[Interview] Migrants discuss their experiences living in Korea

Posted on : 2017-10-06 17:16 KST Modified on : 2017-10-06 17:16 KST
All agree on the need for better understanding between Koreans and foreigners living in the country
From left: Hai Sobat (Cambodia
From left: Hai Sobat (Cambodia

Park Joon-hyung, a member of the pop group g.o.d., recently found himself in an uncomfortable situation on a trip to Belgium to do some shooting for “Buying Hardships,” an entertainment program on South Korean broadcaster JTBC. While on the street in Brussels, he was surrounded and roughed up by locals who mocked him for being Asian. “I hadn’t felt racially discriminated against in a long time. I felt the kind of racism I saw in the US in the 1970s and early 1980s,” said Park, who grew up in the US, during the program’s press premiere.

On online forums dedicated to sharing travel information, it’s common to read about Koreans who have suffered racism while traveling overseas. Some people relate how waiters at a restaurant deliberately ignored their order, while others were cursed at by passersby for no particular reason.

What’s the situation like in South Korea, where the number of migrants is increasing at a rapid clip? Mutuma Ruteere, the UN’s special rapporteur on racism, reached the following conclusion after visiting South Korea in 2014 and researching the status of discrimination against migrants and other minorities: “It’s clear that there is severe racial discrimination that the government needs to take an interest in.”

All the people who have moved from overseas to live in South Korea are thrown into the category of “migrants,” but their lives here differ greatly depending on their country of birth, academic background, religion and gender. One of the characteristics of racism in South Korea, experts say, is that Koreans (people of color), discriminate against other Asians (also people of color), and especially those who come from relatively poor countries. Curious about the experiences of migrants from other Asian countries, the Hankyoreh interviewed four Asians whose language ability is at a level where they can understand nearly everything that Koreans say. The four have been living in South Korea between five and twenty years.

has lived in Korea for six years)
has lived in Korea for six years)
■ It’s clear that there is severe racial discrimination

Hiroko Moue, 50, settled in Hoengseong, Gangwon Province, after marrying a South Korean in 1997. Since 2008, she has been making videos about migrants and women. On Sept. 21, the Hankyoreh accompanied Moue on a visit to Canaan Farmers School, which is located in Wonju, Gangwon Province. At this school, Japira Wirawan, 29, from Indonesia, and Hai Sobat, 33, from Cambodia, were providing communication assistance to foreigners attending a training program in farming skills.

Since graduating from a university in Busan, Wirawan said, she has been a “job seeker,” trying to decide on a definite career while working in translation and interpretation. Sobat came to South Korea six years ago to study and is currently writing a dissertation in social welfare. He returned to Cambodia on Sept. 27 because of an issue at his work.

On the evening of the same day, the Hankyoreh met Moinudin Ahmed, from Bangladesh, in Seoul’s Gwangjin District. After graduating from university in Bangladesh, Ahmed came to South Korea to study Korean. He had always been interested in inter-Korean relations, and after coming to the country, he decided to study them in-depth. He entered a doctoral program, where he is studying differences and similarities between East Asian and European politics. Like Koreans, Japanese and Cambodian people use their family name first, followed by their given name. Over 80% of all Bangladeshis and Indonesians are followers of Islam; Moinuddin and Zafirah are also Muslims.

Moinudin Ahmed (Bangladesh
Moinudin Ahmed (Bangladesh
■ Question 1: What has changed the most since you first came to South Korea? How is it different?

Hiroko: When I got married, I suddenly found myself living with my in-laws in Hoengseong. In Japan, I had worked in a bank, but after coming to Korea I was worse off than my five-year-old niece. I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t speak. My pride was shattered. Since I looked like I could be Korean but could only say things like “Yes, yes,” people looked at me like I was simple. At that point, the only member of the family who welcomed me unconditionally and without prejudice was the dog.

My husband left early to go to work, and I felt so lonely at home because I couldn’t communicate. I went to a language school in Seoul where my Japanese friend was learning Korean, but it was too expensive and I stopped going after three months. So I ended up going to the women’s community center in Hoengseong. I was the only foreigner there, and they were blown away. I studied computers and yoga there, and I started having conversations naturally. Today, there are 300 female marriage immigrants living in Hoengseong alone, and they have a multicultural family support center. It’s a bit off the subject, but there are migrant women at the center who just meet among themselves.

