South Korean Attitudes Toward Foreigners

Before I came to Korea, my dad pulled me aside, and he said, “I thought you should know that Koreans are prejudiced.”  As usual, he was trying to take care of me, and my dad had a very international personality like I do having lived in several countries and having learned several languages.  However, when he pulled me aside, it was 13 years ago, and I came to Korea and stayed. He never lived in Korea, and even though he knew some, he didn’t know the whole story.  I have learned a lot about Koreans and their attitudes toward foreigners.

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To begin with, I think the South Koreans were more prejudiced toward blacks in the past, but not so much any more.  You see, in the past, the people who worked in the fields in Korea had tans, and they thought of people with darker skin as low socially.  However, Korea is no longer a farming society, but a high tech society.  My Korean son in law comes from a family where everyone has very light skin except him, and it has been an anomaly for them to try to figure out.  They looked and looked through family pictures and saw some relatives several generations back with darker skin, so the gene is there, but not prominent.  Americans admire someone with a natural tan, and Koreans now a days don’t look down on people with darker skin.

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We have friends from Bangladesh here in Korea, and the Bangladeshi guys were some of the most popular at the university.  One guy could give a speech and the whole audience, especially the girls, would swoon because he had charisma. They didn’t care that his skin was a bit darker than theirs.  The only reason he didn’t marry a Korean girl was because he doesn’t want a Korean girl.  He wants one from back home who has values more like his. One of the guys from Bangladesh came to me when he first arrived because he was Muslim, and he said people were afraid he was a terrorist, so they didn’t make friends with him. However, I knew he was a nice guy and wouldn’t hurt anyone, so I introduced him to some of the Korean students and encouraged friendships, and he made friends.  It is true the Koreans hear about the terrorist problems around the world and worry about Muslims.  One thing for sure here in Korea, if you are a Christian, they are more accepting of you.

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I have known three different black girls since coming here, two from different countries in Africa, and one from America.  One of the black girls was tiny and pretty.  They liked her so much they put her on TV.  The America black girl wasn’t as pretty as the girls from Africa, and she felt like people were prejudiced against her.  She assumed it was her race, but it wasn’t. Koreans have a problem with size.  Koreans put terrible pressure on one another to be small, and the American black girl was large.  She was big boned to begin with and then had some extra pounds, and even though they accepted her as an English teacher, she could never teach where she wanted, and she was sure it was prejudice.  It was, but not because of her color, but because of her size.  The Koreans are prejudiced against other Koreans who are big boned even if they aren’t overweight.  They think everyone should be small and dainty. They even want the guys to be small, but if the guys are tall, it doesn’t matter what they look like, they are automatically good looking in Korea.  They just don’t want them to have big bones or any excess weight.

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There are other strange attitudes going on in Korea.  If you are a foreigner, often you are treated like a celebrity.  They flock to you wanting to get to know you because you speak English, either that or run from you because you speak English.  Every young person in Korea is encouraged to study English.  To get a good job in Korea, you have to pass a special English test.  If you don’t get a high enough score on that test, you will have a lower paying job.  They all have to try.  They may never use their English in their jobs, but Korea understands the importance of English in the world, and they understand how small Korea is.  They know that Korean is a very hard language, and even though they might wish you spoke Korean, they know normally foreigners don’t learn to speak Korean. Initially, they may swamp you wanting to be friends, but it is all about using English and learning it better, but after a while, you actually do fine some friends among those who swamped you.  There are also others who see you who have studied English, but they know their English is so bad that they are afraid you will talk to them in English and they won’t be able to answer, so they will run from you.

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If you ride in the subway, it is not unusual for some Korean to strike up a conversation with you in English.  However, I learned that even if they want to speak English, women need to be careful.  I was on the subway one day and there was a man next to me who began talking to me.  I was polite like I usually am and responded.  At one point, I was puzzled because he asked me if I was Russian.  I thought, “What a silly question. He is speaking to me in English. Why would he think I was Russian?”  I told him I wasn’t, and when I got home, I told my daughter about it.  She said, and I have learned this is true, the Korean men consider Russian women to be prostitutes. If you come to Korea and anyone asks if you are Russian, be very adamant with them that you are not!  I feel bad for Russian women for having such a bad reputation in South Korea.

