean, that for a tourist, especially moving in tourist areas and doing tourist things in Korea, one will almost certainly not be the victim of the kind of racism that would make one rethink going. Live here? Date a Korean? Try to start a business? Might be a different kettle of fish (might). But to come as a tourist... don't worry about it too much.

    Fact is... as explained by Expat Jane in a classic blog post... racisim in Korea is made out to be much worse than it actually is by white expats, bloggers, etc., because it's their first experience of any kind of racism.

    I'll add this caveat for ANY person visiting Korea: whatever color you are, Korea's a country where people generally groom themselves very well: if you show up in Korea with your shirt tucked in, a haircut you'd wear to an office job, and a shaven chin, you'll generally get a more positive reception here, than if you've got dreadlocks, patches on your clothes, and a beard long enough to have its own breed of funk.

    1. You know you've made a really interesting point in why white expats paint their experience of racism so harsh -- because they have never experienced it.

      Just thought that was a brilliant point and one that makes sense. While racism is a horrible and unjust practice that does exist I do believe sometimes people mistake racism for someone who is just rude.

    2. I love you Roboseyo. I read you all time.
      But, there is this:


      It happens in Korea to minorities no matter how "business-like" they look. Because you cannot negate how a mostly homogeneous society perceives foreigners. This is a difficult example to explain away.

      I use this example because I know this particular woman. She was pretty shaken up.

    3. Juche, do you have more examples or is that the only one? If it's just that one, or even if you have a few more examples from personal experience, it doesn't seem to be statistically significant. So what is a significant number? I have no idea. But with millions of tourists and expats visiting and living in Korea, I would have to say that the number would have to be relatively high to refute what Roboseyo posted.

    4. Juche - Honestly, those kinds of things could happen anywhere.

    5. Juche,

      That attack was committed by a deranged maniac, not a determined racist.

    6. Well, the comment was, "But to come as a tourist... don't worry about it too much." Alas, that's a flawed assumption. Do Korean people go around stabbing African American women? Obviously not. But just discounting as a "deranged manic" (which of course I think he was) with zero racial reasoning a long jump. Depsite what kookimonster thinks, the stabbing of a black women in an area where I'd say there are very very few black women, much less black people, is significant. Do you think this guy was like, "who shall I stab today" and picked someone at random? And she didn't know him. So HOW can you say race was NOT involved?

      No, I don't have more examples. Not something I have an interest in collecting. But would you really expect to hear a lot? Do the police/media scream whenever something like this happens? No one would have heard about this if she wasn't embassy. Again, this is not something specific to Korea - it does happen and is ignored everywhere. But Korea is not some excellent place where all you have to do is dress nice and you're good to go.

      Rather, I'd say tourist would be MORE apt to be viewed with racism, primarily because they don't have any cultural coping ability, such as language and knowledge of cultural cues. I'd think in Seoul this would be less so.

      To be clear, I would totally recommend Seoul as a tourist destination for anyone I know or meet.

    7. But just discounting as a "deranged manic" (which of course I think he was) with zero racial reasoning a long jump. Depsite what kookimonster thinks, the stabbing of a black women in an area where I'd say there are very very few black women, much less black people, is significant. Do you think this guy was like, "who shall I stab today" and picked someone at random? And she didn't know him. So HOW can you say race was NOT involved?

      By that logic, any time anything bad happens to a non-Korean in Korea, it automatically is about racism. Is that what you are saying here?

    8. To be fair, I should have added: to the extent that it involves strangers, any time anything bad happens to a non-Korean in Korea, it automatically is about racism.

    9. could just as well be, Juche, that the simple fact she looked different caused him to fix his attention on her, and if he'd spotted a Korean young person with dyed-blue hair, that would have attracted his attention instead and led him to attack that guy. The fact I look different means I attract attention, not because people are racist, but because I look different. Sometimes that means I attract the attention of cute young people, and that's fun. Sometimes it means drunks on the subway, or weird people, and that's not as fun... but I don't automatically chalk that up as racism, because I know if I wasn't on the subway car, they'd be shambling over to the person in the subway car wearing a spectacular hat, or the really tall one, or the fat one, or the androgynous one, or the one with facial piercings, and saying stupid things to them instead.

  2. I have been to South Korea several times, and have spent extended periods of time there. Speaking from personal experience, I've seen shop owners and employees serving customers with darker skin color, and I don't think there is a big difference at all actually. Many Koreans these days are used to foreigners and people from different nationalities and race by now. Occasionally, I see black people taking the subway in Seoul, and nobody seems to be taking a second glance at them either.

