[Seoul Lounge] Multiculturalism, at least a hint of it

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[Seoul Lounge] Multiculturalism, at least a hint of it

Granted, given the ease with which the word is bandied about by the press, it’s easy to overestimate just how “multicultural” Korea has become. As a friend of mine put it, with a foreign population of around 3 percent, the enthusiasm with which the media trumpets how multicultural Korea has become shows just how much it’s not.

Still, things have certainly changed, and in a short period of time at that. When I first came to Korea a decade ago, what little multiculturalism to be found - basically limited to a few Western-style restaurants and bars - was safely locked away in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood.

Foreigners themselves were still a novelty item as well - even on a Seoul subway being a visible foreigner could be an uncomfortably conspicuous experience. And in fairness, given the rarity of seeing a foreign face, the stares were probably understandable. Eating Nepali curry and sipping a cool lassi in Jongno District (as I did recently with a friend) was virtually inconceivable.

Needless to say, the situation is much changed. According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the foreign population of Seoul stood at 285,618 as of the third quarter of 2011. Nationwide, Korea’s foreign population stood at 1.41 million as of September 2011, up 13 percent from the previous year. Ethnic neighborhoods like Seoul’s Central Asia Village and Itaewon’s Little Nigeria have sprouted up with their exotic signboards and unfamiliar aromas, while foreign “ghettos” develop in industrial suburbs like Ansan, Gyeonggi, home of the so-called “Borderless Village.”

On a personal level, what this means is I can get decent Indian food almost anywhere in Seoul or get on a subway without hardly anyone noticing.

The melting pot is no one-way street, though. When I first arrived in Korea, Itaewon was, for all intents and purposes, a foreigner’s ghetto without even subway access to the rest of Seoul. It was something of a no-go area for Koreans, many of whom associated it with foreign licentiousness and decadence (and not without reason). Go there today, though, and the bulk of “tourists” are Korean, including families who descend on the neighborhood to sample its exotic sites, sounds, smells and tastes.

Not long ago, I had lunch with a friend visiting from France at a well-known Itaewon French restaurant. Being a weekend, the eatery was doing a roaring trade in its speciality dish - Belgian-style mussels. As I looked around, however, the only foreign face I could spot was that of my friend. Indeed, the world had come to Seoul, and Seoul had come to Itaewon. As an Itaewon resident, I went from uncomfortable presence and possible threat to the nation’s moral order to a tourism resource.

The greater multiculturalism may very well be a good thing. Who doesn’t like good Uzbek food, after all? Still, I can’t say I’m embracing the trend fully. After all, I have chosen to make Korea my home because it’s, well, Korean. If I’d wanted to live in, say, Nigeria or Bangladesh (or the United States, for that matter), I suppose I would have gone there instead.

One of the things I love most about Korea is the tenacity of its cultural traditions, even if some might find this tenacity parochial or even xenophobic. Coming from, as I did, a multicultural society where my own traditions and cultural legacy have lost much of their meaning, I find the “this is Korea, and we’ll do things the Korean way” attitude rather refreshing.

With Korea’s foreign population accounting for just 3 percent of the total population (one of the lowest figures in the OECD), there’s always the risk of exaggerating the danger to Korea’s cultural social fabric posed by immigration.

Korea’s foreign-born population, however, is increasing rapidly and may rise still quicker if demographic factors (such as low birth rates) prompt policy makers to open the gates of immigration still wider. What impact these newcomers will have on Korea’s cultural and social landscape, though, only time will tell.

*The author is executive editor of Seoul Selection, a Seoul-based culture and lifestyle magazine.

by Robert Koehler
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