A fellow TCK community member has sent me a question on her Korean experience with questions.
Is it true that Koreans can be a bit standoffish when it comes to non-Koreans?
Is it true that they have a strong cultural pride?
While I was typing down my answers for her questions on e-mail, I realized that this is helping me to organize my observation, experience, and thoughts of Korean society . So I figured that it would be better to just post it on my blog. The following is my subjective answers for her question:
Korea is a tini-tiny country stuck between big bros like China, Russia, and Japan. If you can sum up Korean history into one sentence, it is a constant lynching by China, Russia, Mongolia and Japan, taking their turns – everyone was dying to get a grip of this place because it was a peninsula, acting as a bridge between sea and continent. For countries like this, there are two ways of survival. You either be eaten by one of those big bros, or be totally homogenous and kick out everyone who is not in your group (usually deemed as untrustworthy, even a potential traitor). I guess South Korea chose the option #2 and the traditional mentality continues.
The public education is structured in that way. I do not know about current history textbooks, but I remember when I was in Korean public school, the textbook was almost all about South Korea is the best country, with best cultural power and highest originality, all our Asian neighbors (especially Japan) learned from us yet that evil Japan stabbed our back and lied to the world. Therefore we should let the world know that we are the right one and also the most awesome one. And now people who went through that education is making news, doing politics and raising their children. Of course, as I grew up and learned American and Japanese history, I figured it wasn’t all like that…On the top of that, since Korean language is explicitly used in South Korea, many Koreans lack access to various viewpoints.
As of Korean TCKs who are living with their mono Korean parents, I somewhat doubt whether they can be a typical TCK – or maybe they don’t even think themselves as TCK. Besides the education issue I mentioned above, many Korean parents stick to their little circle of Korean community even in oversea – doing business targeting Koreans, working in Korean company full of Koreans, going Korean church when there is another church much closer from their home, always watching Korean TVs even in abroad, reluctant to eat anything except Korean food, etc.
I think this explains your friend’s experience on Korean restaurant. Key words: one-of-us or not-one-of-us mentality and business targeting Koreans.
I do not mean to imply that I am sitting high up on the white horse when others are not – but attending boarding schools in very white area of US from relatively young age, I did not really spend that much time with my mono Korean parents. Meaning, I did not have many chances to go Korean church every sunday, watch Korean TV shows all the time, nor eat nothing but Korean food. I believe that is why I don’t have that strong sense of Korean in myself. Like you said, Koreans can be really cliquish. If a fellow Korean sits with some non-Korean group people for a lunch, others go “oh, she doesn’t like us. She’s trying to be white. She thinks she’s too American. Sell-out!” It’s really hard to balance between two groups.
Like I said before, Korea is still a very homogenous society and people are still not very accustomed to dealing with difference. In mono Korean mentality, if you are foreigner, of course you have non-Asian looks, let alone your lack of Korean language skill. If any one of these assumptions are not right, people are just lost, rather than “Oh, my bad, sorry, that is possible.” People like me is even bigger enigma: she speaks fluent Korean, she looks like Korean, her parents are Korean and her passport is Korean, but she doesn’t act like one…wait, what!?!?! She can’t do that! Story of my life…
Anyhow, starting from 90’s, Korean society started to slowly internationalize. At this moment, Korea is getting closer to social conflict to be caused by internationalization. Many farmers “imported” brides from Southeastern Asia and Mainland China, not to mention the workers (this includes black/Caucassian English teachers). But Koreans’ mentality is not ready to handle them and accept as a citizen.
In addition, there is a severe lack of social supporting system for mixed-race children, especially of Korean and Southeastern Asian or Chinese. Many of them go through ostracization by schoolteachers and student peers. Most importantly, many of them are falling far behind in education. In city of Ansan (industrial city filled with factories, having probably the highest foreigner population in South Korea), more than 70% of these children are not accepted by local public schools because 1. their Korean is not sufficient enough to catch up with academics, 2. many schools lack the resources to care about them, and 3. school officials are very afraid of these kids, possibly bringing down the school’s average grade and (therefore) reputation too.
In the end, and whether Koreans want it or not, South Korea will be internationalized, as long as it wants to be based on capitalism and democracy. But to be honest, it is hard for me too, when people just throw it at me without consideration or accepting me as what I am. How long would it be take for Koreans to be more generous on differences? Would I be able to hold my breath that long? Or, would I be able to even run away?
I don’t know about that one yet.