“Because you’re foreign…” Western, White and English privilege in Korea

Posted by on May 18, 2013 | 44 Comments

*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.

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Even Hans, the German office worker, is given special treatment in my Korean textbook–full-body shot, front and center, standing next to Mina, the Korean girl on the bench.

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.



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44 Comments

  1. Sarah
    May 19, 2013

    The only time that really happend was when I went to Japan with a group of people to practice Kendo. It was interesting Japan has a lot of tradition and rules. During practice at a Dojo we did mistakes in etiquette and other things, you learn some of them but not all. And they let it pass because you where a guest and not japanese. If you asked what to do better or how to do it properly, they would tell you not to bother.

    Not sure if you get that in Europe I never had that problem here, but I found that you get this treatment a lot more in Asian countries.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer
    May 19, 2013

    Ive never been to Korea but I’ve noticed when we’ve been travelling that so many people speak English and we’ve come to expect it. This makes it so easy for us to not learn the local language, but yes your correct if you cant speak the language, then you dont fully immerse yourself into the culture and society.
    Jennifer recently posted…Diving, Riding and Hiking through a hidden side of the AlgarveMy Profile

    Reply
  3. 네이쓴 Nathan
    May 19, 2013

    You did a great job of reiterating your experience; I can totally see where you’re coming from. From an American-Korean perspective, I think that Korea is like a big way-too-comfortable family, so a lot of the idiosyncrasies that expats experience can be understood from that perspective. Foreigners are like guests in Korea and they’re not expected to stay nor are they expected to ever become entirely family either. The exclusiveness is not particularly intentional, rather it’s instinctual from what I’ve observed.

    Fun read. :)

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 20, 2013

      Nicely put, Nathan. I like the “not intentional, but instinctual” part. Couldn’t agree more.

      Reply
  4. SIMON JUN
    May 19, 2013

    Your article is always interesting to me.

    The privilege & discrimination in Korea you mentioned has very complex social, cultural backgrounds
    including traditional host & guest relationship, rapidly changing point of view about foreigner or Westerner.
    I really admire your enthusiasm for understanding & willingness to be one of ‘us’.
    I think you are already one of us. You have to show your willingness to people around you.

    Bye the way, I have experienced particular privilege as being Korean in Verona Italy last year.
    I used to Cappuccino at certain local cafe after work.

    The order for Cappuccino in afternoon or night is not good etiquette in Italy.
    Sometimes it’s regarded as insult to Italian or Italian culture.
    But I was ‘allowed’ because of cafe owner is big fan of Korean pop culture & I’m a Korean.
    I think I could order for iced coffee but I didn’t try it.
    (There is no iced coffee in Italian coffee culture.)

    Are you going to participate in Peace Corps?
    한국 떠나실거예요? 많이 아쉽습니다.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 21, 2013

      Thanks for your words of encouragement and interesting perspective, Simon! Hallyu is influencing the Western world more than I’d thought.

      네, 6월에는 몽골 여행 할 거예요. 그 다음에 고향에 가니까 가족이 보고 싶어요. 8월에 코럼비아에서 이사 할 거예요… 근데 한국 많이 보고 싶을 거예요.
      Sarah Shaw recently posted…“Because you’re foreign…” Western, White and English privilege in KoreaMy Profile

      Reply
  5. Jessica
    May 19, 2013

    I just moved to Japan and started studying Japanese. It’s only been a month, and I can still only get my basic point across about 10% of the time. I see people’s faces when I walk into a bank or post office – they’re dreading the fact that they’ll have to try to rely on a few years of junior high English to speak to me. I feel bad for constantly proving them right. I also feel terrible about how apologetic they are. As you said, it really is my responsibility to learn the language in the country where I choose to live, not the world’s responsibility to speak English.
    Jessica recently posted…How to Choose Your Kyoto Temples and ShrinesMy Profile

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 20, 2013

      At least you’re making an effort to learn Japanese! That’s more than many foreigners in Asia. :) I’m sure you’ll become more confident in time, especially since you seem to find importance in it.

      Reply
  6. Christine
    May 20, 2013

    Great article, Sarah. You summarized really well what I think a lot of ex-pats here feel. I totally agree with everything you wrote!

    Reply
  7. Alana - Paper Planes
    May 20, 2013

    I think this is common throughout Asia. Every day in Thailand I’m treated really well and isolated or misunderstood just because I’m obviously not from here. It’s an odd…hypocrisy (?) that you touched on – being from a Western country often is treated as privileged, but then again there are often low expectations of how we will think, act, do.

