Yes, we foreigners can use chopsticksOver the past few years, things have changed for people living in Korea who don’t happen to be from here. Global centers have popped up all over the place, for example, and it’s less and less common to be pointed and stared at on the street if you don’t look Korean.
Nonetheless, there is still a plethora of day-to-day hurdles left to overcome as the non-Korean population grows and attempts to integrate itself into society. Having spoken to a number of different people who have come to live here from all over the world, I’ve compiled a list of 10 of those hurdles.
1) First, people who don’t look Korean should no longer be congratulated for the ability to say, annyeonghaseyo or gamsahamnida. This creates unreasonably low expectations on non-Koreans to learn the language if they live here, which means that many people don’t bother, which, in turn, leads to more low expectations.
2) By the same token, it shouldn’t be assumed that Koreans have to speak English to internationals. This could potentially take some of the terror out of the faces of coffee shop employees as a foreigner approaches the cash register, and may also bump up the number of people who feel it necessary to learn the language if they’re going to live here.
3) If a foreigner starts speaking Korean to a Korean, said Korean should try to suppress their laughter, even though it may be, as one author on Korean culture puts it, “as if a tree just asked you for a cigarette.” It isn’t meant maliciously 99 percent of the time, but laughter will still discourage future attempts to try speaking the language.
4) If a foreigner asks a question of a Korean person in Korean, the answer should be directed back at the person asking the question, not at the nearest Asian-looking person who seems vaguely associated with the questioner.
5) No more congratulations for non-Asians who can use chopsticks. These days, it’s like congratulating an Asian on their ability to use a fork.
6) No more congratulations for non-Koreans who enjoy kimchi, garlic or spicy food of any type.
7) The proper names of Korean food should be used when it’s being described to non-Koreans, especially as the country pushes to make Korean a staple international cuisine. Nobody asks you what you’re talking about if you ask them to pass the wasabi or the Tabasco, so gochujang should be called “gochujang,” not “spicy Korean traditional fermented red pepper paste.”
8) Bibimbap and bulgogi are good, but they’re not the only things that can be served to visitors from abroad. Things like dakgalbi and budaejjigae are potential big hits.
9) Koreans shouldn’t view a Caucasian in an elevator or on the subway as a perfect opportunity for their kids to practice English.
10) Finally, no more overuse of the word “foreigner.” If people who come to live here weren’t constantly regarded as separate and other, it would increase their commitment to Korea and their sense of responsibility toward it. This means no more advertisements plugging an event as “perfect for both foreigners and Koreans.”
As the birthrate continues to head south in Korea, the international population is growing in importance. The more comfortable the people who come to live here feel, the more dedicated they will be to contributing to society, and the brighter the country’s future will be.
By Richard Scott-Ashe [email@example.com]