At university, a then-friend of mine once said “No, Koreans are one blood, one people. Immigrants and mixed-blood children are not and they’ll never be Korean“. I said: “But, what if these immigrants live here for decades? And mixed-blood children are born here and raised here?“. After a while, he repeated: “Yes, but we are one people, they’re not our people”
The worst part is, I cannot label him as an outlier of public opinion. Koreans generally do treat foreigners very differently from fellow Koreans. But why? And is it really racism, or ignorance? Or something else?
In a society where the indigenous people look more or less the same, physical difference marks outsiders out in a strikingly visual way. The first caricatures of Westerners drawn by the Koreans and the Japanese show similarities: “Their eyes were blue like demons, and they had a lot of white hair, making them look even more beastly” is what I remember from a history lecture back in university.
Most Koreans don’t see foreigners on a daily basis. Except for a few urban regions populated by foreigners, it’s not every day they come into contact with different-looking people. Kids will stare at foreigners, especially if they look very different from Koreans. Are you blond and have green or hazel eyes? Do you have ebony skin? Be prepared for the staring of your life if you plan to board the Seoul Metro.
It’s tough for a black person. More than any other ethnic group. Koreans have been drilled with the idea that people with darker skin are poorer and inferior in social status. One reason is Korea’s impoverished farmers (who have tanned skin due to their constant working under direct sunlight).
With the rapid urbanisation and development of the capitalist ideology in the latter half of the 1900s, farmers quickly became the new low-income class (It is notable that in Joseon Korea, farmers were socially ranked higher than merchants and artisans). Hence, dark skin came to be associated with poverty. As farming in East Asia usually runs on family-bases, very few rich farmers exist, as is the case in the USA or France, for instance.
The media has played its part too.Women in particular are pressured to be as fair as possible and to have that “Caucasian porcelain” skin tone, so widely advertised in the international media as a standard of beauty. Dark tones in women are also, somehow, associated with promiscuity, since it is mostly a “foreign” fashion to tan oneself (I have read that the same logic exists in Japan, but this is probably more closely related to the gyaru phenomenon, whose members are perceived as slutty). Whitening products are a must-have for women, beginning in their early twenties, while dermatologists recommend chemical peels to make your “irregularities go away” (read a personal anecdote on this at “A Trip To Face-Factory Town”). Perhaps the only comforting is fact is we don’t have bleaching cream here, as is oh so popular in India and Nigeria.
A girl from Kenya once told me that a woman came up to her in the subway, rubbed her arm, and said “Oh, it really doesn’t come off, huh?”. On the other hand, this same girl has stayed in Korea for, well, forever. She did her undergraduate, postgraduate, and internship here. She’s still in Korea, if I’m not mistaken.
She understood the curiosity part as just curiosity, and as she got to know Koreans on a personal level, the little things strangers do could be overlooked. Not everybody makes it past this stage, and many foreigners leave Korea disappointed, offended, and hurt. The disappointment seems to be greatest in populations who come from countries with a strong culture of political correctness, such as the US, France and Germany, where racism is socially unacceptable whatever the reason.
Korea is a globalised economy. Hyundai and Samsung (and their subsidiaries) have overseas branches in all 5 continents of the world. The government has been specifically reaching into central and southern African nations, providing scholarships and exchange programmes. There are more, if not as many (proportion-wise, of course, to the number of foreign students) job opportunities for international students in Seoul, Pohang, and Ulsan.
People’s minds take a long time to change.