Art & Culture, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, Rainbow Union
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The Racism in Government-Funded Korean Language Course Material

Looking to Learn Korean for Free? Well, Be Prepared for Some Racism

I was going through Sejong Institute’s YouTube playlist to find useful material for my Korean tutoring classes. Then I found this. Let me take you down Racist Hill. Commentary at the bottom.

First, the man meets two white US soldiers. They’re friendly towards each other and use informal language (banmal).

It ends with the Korean man saying “Keep our neighborhood safe”. Context: Due to continued public displays of drunkenness and fighting, the US soldiers patrol the area to keep their own soldiers out of trouble.

Then the Korean man jogs past “Abdul”, the owner of a Turkish restaurant (it’s a real restaurant, and he is usually dressed this way). This takes a turn down Racist Hill.

While “Abdul” addresses the Korean man in honorific/formal language (존댓말), the Korean man keeps addressing “Abdul” in informal language (반말). This is what you do if you have a big age or power difference, such as an adult talking to a child. The highlight of his condescending and patronising attitude is when he tells “Abdul” his Korean “needs work”, when the man has been clearly speaking in Korean. He even says “좀 더 해야겠네”, which is specifically an informal tone reserved to a superior addressing an inferior person (as in a boss addressing their employee). This is condescension at its finest. “Abdul” responds by saying “Yes, sir (네)”.

Right after he’s done patronising “Abdul”, the Korean man runs past two black men. What comes next? More condescension.

The man stops himself, sighs loudly, as if to say “I can’t but not help those poor fellas”. And walks back to the two men.

The Korean man says “Hey, my brothers”. The two men turn around.

AND HERE IS THE OLDEST RUNNING RACIST TROPE IN SOUTH KOREAN TELEVISION. The two men are each wearing a BLACK SHIRT with the words “YOUNGER BROTHER” and “OLDER BROTHER” on them. Which is an embodiment of the racist Korean trope on “Black Older Brother”. (“흑형”). It has been common practice for black men to be called “Black Older Brother” in South Korean television and popular culture. It is defended as making “black people seem friendlier”. But why, the, fuck, do, people, need, black, people, to, feel, less, threatening? (Oh yeah, racism.)

The racist intent of this skit is made even clearer when the Korean man approaches the two men and says “동네 분위기 이렇게 어둡게 할거야”, literally translated as “Why are you making the atmosphere of our neighbourhood so DARK”. (In the video, translated as “look bad”). First, finding humour in “black people making things look dark” is racist. Because there isn’t a running trope on how white people make things shiny. Second, by choosing to translate the captions as “Will you make our neighbourhood look bad”, Sejong & KBS are saying “black people make a neighbourhood look bad”.

And then he says… “Smile a little”. Because black people have to smile all the time, otherwise they’re “making the neighbourhood look dark”.

And like “Abdul”. they thank him by saying “Yes, Sir Big Brother (형님)”, using the highly honorific form of 님. (although it’s translated as “Yes, Jeongnam”)

The trope of Jeongnam, the Korean master of condescension, ends with him looking at the two black men’s shirts and pointing out “So, you’re the older brother? You look like it”. Here, the narrative is that the black men chose to play the Black Big Brother Trope.

Although Jeongnam treats the three group of foreigners in the same condescending way, it is striking how explicitly racist the script is. Let’s look at the three groups of foreigners he interacts with.

First, he meets the white American soldiers. With whom he has a brief exchange. This is done in informal/non-honorific language (반말).

Second, he meets the Turkish man, “Abdul”. Although Abdul has a considerably more complex script compared to the other three groups, Jeongnam condescends him by (a) Telling him to fix his pronunciation (I’ve been to that same Turkish restaurant several times since it opened, and the owner spoke fluent Korean each time); and further denigrates him by (b) continuing to talk to him in informal/non-honorific language (반말), while Abdul continues to address him in full formal/honorific language. The exchange with the American soldiers was conducted in a power balance (both used non-honorific language) – here, he continued to act as the “superior” man by talking down to Abdul. This is the kind of behaviour displayed by a shitty boss, or an adult talking to a very young child (and even many choose to address children in honorific forms these days). In many Seoul universities, it has become customary to hold “hierarchy sensibility” sessions at the beginning of the term when new students join the cohort: All students must address each other in honorific form regardless of age, unless otherwise suggested and agreed upon voluntarily by the younger student.

