GLOBAL LEADERS, global campus, global vision - these are phrases that you probably hear quite frequently if you live in Korea. Korea clearly strives to become a global and diverse society, for which multiculturalism is a basic yet crucial element to be considered. Whether it has truly become a multicultural society, however, still remains at question. To what extent has multiculturalism developed in Korea over the years and what will the future of a global Korean society look like?
Multiculturalism is the phenomenon where a variety of cultural groups exist in one society or nation. It is a concept opposite to that of “culturalism“ or ”mono-culturalism,“ which imply strong pride for one country’s culture that leads to the disregard, or even rejection, of other cultures. Rather, multiculturalism is an ideology that allows a society to preserve its traditional culture while also accepting other cultural backgrounds. The concept of multiculturalism was first introduced in the 1970s, in countries such as the United States and Canada, as a solution to the cultural tensions between minorities and larger cultural groups. Especially now that the world has become smaller through globalization and technology, a sudden increase in the number of interracial couples, immigrants and foreign workers around the world has formed the basis for frequent cultural interactions among different groups of people. This increase in cross-cultural interactions has led to the desirability of true multicultural societies that recognize and respect cultural differences. Multiculturalism in Korea started to take place after the 1990s, with the influx of foreign workers and the rise of international marriages. According to Grace Kang, a professor teaching intercultural communications course at Yonsei, “the Ministry of Justice classified about 932,000 foreign citizens from 184 countries as long-term residents in Korea in 2012.” The number of foreign residents is expected to rise to 3 million by 2030. Statistics from the OECD also show that among OECD countries, Korea has had the highest increase of foreign residents, marking an overall rise of 19.9% between the years 2000- 2008. According to the book Korea’s Multiculturalism , “Multiculturalism is not a fact we can ignore anymore. During the holiday seasons, the media releases articles about government institutions’ or other corporations’ involvement with international families, while TV channels air human documentaries on wives of foreign descent living in the countryside with their Korean husbands.” Big domestic companies are welcoming more foreign employees, while English hagwons , international schools and colleges prefer to hire foreign faculty over Korean nationals with the same level of fluency. Universities in Korea, including Yonsei, also strive for diversity among their student body to promote a more global campus. Even celebrities such as Sayuri, Sam Hamington, Julien Kang and various K-pop idol group members have gained popularity despite their different cultural backgrounds. It is hard to describe today’s Korean society without referring to the multiculturalism that has taken place in the past 20 years.
Yet, what’s missing?
Since a nation can be characterized as multicultural when there is cultural and ethnic diversity within its population, 21C Korea has undoubtedly become a so-called multicultural society. However, experts claim that Korea’s multiculturalism is still at its primary stage. In 2012, for example, MBC aired a show named “Think Different” with a subsection titled “The Shocking Reality about Relationships with Foreigners.” The show criticized foreigner- Korean relationships, claiming that “most of the foreign males dating Korean females disappeared without a trace in case of pregnancy, leaving all the damages and remaining losses to the Korean female victims.” This overgeneralization raised a lot of online c r i t i c i s m s about the acceptance o f multiculturalism in Seoul. Julia Bass, an English teacher in Korea posted in her blog that this “issue has everything to do with every foreigner in Korea. Each time I walk down the street and people take a second look at me, I wonder: I've seen the video, maybe they've seen it too. Do they think something is wrong with me? Am I actually unwanted in my quaint, peaceful town of Yeoju that I've come to call home for the last 10 months? I'm an outsider to them, and now I'm an outsider who is associated with messages like this one. Moreover, messages that my students will see and will affect the way they see me.” This is how, according to Oh Gyung-seok (Prof., Institute of Multicultural Studies, Hanyang Univ. ) , we claim t o favor multiculturalism on one hand, but end up scaring away the foreigners that enabled such a multicultural society. This constitutes the reality of multiculturalism in Korea. In other words, Koreans typically welcome foreigners, but seem rather uncomfortable when actually interacting with them. A survey on the national levels of multicultural acceptability in Korea, conducted in 2011 by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, showed that the Korea Multiculturalism Acceptability Inventory (KMAI) scored only 51.17 points out of 100, proving that Korea’s multiculturalism still has a long way to go. But why is it so hard for Korean society to fully embrace the concept of multiculturalism? According to Bae Moonhee (Reporter, Munhwa Journal), “there are a great number of policies and programs regarding international marriages and foreigners in Korea today. Yet we should first ponder upon whether we are excluding the foreigners from our notion of ‘multiculturalism,’ whether we are mistaking multiculturalism as a form of ‘Koreanism,’ and whether we are judging difference as wrong.” Some claim that Korean society has supported the doctrine of assimilation for a long period of time. While multiculturalism stresses the diversity of languages, cultures, religions and ethnicities as a means to promote peaceful co-existence within a society, the doctrine of assimilation uses all of the above elements as a means towards uniformity among its members. It creates a so-called melting pot of cultures, which often forcefully achieves this “unification,” by suppressing the minority and raising possible conflicts. In her article “Emergence of ‘New Citizens’ and Multiculturalism Discourse in Korea,” Kim Young-ok, a scholar at Ewha’s Korean Women’s Institute, argues that “Korea has experienced a sudden shift towards multiculturalism without any cultural preparation.” Historically, Korea has been a homogenous country that maintained a single culture for a long time. The Korean education system emphasized Korea’s preservation of a pure nation until the early 1990s, which explains the reluctance of Korean citizens in embracing multiculturalism even today. Kang also points out that “it is clear that descriptively, there is multiculturalism in Korea. However, normatively, Korea is dealing with growing diversity, but still wishes to remain as a ‘pure blood,’ ethnically homogenous society to some extent.” Jung Na-young (Soph., UIC, Political Science & Int. Relations, Yonsei Univ.) claims that the history of foreign intervention during the Japanese colonial period, and events after Korea’s independence with the split of the peninsula, the appointment of the 1st Korean President, and so on played a significant role. “This made Koreans desire a stronger hold over issues that affect them directly.” In the words of Kang, “the identity of a ‘pure blood Korean’ has eventually influenced today’s Korean individuals, overriding other identities, thus hindering the acceptance of cultural and social diversity.” Of course, foreigners also need to learn to adapt to the values and norms of Korea. However, a variety of obstacles hinders the process of acculturation – one’s adaptation to the values and norms of his new host culture – for the foreign population in Korea. “One should take a class on Confucianism before coming to Korea,” suggests Kang. “It is important to understand the virtue of social hierarchy, meritocracy, family and personal betterment to connect with Korean people more effectively. There are also social rules of conduct one ought to know beforehand to successfully adjust to Korea.” Without proper understanding, it is harder for foreigners to fully acculturate themselves in Korean society. Furthermore, the language barrier is a huge factor in slowing down the process. “Koreans have a fear of failure” says Kang. “With foreigners in particular, the fear of incorrect language u s a g e i s a m a j o r o b s t a c l e i n communication. This may derive from a psychological barrier originating from the Korean education system where stating one's opnion or giving something a try may have not always been encouraged.” According to Ji Jeong-min (Soph., UIC, International Studies, Yonsei Univ.), the use of honorific language also plays a big role in interactions within Korea. “You need to figure out the other person’s age when conversing with them. Once you get the ‘age thing’ done, then comes respect. It is such a vital cultural element in Korean society, yet difficult to understand from other cultural viewpoints. The foreigners are not accustomed to this culture.” Yet what makes it harder for foreigners to feel at home in Korea is the common prejudice and discrimination against foreigners. “The nation is multicultural, but the people aren’t,” claims Ji. “Unlike other countries in the West, Korean people only saw people with similar ‘Asian’ characteristics for quite a long time: black hair, dark eyes, similar body size, etc. Thus when they see someone different, they react immediately.” “They also stare,” says Jeong. “Staring at foreigners is too common in Korea. When someone speaks a language other than Korean or has different physical features, Koreans just stare at them as if they are seeing an alien.” According to Rhyu Sang-young (Prof., Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei Univ.), this goes against the core values of democracy. “Democracy is all about tolerating, embracing and respecting everyone in a responsible manner” he says. “Yet the ugly side of democracy is the r e a l i t y o f 21C Korea. We often underestimate or even discriminate against our immigrants, while they are actually the ones helping us out. A lot of young Korean individuals choose to live abroad instead of in their own country. Why? Because for them, there is nothing attractive, nothing fascinating about Korea. Yet these foreigners choose to reside in our country and are willing to accept our culture. We should thus thank them instead of criticizing them and accept the fact that they are big players in our reality today.”
Embracing multiculturalism in Korea
Then how can a more effective and tangible form of multiculturalism in Korea be reached in the future? Scholars often point out to the “salad bowl” case of the United States as a form of successful multiculturalism with several hints for other countries to follow. As the name itself indicates, this form of multiculturalism allows a variety of cultural groups to coexist within a single society while preserving their own identity and unique cultural characteristics, just as different ingredients are mixed in a salad bowl without losing their taste or color. In other words, this salad bowl of cultures is a paradigm of society which allows the mingling of juxtaposing cultural elements without being forced to conform to a single cultural standard. The residents of New York City, for instance, feel at home in the United States, and are eventually willing to become New Yorkers themselves, and form their own American dream during their stay in America. Other major cities, including Seoul, should also create a second home for the foreigners by introducing them to the culture and language. As follows, it is time that Korea develops a salad bowl of its own that will generate an environment that allows foreigners to slowly familiarize themselves with Korean culture. Multiculturalism has now become a form of reality within Korean society, and the need for a basis of political, societal, economic, cultural and educational policies along with a philosophical and ideological background are crucial in establishing a healthy society. For this to happen, a change of mindset is required at the national, local and individual levels. The government should make laws and policies protecting minority rights, while promoting educational p r o g r ams a b o u t t h e b e a u ty o f multiculturalism. “It does not matter whether something is made in the United States by a Korean firm, or made in Korea by a U.S. firm. This is the mindset we need in the globalized society. We should not seek a form of ethnic nationalism, but pure nationalism,” says Rhyu. At the individual level, we must learn to show respect and understanding toward c u l t u r e s t h a t a r e d i f f e r e n t and acknowledge them instead of judging them for being different. In the words of Lee Gilyeon (Director, Research Institute of Multiculturalism i n Korea), “We should make a distinction between difference and differentiation. Difference is a concept that simply exists, without harming any of the parties involved, like the difference of gender, race, height or age. Differentiation, on the other hand, compares and ranks two or more parties according to subjective objectives. We should not differentiate people because they are different, since differentiation might eventually become a means of attacking or even harming the other.”
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A true global society is one that truly embraces multiculturalism, a place where diversity is encouraged and respect towards the other does not require second thought. The peaceful coexistence of different cultures will eventually make a society global and ready to be integrated on a more international level. As Donzella Michel Malone once said, “Celebrate diversity, practice acceptance, and may we all choose peaceful options to conflict.”