Outer Edges of Korea's Racism, and the Tourist Rule

Dear Korean,

I would like to visit Seoul and spend a little bit of time being a tourist over there. One of my good friends from high school wanted to possibly come along if we can work out a time period to do so. However, some of what I have read about Korea's situation with ESL teachers and tourists in general has me somewhat unsure of whether or not it would be a good idea to bring him along.

My question to you is to what extent would bringing him along not be a good idea? There are certain specific cases I have seen written on the Internet suggesting that South Koreans are, generally speaking, somewhat less tolerant of darker skinned people, at least when they work as English teachers. There is also a popular news video I watched about a white tourist from Canada and a South Asian tourist from Indonesia (I believe) having vastly different experiences asking passerbys in Seoul for directions. Seeing how we would both just be there as tourists, and I fully intend on not acting like the generic "dumb tourist" with the map in my hand looking all confused, do you think I might have an issue buying tickets for an exhibit, being served at a restaurant, etc... if I bring along my dark-skinned friend?

Landon G.

First, the video that Landon mentioned is very much worth a look.

Beyond this video, there is no shortage of materials on the Internet discussing racism in Korea, including this blog. Allow the Korean to be quite clear about this: racism in Korea is real. If you are of a different race in Korea, you will be treated differently. That is a fact. But at the same time, the lack of experience that people have with Korea tends to distort the perspective of just how bad racism in Korea is. Like Landon, a lot of people have a problem putting Korea's racism on a scale. This results in a lot of unnecessary worries.

This is not an easy subject for the Korean to write, because he knows firsthand that the racial majority will never have the full understanding of the racial minority. The Korean is a minority in the U.S., and a majority in Korea. The difference of his experience in the two countries -- especially when it comes to how he is perceived, talked about, and treated by other people -- is an uncrossable ocean. If he was not the same person, the Korean in Korea would never understand the Korean in America.

This, in turn, means that the Korean is not fully cognizant of the entire experience that non-Koreans undergo in Korea. Not only does he not know, but also he cannot know, except for occasional glimpses gleaned from what he reads and reflected back into his own experience. This makes it a perilous venture for the Korean to describe the scale of racism in Korea. A lot of non-Asian-Americans are surprised to find out that "Where are you really from?" is quite annoying for Asian Americans. Similarly, as a member of the majority race in Korea, the Korean cannot describe the every last details on the contours of Korea's racism.

What the Korean can do, with reasonable certainty, is this: set the outer edges of Korea's racism. He cannot describe every corner of the realm that is racism in Korea, but he can at least tell you where that realm ends. That alone should have some value. Again, the Korean would emphasize that Korea's racism is real. But it is ludicrous for anyone to worry about, say, getting pelted by stones on the streets of Seoul just because one has the wrong skin color.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Here is one illustration of the outer edge of Korea's racism:  generally, no matter what color you are, you will be fine as a tourist. Let's call this the "Tourist Rule," a similar concept to the "Foreigner Rule."

Of course, your individual mileage may vary. But generally speaking, there is no reason to expect that, based on your skin color, you will be denied admittance to a tourist attraction or a museum, or that restaurants or other service facilities would decline to serve you. Has that happened before? Definitely. But does it happen frequently enough that you should reevaluate your decision to travel in Korea? No. In all likelihood, nothing bad will happen. (As far as racism is concerned, that is, as tourists are globally a target of crimes and rip-offs.) But even if it does, by and large, what is shown on the video above is probably the worst that one will get. There is no question that what is shown in the video is shitty and unfair. But not having your questions about directions answered is hardly the worst thing in the world, and it should not be enough to discourage most people from travelling and experience a new and interesting place.

Moreover, it is a mistake to measure your potential interaction with Koreans simply in terms of racism. In fact, this is another instance of overestimating Korea's racism -- the idea that Koreans would base their interaction with a foreigner based first and foremost on some kind of rigid racial hierarchy, as if Korea were the Jim Crow South. Be wary, but not scared. Koreans are eager to show off their country, and they love to hear what foreigners think of their country. Again, this is not a guarantee that truly racist things will not happen while you are traveling in Korea. But like everything else in life, if you took a little bit of risk, you might end up being pleasantly surprised.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.