Foreigners are our friendsMay 20, next Tuesday, is designated as a day for expatriates, and next week will be devoted to experiencing multiple cultures. To change biased local views toward foreigners and help Koreans grow to respect different cultures and traditions, a variety of cultural, art and sports events are being held across the country. Those events include one where foreigners give speeches in Korean and a festival of food from many countries. Korea is working to spread the idea that foreigners are our partners and that we should cooperate with them.
Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi came into the spotlight because of a conflict that erupted over the transfer of U.S. military bases. In that case, exposure to another culture didn’t lead to cultural exchange. The city sought to exclude foreigners, claiming it was in an extreme situation. The number of foreigners in the city was 1,800 in 1988 but in a decade that surged to 10,000.
Now, changes are being made in the area. A culture that was once regarded as bizarre is being incorporated into the local proceedings. Ordinances providing support for foreign residents have been enacted and a committee comprising some 10 experts has been organized to offer advice in drawing measures to support expatriates living in Korea.
When one lives in the United States as an expatriate, one can see that the country has a system to help foreigners settle in, as the country’s history started with immigrants. Local libraries are part of this system. People from different countries get together in libraries to learn English, and they can get to know one another and share information.
However, our society’s system excludes newcomers because it is designed for residents who have been living in certain places for long periods. As a result, foreigners feel left out in Korea. Foreigners live together in specific areas and such places are left out of the mainstream.
Places where migrant workers live must be changed from closed, exclusive zones into open neighborhoods where people can experience multiple cultures. Koreans and migrant workers should develop cooperative relations, rather than one side helping the other one-sidedly. Each culture has special traits and all of them should be respected for their positive attributes.
Korea has been a homogenous country for 5,000 years. Now, in the 21st century, it is transforming itself into a nation of multiple ethnic groups and cultures. However, Koreans in general are still not friendly to foreigners and many expatriates have difficulty settling in. Language barriers, cultural differences and poverty don’t help matters. The government policies aimed at supporting foreigners are insufficient, and there is no sign of improvement. There have been projects to promote multiple cultures in our society but they are mostly one-off events and few of them are systemized, continuing programs.
We need such everyday programs to engage foreigners and help them learn the Korean language and integrate into society. Support for foreigners has been focused on migrant workers, but that should include other groups of expatriates who come to Korea for different purposes, such as the children of foreign workers and immigrants married to Koreans.
Japan has established a government agency for immigrants in an attempt to design a comprehensive policy for foreigners. This sends a message to us because we also need a systemized governmental approach to the issue.
More active engagement between Koreans and foreigners is very important because Koreans’ attitudes toward foreigners need to change. We must begin to accept people with different cultural backgrounds as part of our society.
Schools play an important role in helping children understand changes in our society and showing them a new direction. The younger generation is more apt to change than older generations and can have a stronger influence in developing a new community.
In a truly democratic society, minority groups are respected and treated well. This is one of the main advantages of liberalism. In this sense, how families from different cultural backgrounds settle into our society will be a good test to see how mature our society has become.
*The writer is a professor of public administration at Hankyong National University. Translated by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Wan-hee