Archive for October 29th, 2007

Multiculturalism in Korea

photos on a wall in seoul. photo by SMOKEHARD.

IT’S DIFFICULT TO EVEN grasp the idea of living in a homogeneous society. For most people in the urban United States interacting with people from various cultural backgrounds is a normal part of daily life. My experience growing up near Seattle was no different; African-Americans, Chinese, Latinos, Koreans, Filipinos and so on were my classmates, neighbors and friends, and cuisine from around the planet was within a mile’s reach.

After several subway rides in Seoul – and many unbroken, uncomfortable stares from people of all ages – it began to dawn on me that for many in this world such multiculturalism is not the norm. Contrary to most American cities, where every block offers eclectic dishes of some kind, what is mostly available in Korea is (unsurprisingly) Korean food. In my experience, hearing anything other than Korean spoken away from a university campus was extremely rare, and usually brought on a round of “Name that Language.”

But things are changing.

Several days ago Yonhap News reported that a growing foreign population is turning Korea into a multiracial society. In August the number of non-Koreans living inside the country reached the 1 million mark, largely due to a growing number of rural Korean men marrying women from Southeast Asia and China, and to people from Central Asia and the Philippines immigrating in search of work. Of course the largest foreign population in the country is still Americans, due to continued military presence.

Along with this, Yonhap says, neighborhoods like Little Tokyo and the Central Asian Village have been popping up, drawing homesick foreigners together for food, chat and news from home.

In addition to growing numbers of foreigners, cultural trends have been entrenching themselves into a changing Korea. Lee Su Hyun writes for the International Herald Tribune that the government mandated 5-day workweek (adopted in 2004) has given working Koreans more leisure time, and introduced a uniquely Western tradition: brunch. Lee says restaurants serving pancakes and eggs have lines out the door on Sundays, and that people are lingering longer with friends and family.

So what does all this mean for Korea? Many will likely argue that these foreign influences will trigger a slow breakdown of the country’s authentic culture, but I’m inclined to disagree. Like the many immigrants who’ve made America their home, the future generations of immigrants in Korea will similarly adopt the country as their homeland – Korean as their mother tongue. Bringing diverse backgrounds to the cultural pot in Korea will increase cultural sensitivity in the nation, and give cities like Seoul a more distinctly metropolitan feel.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not advocating a blanket embrace of globalization in Korea or that Korean restaurants be razed for more TGI Fridays. But in an age where information moves in milliseconds and people are highly mobile, nations everywhere are evolving. This process is natural and, for better or worse, unstoppable. While Korea ought to be wary of shifts towards English-only education and of homogenization through international chain businesses, it should also be accepting of what this new cultural dynamic has to offer.

(Edited: 10/30/2007)

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October 2007