    I remember a student coming into the the teacher’s office during lunch and was shocked I was eating fried rice asking, “You eat Thai food?”. I had actually cooked it at home and that shocked her even further. I was shocked but for different reasons. I was choosing to live in Thailand, I had been there for many months…why in the world would I not eat the food and how many examples had she seen of Westerners refusing to eat something Thai for her to be surprised that I was eating the simplest of dishes?

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 20, 2013

      That happened to me alllll the time. My students would be shocked to see me eating Korean food, writing their names in Hangeul, or even buying groceries at the grocery store. I actually hated seeing students at the grocery store because they would greet me so awkwardly, and usually their moms would be embarrassed to say hi–probably because of the fear of English, just like the tellers at the bank.

      Reply
  8. Daniel
    May 20, 2013

    I certainly haven’t experienced anything like this in Spain. There are certain things that happen here. Notably, the police will stop people to ask for papers based on their appearance. But I don’t think I’ve EVER had somebody apologize for not being able to speak English. Strange!
    Daniel recently posted…Bill Bryson Goes to New MexicoMy Profile

    Reply
  9. Da Realist
    May 21, 2013

    What I experienced there as a black male accompanied by my Korean American wife was the strong emotions of anger, resentment, and a strong urge to want to hurt someone. Given how they viewed me as a sub human with a female of their supposed “sacred” pure blood mumble jumbo, simple human decency was denied. My disappointment with this so called culture of bigotry has little to do with me. The disdain I have is how my wife feelings to reconnect herself with people and culture she lost through adoption were crushed. The slander thrown at her and one fellow’s failed attempt blocking our entrance to Starbucks. Our union disturbed quite a few people but still she did not deserve the mistreatment. Just so sad racism is coveted in that country.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 21, 2013

      So sorry to hear about such a negative experience… I obviously don’t know what it’s like to be black in Korea, but my ex-boyfriend was also a Korean adoptee. I can’t say that I experienced racism when I was with him, but there were moments in public where I felt aggravated. There were many stares of course, but when we’d go out to eat, they would always look at him when I’d order food or ask a question in Korean. In most cases, when Koreans discovered that he didn’t speak Korean, they would get really confused and ask him a bunch of questions. Are you Korean? Why don’t you speak Korean? Are you Chinese? Etc.

      I wonder, did you experience racism when when you were on your own, and how so? Or did it mostly happen because you were with a Korean woman?

      Reply
  10. Da Realist
    May 21, 2013

    One other thing is if you have a strong sense of self pride and a person of color especially with a hue darker than walnut avoid this country. If you you can find abusive language towards your wife from drunk insecure college students with a false sense of entitlement by all means enjoy yourself.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 21, 2013

      Also, I’d like to add that everyone has a different experience, and although many may experience the same form of discrimination, others do not. Or, like you said, they can just deal with it better than others. Obviously that doesn’t justify the awful things that happened to you, but I wouldn’t discourage black people from coming to Korea. I’ve met many black English teachers who seem to really love living here. As for a black male/Korean female couple, check out this adorable blog: http://domandhyo.com/

      Reply
      • Jet Cessant
        June 6, 2013

        I’m an African American male living in Daegu, South Korea and I love it! Yes there are negative experiences, mostly from older male Koreans, but the benefits and the kindness that I’ve received from the people here far outweigh the cons. Sometimes I may be denied admittance into a club or skipped by a taxi, but I’ve made lifelong Korean friends here. I’ve had people go out of their way to walk me to my destination when I was lost. I’ve had an old Korean man buy me a cup of coffee on the KTX as a welcome gift to his city. I live with a Korean host family and they treat me as part of the family. I’ve had many Korean friends invite me to their home to meet their parents and eat a traditional Korean dinner. I think Sarah is right in saying that every experience is different and I would never discourage anyone from coming here if they are interested in learning about a different culture.

        Reply
        • Sarah Shaw
          June 6, 2013

          Thanks for sharing! I’ve also had some bad experiences with ajoesshi–such as being told to “shut up” in 반말 and seeing a couple older men flash money at me as I walked by, thinking that I was a prostitute. However, like you, I’ve also met some fantastic friends and colleagues here.

          Reply
  11. Kaylin
    May 22, 2013

    Oh man, I had a loooong comment written out to dispute this, but I decided to go the tactful route and just say I generally agree with the minority folks on here about their experiences with Korea.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 22, 2013

      First of all, this post isn’t about a minority perspective in Korea. I know that lots of people of color–as well as White people–experience racism in Korea. I simply asked readers to share their experiences with privilege and/or discrimination in Korea no matter what race, nationality or ethnicity they belong to. So if you agree with the one minority who commented, that’s great. That also has little to do with my article, since I have no experience being Black in Korea, and therefore I have no right to make assumptions about what their lives must be like. I did, however, mention that one shouldn’t discourage minorities from working in Korea, since I have many friends who enjoy their time here. I’ve had other friends who did not.