Third, he meets the two black men. Which spirals into outright racism when (1) he tells them they’re “turning the neighbourhood dark” (which the show even chose to translate as making the neighbourhood look bad), and when the show’s writers chose to run The Oldest Anti-Black Trope,  the “Big Black Brotha” joke by literally making them wear black shirts with the insignia big brother and little brother. He takes it further by telling the men to “smile more” – adding insult to, well, insult. Who usually hears the “You should smile more” comment? Three guesses. The men are humiliated further when they obediently say “Yes, sir” – displaying the same linguistic power imbalance between the two groups.

The protagonists of Please Find Her. The main character, “Jan” (top left), comes to South Korea to look for a long lost love. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s portrayed by a Korean actor. (Image Source: Yonhap)

This program, Please Find Her, is a web drama funded by Sejong Institute and KBS. Here is a rare display of whiteface, with the protagonist, set to be a Dutchchman called Jan, being played by a Korean actor. It took me three close looks to go “Wait…this actor looks familiar. He looks like a Korean actor “. And I wondered, “Maybe they meant to portray Jan as a Korean adoptee?”. Nope. “Maybe Jan is an ethnic Korean who is Dutch?”. Nope.

Here is a Korean actor with no ties to the Netherlands whatsoever who is playing a Dutchman. There are enough actors who are either Dutch or of Dutch ancestry or with ties to the Netherlands in the world.

I am deeply disappointed at this poor narrative on foreigners in South Korea, funded by Korean taxpayers. Talking down to other people of colour while saluting white people, casting a Korean actor to play a Dutchman. This is not a web drama suitable for a global audience looking for a taste of Hallyu in their endeavours to learn the Korean language.

Edited for clarity on 18 May.

그녀를 찾아줘 1화 / Please Find Her Ep.1 (ENG)
17 Oct 2017


  1. Good points. If Korea wants to be a player on the world stage and interact with people from around the world, Koreans need to understand and respect those from different cultures. Ignorance is no excuse, especially for those producing educational material.

    • Yes, ignorance is no longer an excuse when South Korea is one of the 15 major economies in the world. We need to learn to really respect diversity and stop discriminating others, and saying “But we didn’t know” as an excuse.

    • That’s a nice one. “We’re not racist, you are!”
      You are a bunch of trolls who hate anyone who points out anything negative about Korea.

  2. Tabea says

    I was wondering what you meant with ‘this guy doesn’t look that Dutch’?

    The Netherlands had a wide-ranging colonial empire and partly as a result of this, Dutch people now come in all shades of the rainbow.

    • That’s not the point. The actor is actually Korean, and is supposed to be portraying a Dutch character. This actor has no ties to the Netherlands whatsoever, regardless of his skin colour.

      Just like how Hollywood movies cast white actors to play Asian characters, this is a Korean actor taking the job away from a Dutch actor – if they really wanted to appreciate a Dutch character, what’s stopping them from actually hiring someone who knows something about the Netherlands?

  3. Seu says

    And it couldn’t be that he fit the role better than any other actor that was casted?
    When it comes to choosing actors for a role, there are multiple qualities and traits that people are looking for, not just the color of actors skin.

    • What does this actor have that deserves him taking the role over many other qualified Dutch actors? Or actors with Dutch ancestry or ties with the Netherlands?

      Do you also agree with Asian and black roles being persistently taken by white actors who wear “Asian face” (as in Cloud Atlas) and “black face” (too many to list)?

      There are many established and aspiring actors in the world, who can represent the culture they’re supposed to be portraying.

      The actor could have been an Asian, black, white or latino, since Dutch society is diverse. What I’m saying is this particular actor has no ties to the Netherlands whatsoever.

  4. While I would not class it as “whiteface” the actor is Half-white and looks “ambiguous” enough to play the character, plus it looks like they wanted well known people in those roles to get people to watch. I agree though that the series is pretty tone deaf and I gave up watching it because of how uncomfortable it mad me feel.

    • I understand the actor is a quarter American, and I can guess that the casters wanted to “try” to get a famous actor to attract attention. They clearly chose the fame factor over representation.
      Being designed for an international audience, and being funded by both KBS and Sejong, they could have made it truly international by casting someone with ties to the Netherlands.
      Glad to hear you feel its tone-deafness.

  5. humbledaisy1 says

    As an older learner of Korean, I’d already heard that these videos were not the place to start for modern, culturally sensitive (quite frankly, I just want to say ‘normal’ here) depictions of daily interactions. As for Lee Hyun Jae (the lead actor), I think he was picked because he is mid-level famous and regularly plays a variety of ethnic heritages.

    I definitely didn’t feel the production team really was trying to help foreigners with their Korean as most of the “cultural in-jokes” relied on knowing them to begin with! However, it is a production that they can take and show back to which ever government department funded it and say, “See, we included all races and even made it funny!” Um, no.

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