[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]The changing nature of ChuseokJudging from recent newspaper articles complaining about the Chuseok blues, Korea has finally joined the ranks of “advanced nations.” It used to be that people would endure the hardship of crowded trains and endless traffic jams to travel down country to their revered hometowns. If a history of Chuseok were written, the 1970s and 1980s would be recorded as Chuseok’s peak. Beginning in the 1990s, the holiday began to lose its importance as the city became the locus of family relations and living standards rose. For busy nuclear families, Chuseok has now become a time of stress as families quarrel about contemporary concerns like credit-card debts and Internet addiction.
One group of people in Korea, however, finds Chuseok liberating: foreign workers. For them, as for Koreans in times past, Chuseok is a chance to escape from long days of backbreaking labor and to socialize with friends. The irony of Chuseok in 2003 is that foreign workers appreciate it more than Koreans do.
A discussion of foreign workers usually focuses on their legal status and treatment in the workplace. Controversies over the legal status of foreign workers continue even as the government has tried to quell such controversies because mistreatment of foreign workers is rampant in the workplace. Illegal workers and those who have overstayed their visas are forced to live a semi-underground life to evade the watchful eyes of immigration officials. Appalled by the treatment of foreign workers, Korean nongovernmental organizations and religious groups are increasingly speaking out on their behalf.
Between the headlines of abuse and discrimination lies a different and optimistic story. The story begins in Ansan, where Koreans and foreign workers are creating a new multicultural community. A short walk from Ansan station near the end of subway line No.4 leads to “International Street” in the heart of what was once a declining shopping district. Here, Koreans live and work with foreigners from all across Asia. The most prominent groups are ethnic Koreans from China, Bangladeshis and Indonesians. Shops post signs in several languages and noraebang, or song rooms, offer a wide range of songs. The shopkeepers, mostly Korean, clearly welcome the business. Indeed, in 2001, Korean merchants in the area joined foreign workers in protesting a crackdown on illegal foreign workers. The story of Ansan is a story of Koreans and foreign workers depending on each other and creating a new multicultural community in the process.
The situation in Ansan may be unique because in the area around the station, foreigners make up about 60 percent of the population. A closer look at other emerging foreign communities in Seoul and Gyeonggi province, however, shows that similar multicultural communities are emerging even where foreigners are in the minority. Since the 1990s, Garibong-dong in the southwest corner of the city has become the center of life for ethnic Koreans from China who have turned the area into a thriving Korea-Chinatown. In Changshin-dong near Dongdaemun market, Vietnamese and other foreign workers are giving new life to the aging Changshin market. The same is true with parts of Bucheon, where workers from Nepal and Burma are concentrated. In Hyehwa-dong, Filipinos have become more common, creating an instant Little Manila near the Seongdong Cathedral every Sunday. Finally, Itaewon, which has always had a large concentration of foreigners, mostly Americans, is becoming increasingly diverse as South Asians and Africans have been moving into the area.
In each of these areas, foreign workers have moved into older areas that Koreans have left in favor of new areas, such as Bundang and Ilsan. The influx of foreign workers has created new commercial needs that Korean merchants are all too willing to meet. At the same time, the workers do jobs that Koreans no longer want to do. Many of the workers in butcher houses in Seoul, for example, are now Mongolian. As the number of foreign workers increases, they become more integrated into the economy and local communities as Koreans depend on them for labor and business and they depend on Koreans for jobs and protection.
What then is Chuseok in the emerging multicultural pockets of Korea? A holiday to fight about credit card debts? Perhaps, but it is more a celebration of community as Koreans and foreign workers meet in the public spaces of parks, shops, and markets. The story of multicultural communities in Korea has just begun, but will soon reach a turning point in the plot. Will Koreans permit, if not encourage, foreign workers to establish themselves in Korea? Or will they enforce “otherness” by rejecting those who wear out their welcome? The answer to this question, like so many other things related to Korea, most likely depends on when and how reunification takes place.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
by Robert J. Fouser