    So I'm quite ready to bet that as long as Landon G. and his friend are generally amiable and nice to anyone they will interact with during their trip, they will have a good time as a tourist in South Korea :)

  3. Yeah I don't think you'll experience racism in a major big bad way as a tourist.
    If you're polite and clean I'm sure people will treat you with kindness here ^^

  4. Landon should also understand that carrying a map & looking confused does not make anyone a "dumb tourist." What does make a person a stupid tourist is talking boisterously in public, getting angry because things are done differently from the US (different is not necessarily wrong, it's just different), expecting everyone to speak English, constantly comparing everything, refusing to try anything new, making obnoxious passes at the women, et cetera.

    Also, there are dozens--no--hundreds of blogs written by black & brown people living in Korea. Do a quick search and get a first-hand perspective about their experiences. YouTube also has tons of videos about the subject.

    1. You forgot speaking English really, slowly and demeaningly at a person who does not speak English at all because they think it will help, or even at a person whose English is excellent.

  5. This is not to justify what is going on in that video, but one must also consider the socioeconomic context as well. Just like many people from south of the border are engaged in farm/manual labor and other less compensated, less desirable jobs, South Korea has many people from SE Asia working on menial jobs. Classism intersections racism here. I wonder what would have happened if both foreigners were wearing suits.

    1. Good point. Your comment is similar to the thoughts I had when I saw the video a while back. What if there are other factors involved besides race or ethnicity? How can anyone draw any sort of conclusion from this "experiment" - at least enough to say that this is a clear case of racism? As you mentioned, socioeconomic factors may have been involved. There are others. Height is one. Taller men, generally speaking, are more admired and command a much higher level of attention and respect across most if not all cultures. It certainly does in Korea and the U.S . The white tourist was clearly taller, and by a lot. Body shape is another. Tall and lean is more admired than short and pudgy, again, especially in Korea. Voice is another variable. There is a certain range of a man's voice that is particularly pleasing to people, especially women. This tone is in the mid to lower ranges like the White tourist's. High and squeaky like the voice of the SE Asian tourist is not going to get you much positive attention or respect from strangers. Clothes is another variable. The white man's black jacket, imo at least, is more stylish and looks more expensive than the 12.99 Walmart special the Asian guy was wearing which won't impress a lot of people in fashion conscious Korea. Even the colors of the clothes have an affect on people. So do certain accents and the level of English. Some may say that these factors are insignificant. I would wholeheartedly disagree. In fact, race may have been only a very small part of the overall equation.

      If the filmmakers wanted to make a statement about race or ethnicity, then they should have eliminated as many of the other variables as possible. Find tourists who have similar builds, similar degree of attractiveness, similar voices and even accents and familiarity with English, dress them exactly the same (JY's suggestion of putting them in nice suits is an excellent idea), coach them to act and say the same things in the same manner, and then ask the pedestrians whom the tourists encountered to fill out a questionnaire about their impressions of the tourists. Then, and only then, we might have a clearer picture of racial/ethnic bigotry in Korea.

      Btw, I made the mistake of reading some of the Youtube comments on that video. Makes me not want to have kids and bring them into such an incredibly ignorant world. Ugh.

  6. i think many foreigners mistakes curiosity for racism.

  7. Sorry but as someone who is half african american and half Korean and who was raised in Korea....I have to say that Korea is pretty racist towards black/darker people.
    Maybe not as bad as say America in the 50's/60's but bad enough that i wouldn't bring my African american cousins here.

    1. I know...We, Koreans, are so unfair to black/darker people. What can I say... except we are sorry. We need a good education at school and at home. I personally believe we can overcome racism in Korea. Please understand unlike other Western countries we as a society don't have much experience having those people around.

    2. That is generalising though, you do realise that? - If you say Korea, you are automatically placing all its citizens in the same category - never mind that all people should be considered individuals. Had you for example worded it 'some Koreans' or 'a few Koreans' that would make it less general. I do think it's really interesting that you say you have an African-American/Korean background. Interesting indeed.

    3. Fine then I won't generalize all Koreans BUT,as someone who also have black/Korean family members I am well aware of the attitudes Koreans have towards people of darker skin and I would be a little reluctant to bring my family there as well. People have to admit along with the stigma of being a foreigner in the country like SK...being dark foreigner in SK has its disadvantages.

