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[Viewpoint] Multiculturalism in Korea

Multiculturalism will introduce contrasting views and challenge existing assumptions.

Aug 26,2010
Media in Korea is abuzz with the new era of multiculturalism. With more than one million foreigners in Korea, 2 percent of the population comes from other cultures.

The Korean government is promoting many programs to make Korea more foreigner friendly. International taxis with English-speaking drivers have debuted. International villages have been established in seven districts of Seoul. English language medical services are being promoted. New foreign schools are opening. The list goes on.

The efforts by the Korean government to make foreign visitors more welcome are to be applauded. But why are these efforts needed? Korea has long been perceived as unfriendly to foreigners and a difficult place in which to live, but Koreans are hospitable to guests to a fault. I know of no other culture in which guests are treated so well. They want visitors to take away a good impression of Korea, but then they want them to go away.

Foreigners are supposed to visit Korea, enjoy the food, visit the palaces and the folk villages, ski in Gangwon, shop in the department stores, experience the conveniences of a modern city and take great memories away with them.

If you stay too long, Koreans become uncomfortable with you. I first arrived in Korea 55 years ago this month. Many times, I have been told that my longevity and permanence here make Koreans feel uncomfortable. Having a 2 percent foreign population unquestionably causes ripples, but having one million temporary foreign residents does not make Korea a multicultural society.

Why is it that Koreans have to work so hard to deal with people from other cultures? Korea is one of the oldest countries in the world. Aided by geography, Korea has maintained a single political unit within its borders for a millennium and a half. Koreans share a common language unique to the country. Confucianism, the defining philosophy of the past 500 years, encourages group orientation and emphasizes strict adherence to order, status and behavior. Religion has never been particularly dominating in Korea and to this day, Korea has hardly any religion-based conflicts.

Historically, interactions with foreigners have been quite limited and most of them have not been good for Korea. Korea reacted by closing its borders to “unwanted” foreigners and became the “Hermit Kingdom.” (I like to remind my expat friends that just a century and a half ago, being a foreigner was a capital crime.) This isolation and common culture created a unique environment. Everyone is programmed with the same operating system, resulting in a high level of social cohesion.

In many ways, this homogeneity is one of Korea’s greatest strengths. Shared values create harmony. Sacrifice for the nation is a given. Difficult and painful political and economic initiatives are endured without discussion or debate. It is easy to anticipate the needs and behavior of others. It is the cornerstone that has helped Korea survive adversity.

But there is a downside, too. Koreans don’t understand their own culture. It is a giant blind side. Marshall McLuhan said, “I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.” William Sinunu said, “The minority know more about the majority than the majority know about themselves.”

Koreans are immersed in their culture and are thus blind to its characteristics and quirks. Examples of group think are everywhere. Because Koreans share values and views, they support decisions even when they are obviously bad. Multiculturalism will introduce contrasting views and challenge existing assumptions. While it will undermine the homogeneity, it will enrich Koreans with a better understanding of themselves.

Korea opened the doors to the hermitage in the late 19th century only to be buffeted by imperialism, then severed by the Cold War. No wonder they were wary of foreigners. Few foreigners came to Korea and those who did were kept at arms length by their hosts. Foreign participation in commercial and social life was limited. Foreigners could not own land (until 1998), ownership was limited in “sensitive” industries, government jobs were off limits, even mundane things such as credit cards and mobile phones were hard to get. As a result, an almost universal feeling among foreigners, one that endures to this day, is that we are not really welcome here.

But Korea is on an unstoppable trajectory. The number of foreigners living in Korea is increasing - many (including this author) as permanent residents. We are home, not just visiting. The influx of foreign wives is generating multicultural kids. Korea’s low birth rate and aging population can only be offset by immigration. Unification with North Korea (which is beginning to look inevitable) will introduce sudden challenges to homogeneity. Ready or not, multiculturalism is on its way. It will offer challenges, opportunities and rewards. And Korea will be better off for it.

*The writer is a great grandson of Horace Underwood, one of the earliest Protestant missionaries sent to the Joseon Kingdom, and Senior Partner of IRC Limited.


By Peter Underwood



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