Sovath: When I first came to South Korea in 2011, it was tough for me to go outside, so I spent about two or three weeks just staying at the school dormitory. The support centers started appearing about a year or two ago. There are also more churches helping migrants. I had a son here in South Korea, and the church helped me out with issues during the childbirth process.

Zafirah: I’ve seen the ways South Koreans are working these days to help people from overseas live comfortably. I’m grateful for that. When I first came to Busan, they didn’t have any counselors at the foreign call center who spoke Indonesian, and now they do. I couldn’t buy things because the websites only worked on Internet Explorer and were all in Korean, and that’s changed a lot.

■ Question 2: What kind of things or questions do you hear a lot in South Korea?

Zafirah: Most Koreans don’t realize that India and Indonesia are different countries. I tell them I’m from Indonesia, and they say, “You must have a lot of curry.” “That’s India,” I tell them. They also don’t know that Bali is part of Indonesia. That’s not really a big deal.

Sovath: We have Angkor Wat, and it annoys me a bit when people say, “Isn’t that in Thailand?” They seem to confuse us with Vietnam or Thailand. They also ask me if Cambodia has its own language.

Hiroko: Obviously history is an issue. Whenever people ask me whether I support figure skaters Kim Yu-na or Mao Asada or who I root for in a South Korea vs. Japan football match, I tell them I support Japan. I really couldn’t care less who wins. I answer that way because I can see their intentions and I can tell there’s a certain answer they want to hear

Moinuddin: People think of Bangladesh as a very poor country, but it’s changed a lot these days. But it’s not Koreans’ fault for not knowing that. If you do a search for “Bangladesh” on [the portal site] Naver, all that comes up is old information. The good things aren’t reported on at all – it’s only reports about bad things, like big floods or lots of people dying in a transportation accident. Bangladesh is home to Grameen Bank, which was created for poor people, and almost nobody is aware of how that system has spread throughout the world.

■ Question 3: Have you ever been discriminated against or had unpleasant experiences because of your nationality, skin color, or religion? I’d also like to ask if you could share some things you’ve heard from other migrants.

Sovath: Most of the Cambodians who attend my church came to South Korea to work. Even though they don’t speak a lot of Korean, they say they can sense the people they work with are saying ‘bad things.’ It’s scary for them. They also get people telling them, “The reason you’re poor is because you’re slow and lazy and don’t work hard.” Whenever they hear that sort of thing, all I can do is try to comfort them.

My friends all know how much everyone earns per month, and you get paid more for the same work if you can speak good Korean. If you can’t speak it, you get paid less. I have pretty pale skin, so it’s not a problem for me, but there are people who see friends of mine with darker skin and think that it’s “dirty.” You pick up on things like people not wanting to eat at the same restaurant as you. Cambodians will ordinarily look right at people and smile at them, but here you don’t look right at people because of the feeling it creates.

Zafirah: As a Southeast Asian, I may have experienced little bits of racism, but I don’t think it’s been a big deal. There are cases where Indonesians look at Westerners and marvel at them too. It’s a bit like when I’ve made a mistake and tell people, “That’s something Indonesians do,” and they end up judging the group because of one person. I’ve also heard people say things like, “I saw an Indonesian before and they were gross, but not all of you are like that.” It’s also a bit tough for me to mention up front that I’m Muslim when people don’t even ask you about your religion.

On weekends, I go to the mosque wearing a hijab, and I ride in the very last car on the subway. Otherwise everyone stares. It was tough at first, but I can handle it now. With Islam, there are a lot of images associated with terrorism. It isn’t the religion that’s perpetrating terrorism, it’s people who use religion as an excuse, but I suppose I understand where that image comes from.

The biggest problem, though, is food. We can’t eat pork and we can’t drink. A lot of people ask me, “Why did you come to Korea if you can’t eat pork or drink?” Fortunately, I’ve never been forced to do either. Iranian friends of mine who work at companies get stressed about it. They tell their boss, “I can’t drink because of my religion,” and they’re told, “Nobody’s watching. Just drink. This is Korea, and you have to follow Korean culture.” As a minority, there’s not anything we can do, but I wish you could just tell people once, “We don’t do that,” and have them accept it.