  8. Racism is racism and there should be no excuses made for it. Every person is a Human Being before they are a "Race" or a "Nationality" or even a Gender. So why was it so hard to show politeness towards the PoC tourist in that video? While I'm not here to generalise and call out Koreans on their racism I will say that as a PoC myself and a person born in the South African Apartheid with parents who lived through the Aparthied for 30 years of their life I know Racism when I see it. And (some) Koreans that I know from personal encounters exhibit degrading behaviour towards darker skinned people, even if it is a Korean person...or as I like to think, they follow American popular culture and cannot tell the difference between what is apropriate and what isn't. Because you know, you have to use Blackface on SNL Korea to totally get the point across. End rant.

    1. Why was it so hard to show politeness? Well...I don't know. Maybe it's motivated by racism or maybe not. Here is my experience that might shed a little light on Koreans' racism or prejudice or whatever.
      I had a chance to hang out with a black student and a bunch of others in the Netherlands a long time ago. Although I didn't and still don't consider myself a racist, I have to admit I was kind of overwhelmed (not threatened) by his skin color because of its darkness. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But it was the unfamiliarity and strangeness in a real life even though I watched a lot of black people in movies and on TV, which is not to say that racism in Korea is superficial. Maybe it goes deeper than that. But generally I believe it's not the "We are genetically superior to Black people" kind of racism.

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  10. Of course racism exists in SK. Racism exists in all countries. Me and my friends who lived there never had anything happen to us. Dark, white, etc.

  11. From my own experience, I'd say there ARE some prejudices based on someone's look, but that's not only about foreigners. For example, the fat people and people who don't care too much about their look, as well, have their own problems in the society.
    Also, Korean racism is different from the racism you can see in Europe, where football fans and neo nazzis are litterally ready to kill you if they're in the mood. If a Korean doesn't like you, he or she will simply avoid you.

    I didn't feel too much hate or weirdness from Koreans. And it seems to me that they are kinda afraid of us sometimes. But when I speak in Korean to them, they get friendly all of a sudden.

    I didn't experience too much problems for being a foreigner, maybe because I'm a "white" European. Although I don't like the terms "white" and "black", because we're all brown.

    I do admit that I feel more comfortable when I'm hanging around with my boy, because he's Korean, so if there is some serious stuff about school or government, or shopping (because in the market streets they might raise the price to foreigners), when they see a Korean, it's somewhat a different approach. Though, sometimes, when they see me, they think he's foreign too.

    Anyway, the tricks are the following, not easy to achieve, though:

    For the government and some official things, such as permission of stay and studying - As long as you can "proove" them that you got the money, you've got nothing to worry. If you have no money, it will be stressfull.

    For the Korean people - Speak Korean and they will love you. If you don't speak Korean, it will be hard until you learn it, but they're really satisfied with just an "Annyeonghaseyo", a bow and a smile. Of course, as your language skills are getting better, they will respect you more and get closer.

  12. Unfortunately you lost me at "This video is worth checking out"

    This video has been passed around a lot lately. It's a terrible video and a terrible example.
    1)It takes the mythbuster approach to scientific study. 1 case is anecdotal evidence and nothing else
    2)The setup itself lent itself to bias simply by having the SE asian foreigner ask the question differently.

    The white guy opened with his question quickly "Excuse me....Coex". Some people did appear as if they were going to ignore him until they heard the word "Coex".
    The SE asian never gets COEX out, because he starts with "Can I ask you some questions?"
    There is nothing there for a beginner to non-english speaker to grab on to that they might understand. For those who do understand, this is often the lead in to a survey or something else. Let's not forget that some intense korean church-goers will follow people up and down the street trying to get them to talk to them. Since he looks Asian, they may have thought he's a churchie wanting to engage them.

    It is in fact this kind of attitude that creates this kind of racist sentiment in Korea.
    Someone like TK sees this, and holds it up as an example of racism and the sheep buy in to it, repeat it, pass it around, and over their next beer with their all foreign crowd they all go "Those Koreans sure are racist, did you see that video?" "Uhhuh"

  13. White expats complain the most about racism because they've never experienced it.
    Black expats - a lot less, as well as gay expats.

  14. I don't complain about racism, Nite. I do criticise it, though, but that was much long before I became a minor group. Because I got tired of some exagerated nationalist talks from a mentality that's left to us since the war in the early 1990s (Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia). This mentality went much further than just hating the ethnic group of the state we were fighting against. It's a shame, but we got the neo nazi boneheads as well.

    Besides that, it's not true "whites" never experienced it. For example, Slavic people used to be slaves to the Venice Republic, the Austrian and Hungarian monarchy and many other rich countries of that time in history. In fact, the name "Slavic" itself means "slave".

