“Because you’re foreign…” Western, White and English privilege in Korea
*Note: This post chronicles my own experiences with privilege in Korea as a White, American female. I am NOT speaking for all White people, females, Americans, Westerners or even Koreans.
I nervously sat among my classmates in a holography class at the Korea National University of Arts in February 2009. A few days earlier, I’d flown to Korea to begin my semester as an exchange student. The professor asked me my name. I knew that Koreans place their family names before their given names, so I said, “Shaw, Sarah.” He was confused for a couple minutes, and eventually he–or someone else–prompted me to say my name how I normally would. “Sarah Shaw,” I said.
It seems obvious, but that minor detail made me realize that I was different. Even though Korean exchange students are expected to blend into the US school system in America, in Korea, I would not be treated as a Korean student.
A few months later, all the students in the fine arts department went on an MT (membership training) trip to the East Coast. We stayed in a traditional Korean-style pension. The rooms were filled with stacks of floor mats, comforters and hard, bean-like pillows–except for one room at the end of the hall containing two beds.
Upon arrival, the two female French exchange students and I were shuffled to the large room with the beds, while everyone else crammed into the smaller rooms. The Malaysian student wasn’t offered the bed and neither was the Nepalese student. Although one of the French girls was a Korean adoptee, our Western status granted us the privilege to sleep in the beds. It was a friendly gesture, and I appreciated how the leaders of the trip took the time to address “our needs,” afraid that we would be uncomfortable on the floor, but sleeping in the beds only alienated us further from our Korean classmates.
Since that weekend at the beach, I can’t possibly count all the times I’ve heard, “Because you’re foreign,” assuring me not to worry so much when I inquire about rules I should abide by, speech I should use, or cultural norms that I should follow.
In Korean workplaces, a strong sense of community is important, and I would often accompany my co-workers to last-minute work dinners and hiking excursions. Additionally, employees usually collect money for weddings, funerals and other important events that happen in one’s life. At the public elementary school where I worked for two years, I wasn’t required to give money towards the third grade teacher’s wedding or the principal’s mother’s funeral. (But then again, I wasn’t invited to these events either.) Of course, I never complained about avoiding these obligations that I would have as a Korean teacher, but I wondered, Is this right?
Because of the uncontrollable nature of my race and nationality, I’m constantly given a get-out-of-jail-free card, and when I make the effort to abide by Korean norms, I’m praised and rewarded with a false sense of accomplishment. Ninety percent of the time when I speak Korean with someone new, I hear, “Wow! You speak Korean so well,” but I’m sure that my Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Indonesian classmates–who speak better than I do– rarely hear this phrase. Many Koreans are impressed by my ability to use chopsticks and eat spicy food, and they’re often shocked when I recall knowledge I’ve learned about Korean culture.
I’m aware of my privileged status in Korea, but sometimes I feel annoyed and offended at the low expectations that apply to me as a White Westerner. I make an effort to learn Korean because, not only do I want to understand the country where I’m currently residing, but I don’t want to cling to a co-teacher or Korean friend every time I need help.
A few weeks ago, I went to the bank in Nonsan, the small city next to the village where I’m currently living. On the bus ride there, I reviewed my banking vocabulary, preparing the sentences I would need to say. As I waited, the tellers ignored me for a good ten minutes, probably embarrassed to speak English. Finally, the teller in the middle rang my number. There were some moments of misunderstanding, and he threw a few English words into his sentences, but overall, I explained in simple terms what I needed to do. When I stood up to leave, he mentioned, “You speak Korean well. Sorry I can’t speak English well.”
I responded, “No, it’s okay. I’m sorry that I don’t speak Korean well.” There was no need for him to humbly apologize for not being able to speak English well, since I was making a transaction at a Korean bank in Korea. If I were a migrant worker from Bangladesh or Vietnam, I know that he wouldn’t have apologized for not speaking their language. They would have been expected to speak Korean.
Although I make an effort to be independent, I can easily receive help if I ask. Because I’ll begin my Peace Corps service soon, I need to complete an extensive medical check within the next month–in English–so I researched an international hospital in Daejeon. When I arrived at the hospital for my first appointment, an interpreter greeted me and essentially held my hand as we walked from office to office. It was so damn easy.