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Koreans love people with what they call “small faces.” If they tell you that you have a small face, it means they think you are pretty.  I never considered my face to be very small. I am part American Indian, and my cheek bones are high, and I don’t have one of the little bitty chins that women who have ancestors from Europe have.  However, the Koreans try to tell me my face is small.  I finally figure out that means they like how I look.  They also like very white skin.  If you have very white skin, they will talk about how pretty you are also.

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If you are getting older as I am, the Koreans will expect you to keep your hair colored.  In Korea, if you are taking care of yourself, you don’t let your gray hair come.  You keep the gray covered. Even the men in Korea keep their black as they get older. I have noticed some lately that let it get gray, but if you are in a job, you really need to keep it dark.  There are little old ladies everywhere with jet black hair all cut off and permed.  I don’t mind keeping the color on my hair, but I never wanted my hair cut off like that, so I don’t follow their short hair trend for older women. In fact, my daughter has made me promise that I will never let myself look like that.  She doesn’t have to worry because I don’t like the style.

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Here in Korea, perms are popular.  Old women love to perm their hair, as I said, but they are not the only ones.  The guys like to get a perm in their hair. They think wavy hair is beautiful.  They guys think it makes them more handsome.  They don’t have naturally curly hair here in Korea.  My hair is slightly naturally curly, and the Koreans love it! The ladies at the hair shop love to play with with my hair and see what it does when it curls.  Young girls that I have made friends with have shown up with slightly long curly hair, and when I complimented them, they said, “I did it because I like your hair.  Now my hair is like yours. ”

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Another funny attitude is that they have it in their heads that people who speak English as their first language have blonde hair and blue eyes.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, and they are learning.  I am white, but I am mixed with American Indian, and people who know about American Indians can see the American Indian in me.  However, the attitude I get from the Koreans is that they stare at me.  My looks confuse them because I don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes. I don’t even have red hair or brown hair. I have very dark brown hair that looks black and brown eyes, and my bone structure is slightly different from someone who is 100% Caucasian, and it totally confuses some of the Koreans. It takes them off guard, and they don’t know what to think.  I am a very real American, so I am a melting pot in one person.  I had a boss who was always looking strangely at me, and one day she said, “There is something different about you. You are not like the other Americans, but I can’t put my finger on it.” When I explained that i was part American Indian, she was thrilled!  I have learned that Koreans love American Indians.  They are intrigued and fascinated by them.  My Korean son in law and his father are thrilled that my son in law married a girl that is part American Indian.  My Korean son in law is ready to go to America and learn to ride a horse!

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Now, I ask, is what my dad said to me true? Are the Koreans prejudiced?  Not really in the way that we think about prejudice in the United States.  They have funny attitudes, but people with dark skin are not shunned.  It is the larger people who may be shunned. It is the people who are not a pretty as the others who may be shunned. Muslims may be shunned because South Koreans are scared of them. Russian women are looked down on.  Perhaps it happened because they were trying to get away from Communism, and from my experience in Europe, there were a lot of girls from Communist countries who were treated as prostitutes when they left their countries because they would do anything to get out of the mess Communism made in their countries.  Somehow, Russian women got a bad reputation in S. Korea.  The older Koreans don’t like Japanese, but the younger Japanese are embracing them. They love the electronic games and anime that come from Japan, and they love that Japanese is easier to learn to speak than English for a Korean. Attitudes change all the time on different topics. At one time, dark skin may have been a problem here, but there are random Bangladeshi or Indians from India everywhere. Koreans like them, and the Bangladeshi and Indians like Korea. In some ways, you could say the Koreans are prejudiced because of age. there is forced retirement at 60 unless you are a university professor, and then it is 65.  If you are a foreigner and you are over 65, they may let you teach at a private school, but you better be ready be treated like a slave if they will will even let you teach because they don’t want older teachers because they aren’t pretty anymore. Koreans LOVE PRETTY AND SMALL!!!

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