    And it's not true black people and homosexuals don't complain that much. Take a look at all of the amazing black hip-hop artists. Besides that, I don't think black people are bad, but it is a fact that in some parts, they are developig their own racism and violence for the "whites", as the complaints went much further from being merely complaints. And take a good look at the Gay Pride parades regularly every year in many European countries.

    As well, a lot of "whites" are too snob to complain about anything, especially not racism, and nobody wants any problems or to go to jail, so they avoid any fight and stay quiet.

    So, Nite, do some research before you make conclusions.

  15. Some of the so called "Racism" in Korea has to do with several different factors. Factor one being experience. Besides the tourists that comes to Korea, the most foreigner interactions that South Koreans have had wth foreigners involved US military. Until 2006 or so, South Korea was a destination where US military sent some of their worst if not problem makers to, and they caused problems. So, considering that the US military has been in South Korea for nearly 70 years and through that time, US has sent some of the worst military members they can offer. Experiencing something for close to 70 years would cause people to view certain people through jaded view. Factor two, Koreans in general, not the second generation gyopos or those with English backtground, but MOST koreans in Korea does not speak foreign language. No enlgish, spanish, german, or other foreign language. Koreans are relatively proud people that does not like to seem like they don't know something or look like a food in front of other people. So, if someone ask question in English or other language, they will, as a automatic reaction, ignore said question. Here is a tip for you, if you are going to visit foreign country, bother to learn few key pharses in their language. It will take you LONG ways in getting some of your questions answered. So, to wrap it up, close to 70 years of dealing with bad apples, and just ignoring something they don't know how to deal with.

  16. I agree that white people might over-exaggerate the racism just because they've never experienced it before. I myself didn't experience any racism. I also think people tend to jump to conclusions when someone is rude to them in Korea. They automatically scream "RACISM!" when really the person is just rude. I give people the benefit of the doubt. Until they actually show that they're being mean rude to me because of my race, I just assume they're just impolite.

  17. Lol the words 'wrong skin colour' seem a bit harsh. Having said that, it may be a bit biased for one video to measure racism in South Korea. The two for example approached entirely different people altogether, so how can we know that the people the first person approached wouldn't be as kind and helpful to the next traveller? Also, how do we know that the people who were asked simply just didn't have enough time to stop and answer? I'm not saying that racism doesn't exist in S.Korea, but sometimes people may mistake 'not having enough time' or any of the likes as racism. At times there needs to be a clear definition of exactly what racism is and what levels of racism exist? - Just an opinion. Anyone's entitled to theirs I believe.

  18. My wife and I - both VERY VERY white - were in Seoul 7 years ago and we were invariably approached by overtly helpful people on many occasions while trying to sort out locations, destinations, etc.

    One man - to all appearances a well-off businessman in a suit - took about half an hour out of his morning to lead us to a camera shop, a Kinkos and recommend a good breakfast joint.

    I dunno from racism, but I didn't come across a single Korean citizen who came even CLOSE to treating us poorly.

    I suppose that means it's good to be white.

  19. Koreans are not racist in the same way as people in western countries but they do judge people by complexion - including fellow Koreans - and by how developed their country is seen to be. Russians or Romanians, for instance, might not be treated the same as Americans or French. Darker skin is seen as less attractive.

    There is no violent hostility to other races, however - not that I've seen - although there is xenophobic nationalism.

  20. Based from my own experience, people who grow up in a homogenous environment (people, culture, etc.) is less flexible towards differences(that's me)than those who grow up in heterogeneous one(a lot my friends belong to this category).
    I considered myself quite friendly and non judgmental, but sometimes I do taken aback upon meeting people with different skin color, religion, etc. It took me 29 years of living to understand that my moment of hesitation/fascination/confusion will probably considered as rude/unwelcoming attitude.
    I personally think "real rude people" is minority among us, the rest "come across as rude-people" is probably just like me.
    Broaden your horizon, meet people from around the world or at least observe them from MANY sources - don't rely from just a few (and narrow) point of view.

  21. I'm 100% Korean. I look Korean. I speak Korean. Yet, I am also a victim of racism in Korea. When a girl doesn't want to talk to me. When someone doesn't give me directions. When the old ladies push me on the subway. When a popular restaurant runs out of the most popular dish. When a cafe refuses to give me free milk for my Americano, because Starbucks in the US does. RACIST!

    1. How about when a bunch of Korean men attack a white man just for having a Korean girlfriend - is that racism, or is it just an annoying inconvenience???

  22. Real racism is when a country says, even though you were born here and your parents were born here... we don't like your ethnic name. If you want to be a citizen change your name to something we like.


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