Moinuddin: I’m studying right now, so I haven’t had a lot of discrimination issues. But after graduation, Westerns get better treatment and have more opportunities to show their abilities than South Asians from the same school. I don’t know if you can call it discrimination exactly, but it seems like people are friendly to you when you tell them you’re from such-and-such Western country. You can see them exchanging their contact information and trying to be friendly. Whereas if I tell someone I’m from Bangladesh, they don’t ask any other questions.

Hiroko: I’m a bit embarrassed to say this, but I think the situation’s a bit better for me because I come from a country with an advanced economy. I have a friend from the Philippines who teaches English, and they told me they can’t get a job as a “native speaker” because of their pronunciation. My friend got really angry about that. Eventually they gave up.

Sovath: I have heard parents before demanding to know what countries the teachers are from when they send their children to afterschool academies. I thought it didn’t matter what country you’re from as long as you speak English well.

Zafirah: I have a friend who works at a place that develops English textbook curricula, and they said that whenever there’s a problem and someone has to be laid off, it’s the Southeast Asians who get fired first. You should evaluate people by the results of their work – to focus on what country they’re from isn’t good.

■ Question 4: Have you seen internet posts or messages criticizing migrants?

Zafirah: There are lot of hurtful messages. I saw one comment online where they said foreigners were the reason for rising unemployment. When I was in university, I had a Chinese friend who worked until late at night at a convenience store, and someone said to them, “You can’t even speak Korean. There are Koreans who can’t get a job because of you.” Sometimes I feel like Koreans can be a bit too direct. If you don’t like something about someone, you can just sit on it and wait until they’re not around to let it show. I sometimes ride on the subway with clients who work at the embasy. Some of them get a bit loud when they’re talking, and we hear people say things like, “Why do those people do that?” I understand Korean, so I’m caught in the middle and don’t really know what to do.

Moinuddin: I read internet messages to see how different people view the same topics. I think the people who say [bad things about migrants] make up just a small percentage of all Koreans. But I also think we need to keep thinking about why those people do that.

■ Question 5: More and more people are coming to South Korea from overseas for different purposes. In some respects, the South Korean government has been encouraging migration to deal with human resource shortages or boost the global competitiveness of universities. What sort of things do we need to live in peace with migrants from different places?

Moinuddin: People just see my face and ask me where I’m from. I’m sure they’re curious because I look different. But I’ve lived in Seoul for 10 years, and I get the same question every time. I was a foreigner in South Korea, and today I’m still just a foreigner. I wish people would be more curious about a person’s character than what country they’re from. People who live in New York are called New Yorkers, people who live in Berlin are called Berliners. How about if we just called everyone who lives in Seoul a Seoulite?

Hiroko: I also used to have my own prejudices about Southeast Asians. They were marriage migrants just like me, but I couldn’t really be friends with them because I thought they’d just come to Korea for the money. There’s a friend of mine that I met while teaching Japanese who did a national tour of “Chao Anh,” a musical based on the real experiences of Vietnamese women who immigrated through marriage. That was in 2010, and I followed the performance around and filmed a short about them.

In the process, I had the chance to meet a lot of different migrant women, and I learned that there was more to it than I’d believed. Some of them came because they had no choice. Some of them came to live a happier life. I thought it was amazing to see people working here and sending money home when I was still borrowing money from my parents. One Vietnamese woman I became friends with divorced her South Korean husband. Her mother-in-law had told her she was “bought and paid for.” I sympathized with her, being insulted like that and feeling like she had no choice but to get a divorce. I also felt ashamed.

My ideas changed and I started helping out wherever I could, and we became friends. I once gave a lecture on migrant women to government employees in Gangwon Province. I asked those employees if they knew any migrants personally, and nobody did. It was a shock for me. People who get to know migrants keep getting to know new ones, but the people who never meet any, don’t interact with any. Migrants and natives [South Koreans] need to meet often. It bothers me when they’re segregated from each other.

By Park Hyun-jung, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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