The nation’s profile is changingAfter nine years of living in Korea, Syedanjum Hussain has mixed feelings about the country and its people. Since he left Pakistan in search of a job, Hussain has found work at a textile factory and the love of his life, a Korean to whom he is happily married.
However, the road to marriage was long and painful, and he suffered discrimination because of his skin color.
“The owner of the factory fired me for marrying a Korean woman,” said Hussain in fluent Korean. “I am not Korean but I am still a human being, but the owner did not think so.”
Hussain’s memories of the factory owner are unpleasant, as he forced Hussain and other migrant workers to perform sweat labor without proper payment or benefits.
“My hand got stuck in a machine, but the owner told me not to go to a hospital,” Hussain said. “Because of the cost, I guess.”
Life after the factory has been better. He was lucky to find a job at the Uijeongbu Foreign Workers’ Center, a civic group that supports migrant workers in Gyeonggi.
There, he was happy to discover that some Koreans were prepared to help him, he said. However, because he works as a translator for Pakistani workers at the center, he gets saddened by the tales of discrimination he hears from other migrant workers.
Cho Won-ki, the secretary-general of the Korean Migrant Workers Welfare Society, said that the discrimination comes from the deep-rooted pride Koreans have in their racially homogenous nation.
“It is a big misunderstanding, but Koreans have thought this way for a long time,” Cho said. “Even when looking for Vietnamese brides, some Korean men say they want ‘white-colored’ women.”
Cho’s concern was shared by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In August it issued a report expressing concerns about phrases like “pure-blood” that Koreans often use to describe their nation.
Cho, however, said that he senses changes are taking place.
“Koreans are starting to understand that their society is becoming multicultural and multiracial,” he said. He cited a decrease in reports of abuse by Koreans against foreign workers and more willingness to help among Korean activists. The number of civic groups supporting foreign workers has soared as well, Cho noted, and there are now more than 300 such groups.
Lee Kuk-sun, an activist for the Multicultural Open Society, agreed. His group has started to hold an event every summer where people from various countries share their culture with Koreans, and he has seen growing participation by Koreans. “I feel a great improvement in Koreans’ awareness of the benefits of a multiracial society,” Kim said.
The change seems to be inevitable, as seen in the the growing number of foreigners in this country.
The Justice Ministry announced last August that the number of foreigners staying in Korea has reached 1 million, the highest ever.
Among them, some 500,000 have registered with the ministry as long-term residents. Fifty-six percent of them are working in Korea, followed by 14 percent of people who are married to Koreans and 7 percent studying in Korea.
Classified by nationality, Chinese are the largest group with 44 percent, followed by U.S. nationals with 12 percent, Vietnamese 6 percent; Filipinos are 5 percent.
Kim Young-geun, an official with the Justice Ministry, stressed that the Korean government is dealing positively with these “necessary changes.”
Kim cited the enactment of a new law this year governing the treatment of foreigners in Korea, which he described as a “big step forward” from the previous law that did little to encourage immigration. “Making policies that improve conditions for foreigners has become important for the Korean government,” Kim said. “We are well aware that we need to build a society where Koreans and foreigners live together.”
Citing the aging Korean society and the trend toward globalization, he added, “It is only natural for Korea to have a growing number of foreigners, and the government is trying to deal with the change and open the door wider.”
Cho thinks that there is still a long way to go.
“Koreans are starting to recognize the change, but many of them are not ready to really open their minds.” However, he sees some hope for the future because of changes in Korean culture that he has witnessed over the last few years.
Meanwhile, Hussain is still uncertain whether he wants to become a naturalized Korean, even though he is planning to live in Korea for years to come, eating kimchi and raising his children. He hopes his eight month old son, Alishah, will one day have fewer people staring at him on the subway.
“After all, I have seen some change and I think it will get even better in the future,” he said.
By Chun Su-jin Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]