When I entered the dentist’s office, I discovered that the dentist had lived in the United States for a number of years. He had received his undergraduate degree from a university in Michigan and had also attended dental school in Pennsylvania. He asked me how long I’d been in Korea, and with an English interpreter standing next to me, I was embarrassed to admit that I’d lived here for almost three years. “I’m studying Korean,” I admitted, “But I don’t know all the medical terminology.”
“It’s okay,” he replied. But because he had lived abroad and spent years struggling with the English language, I could tell that he was probably thinking, just another foreigner who can’t speak Korean.
A video aired on the Korean television network EBS last year (which was unfortunately taken off Youtube) comparing two foreigners asking for directions at a bus stop in Korea. When the White, male foreigner asked for directions, he received friendly responses. One guy offered to walk with him for a few minutes, and another woman even pulled out a map. On the other hand, when the Southeast Asian man asked for directions in the video, he was ignored for about a half an hour before someone finally gave him directions.
Throughout my three years in Korea, I have also been given the same treatment as the White man in the video. One time, near Olympic Park in Seoul, a woman even walked with me for ten minutes to the subway station with her arm linked in mine. Another time, when buying art supplies, the store owner offered to pay for my cab.
Anyone who has given any thought to the matter realizes that being born into English (especially with access to higher education) automatically results in privilege. How many Koreans can teach Korean in the United States and receive a decent salary, free flight, and rent-free apartment? I haven’t met one yet.
Although I belong to a privileged minority in Korea, life is not always a walk in the park. Besides often feeling alienated within Korean society, there are times when I hear people talking about me in Korean, assuming that I don’t understand, and times where I am discriminated against on the sole basis of my race and nationality. I’ve heard many horror stories from Westerners who have been taken advantage while working at private English institutions or realize they have little rights in Korean law.
Last winter I went to a club in Daegu with a group of friends, including a few Koreans. At the entrance, there was a sign in Korean boldly stating, “No Foreigners Allowed.” The mood immediately turned sour as we argued with the bouncers, and I felt like a dirty, unwanted animal, mentally comparing “No Foreigners Allowed” to the “No Pets Allowed” signs that I often see back home. When the bouncers finally agreed to let us in, they wanted to bring us to an expensive private room, away from all the guests sitting around tables out in the open. I didn’t want to stay in such an establishment, and I couldn’t help but think, what must have happened for the club to ban all foreigners in the first place?
I’ve realized that no matter how long I live in Korea, I’ll never really be “accepted” in this society, but the special treatment I’ve received has far surpassed the moments where I’ve been negatively discriminated against. I’ve been lucky to have eaten home-cooked meals at a number of Korean homes, developed relationships with co-teachers and friends, and been given the opportunity to study Korean for free at a gorgeous university in the countryside, where I am typing this blog post right now. Unlike many Koreans who would love to live abroad without spending their parents’ life savings, I can move to a multitude of countries (if I want to keep teaching English, of course) and I can go back to the United States whenever I want.
Throughout the past two years, I’ve been able to save money and travel to China, Japan, Taiwan, my hometown, and the Philippines, along with frequent trips around Korea where I travel for free in exchange for reviews written in English. This lifestyle is a result of my choices, but it also stems from my privilege as a young, White, college-educated, Westerner working in East Asia.
Every Westerner comes to Korea for a different reason; many are genuinely interested in experiencing a new culture, while others may just come to save $10,000, pay off their student loans, travel around Southeast Asia, and/or indulge in the college-like drinking culture and meet Korean girls. Many Western foreigners don’t give a shit about learning Korean or understanding the culture, because frankly, we don’t have to. Consequently, many of us fail to acknowledge how rampant Western, White, and English privilege is in Korea. For English teachers especially, this privilege benefits us, but it also hinders our ability to fully understand and immerse ourselves in Korean language and culture, unless we make a special effort to branch out of our comfort zones, study, and openly discuss these topics with Koreans and foreigners alike. I can’t change the status I was born into, but I can acknowledge it and try my best to encounter new cultures with an open mind and willingness to understand.
Have you experienced privilege or discrimination abroad based on your race, ethnicity, nationality, language or gender? Discuss your experiences in the comments below.
-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.