“Excuse me,” the man said in Korean. We were walking by each other inside a crowded shopping mall in Gangnam, an affluent commercial district in Seoul.
I turned around, and he deposited a fancy-looking business card into my hand. “Marry Me,” it said in black loopy letters against the stark white paper.
Startled by the proposal, I took a closer look and realized he was recruiting candidates for one of South Korea’s marriage matchmaking services. Such companies are very popular in the nation.
He started to explain his work, at a pace that was too fast for my level of comprehension. “Oh, I’m weiguk saram,” I explained, using the Korean words for “foreigner.” The man scowled, swiped his card out of my hands, and stormed off.
When I got home, I relayed the story of my encounter over the phone to a Korean-American friend who laughed and said “He thought you didn’t have the right ‘specs’ to be an eligible woman.”
“Specs,” short for specifications, is an expression South Koreans use to describe a person’s social worth based on their background, or what sociologists call embodied cultural capital. Attending the right university, having family wealth, desired physical qualities, and even the right winter parka can mean the difference between success or failure in society. Specs apply to everyone, even non-Koreans, in a society where conforming harmoniously is of utmost importance.
In South Korea, physically, I fit in: black hair, brown eyes, light skin with yellow undertones. People don’t realize that I’m foreign right off the bat. But as a Chinese-Canadian woman by way of Hong Kong and Vancouver, in a country with strong biases towards foreigners, my identity is both right and wrong.
I experience benefits for my fluency in English and Westernized upbringing. And sometimes, I experience discrimination for being Chinese and female. Living in South Korea has been a lesson in what I’ve come to call “contradictory privilege.”
Xenophobia runs deep in South Korea. In a recent survey of 820 Korean adults, conducted by the state-funded Overseas Koreans Foundation, nearly 61% of South Koreans said they do not consider foreign workers to be members of Korean society. White, Western privilege, however, means that some people are less affected by this bias.
“Koreans think Western people, white English speakers are the ‘right’ kind of foreigner,” says Park Kyung-tae, a professor of sociology at Sungkonghoe University. “The wrong kind include refugees, Chinese people, and even ethnic Koreans from China,” because they’re perceived to be poor. “If you’re from a Western country, you have more chances to be respected. If you are from a developing Asian country, you have more chances to be disrespected.”
Personally, I’ve found that Koreans often don’t know what to make of my background. There are microaggressions: “Your skin is so pale, you could be Korean,” someone once said to me, adding, “Your teeth are really clean and good for a China person.”
A saleswoman in a clothing store remarked, after I told her what country I’d grown up in, “You’re not Canadian. Canadians don’t have Asian faces.”
But there’s also no denying the privilege that my language brings. If I encounter an irate taxi driver, or if a stranger gets in a huff over my Korean skills, I switch to English. Suddenly I am a different person—a Westernized person, now received with respect.
Other foreigners in South Korea say they’ve experienced this kind of contradictory privilege, too.
“In Korea, they don’t treat me like a human being,” says one woman, a Thai student who has lived in the country for two years, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy. “Some people touch me on the subway [because I’m Southeast Asian] … There was this one time when a guy approached me, we talked for a while, then in the end, he was like ‘How much [do you cost]?’”
Stereotypes about Thai women come up frequently in her daily life. “Even my guy friends here sometimes make jokes—Thai girls are easy and there are many Thai prostitutes,” she says. “How am I supposed to feel about that?”
But like me, the Thai student knows that using the English language makes people see her in a different light. “It’s only when I speak English, I get treated better,” she adds. “They think I’m highly educated and wealthy just because I speak it.”
In terms of diversity, South Korea has come a long way from the late 1800s, when it was known as a hermit kingdom. The famously reclusive nation was forced to open up during Japanese occupation in the early 1900s, and then again during the subsequent establishment of American military bases following the Korean War. It was not until the 1988 Seoul Olympics—just 30 years ago, as part of the policies of the first truly democratic government elected by the people—that the nation began to welcome outside visitors and cultural influences and market capitalism. In 1989, the country for the first time began to permit residents to travel freely outside Korea.
“Since the 1980s and 1990s, we began to have foreigners come here, and it was quite new and we didn’t know how to interact with them,” says Park. “They were not regarded as a part of society. We thought they would leave after staying here [for some time].”
But today, foreigners now make up 2.8% of the country’s population, their total numbers up almost 3.5% from year before, according to the 2016 records released by Statistics Korea. Of the 1.43 million foreigners residing in the nation, 50% are of Chinese nationality, many of whom are ethnic Koreans. Vietnamese people make up 9.4% of foreigners; 5.8% are Thai; and 3.7% of foreigners in Korea are Americans and Filipinos, respectively.
As the number of foreign residents continues to grow in the culturally monolithic South Korea, social attitudes will also need to grow in order to accommodate the country’s expanding diversity.
But changing attitudes may prove tricky, as there are currently no laws addressing racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination in place, says Park.
“Korean civil society tried very hard to make an anti-discrimination law,” he says, referring to the nation’s efforts to battle xenophobia and discrimination. “We failed largely because there is a very [anti-gay] conservative Christian movement. Sexual orientation was going to be included and they were against that … We failed three times to create such a law in the past.”
Koreans who come to the country after living and working abroad can also find themselves being judged for internalizing foreignness. Women, especially, can face harsh criticism.
“In Korea, there’s a really bad stereotype of girls who studied in Japan,” says one Korean woman, who grew up in the US, studied in Japan, and now works in a finance consulting firm. “Because they think girls go to Japan with working holiday visas stay there and work at hostess bars or brothels.”
She adds, “I tried really hard to prove that I was a Korean [to my coworkers] when I first came back. I think it’s a really big disadvantage because Korean companies treat women badly, and then being foreign [on top of that] is even harder.”
Multicultural identities are still not well-understood in Korea, says Michael Hurt, a sociologist at the University of Seoul.
“It’s not like equally influential, criss-crossing identities. Gender, race and class are all of equal importance in the States,” he points out. “This is not what’s going on in Korea. You’re a foreigner first, and then everything else.”