      At the beginning of the post, I bluntly stated that this post chronicles MY experiences as a White, English-speaking Westerner. You may have had other experiences that clash with my experiences and my reasoning. By all means, write away. We all have a right to our opinion, whether I agree or not.

      Reply
  12. Chris
    May 22, 2013

    I agree that any form of racial discrimination is unjustifiable, but is racism in Korea worse than any other parts of the world? How does it compare to the treatment non-whites get in Europe, for example?

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 22, 2013

      Agreed. I don’t think one can necessarily label one country “racist” and another as “non racist.” Racism happens everywhere, and I personally think that many people mistake cultural misunderstandings for racism. As I mentioned in the article, many people experience racism in Korea, but many Western foreigners don’t try to learn Korean, which can result in incidents like the man on the bus in Seoul, who assumed that an elderly Korean man was directing racial slurs at him: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=135_1314585645

      Reply
  13. Otter
    May 28, 2013

    I live in Taiwan as an ESL teacher, and I’ve experienced this too. Mostly the “better treatment,” like being given special attention and discounts just because I’m foreign. I’ve also scared plenty of servers who are afraid to speak to me in English. A few times I’ve had the reverse too, where someone is dying to show off how good their English is and will pointedly engage me in conversation at a bus stop or wherever.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      May 28, 2013

      Yeah, I’ve been approached many times by people wanting to practice English, as well. Usually I try to respond back in Korean, because I figure if they want to practice their English, I’ll practice my Korean too–but I understand that young and/or professional Koreans are under a ridiculous amount of pressure to learn English, for reasons that I don’t have the time or space to get into here. Usually only the most confident (or strange) people will approach foreigners to practice though–like this guy I saw TWICE on line 6 in Seoul walking around with a dictionary, asking how to pronounce “refrigerator.” He asked me if I wanted to meet for coffee, which I politely declined, and then told me that I resembled Sarah Michelle Gellar AND Sarah Jessica Parker–that kind of pissed me off, because I do not find SJP attractive at all. haha.

      Anyway, random people who approach me on the street don’t usually annoy me that much, but I’ve met some “friends” who have just wanted to use me as a free English tutor. If I’ve learned anything within these past 2-3 years, it’s to choose your friends wisely, and that goes for both foreign and Korean friends.

      Reply
  14. First Things I’ve Learned from Teaching (Korean) Students | From Korea with Love
    June 8, 2013

    [...] “Because you’re foreign…” Western, White and English privilege in Korea (mappingwords.com) [...]

    Reply
  15. Kenneth Hahn
    July 10, 2013

    I’m an American-born Korean, and I actually get these reactions too. I sound, dress, and act very American, so when I occasionally speak in Korean, I’ll get beaming compliments. But that’s just how Koreans are — they overdo it on the compliments. It’s their way of being polite and making conversation.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      July 11, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, Kenneth. Your experience seems to strengthen my argument above– don’t you think the beaming compliments you’ve been given relates to the fact that you grew up in the United States and speak English fluently?

      Reply
  16. Jack
    July 17, 2013

    White privilege is a great evil in this world. So is White supremacy…Now, Whites can feel what it is like–when Whites discriminate against Non-Whites in the United States and Europe. Doesn’t feel too good, now, does it?

    Reply
  17. DANIEL
    September 21, 2013

    Sarah, you are probably one of the most honest and objective people on the Internet I’ve seen. I’m a native Korean, currently going to college in the U.S., and whenever I see Koreans treating foreigners (especially white Caucasians) differently, I can’t help but to feel like they are “lowering” themselves with this preconceived notion that they are lesser than white people. Of course, yes, I may be over-generalizing it. But no offense intended to any race whatsoever, it’s just my personal opinion. When I would introduce myself here in the States, I would start with my first name, and then the last name just like any other Americans would. So, like you mentioned in your writing, it’d be correct for foreigners to adapt to the “Korean way” if you will when in Korea. But for some reasons, Koreans just waive that requirement to foreigners, just because they are foreigners. Something’s got to change.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      September 25, 2013

      Thanks for reading, Daniel!

      Reply
    • CedarBough
      October 9, 2013

      No kidding. Exactly right. It has to change. I’m working on a newspaper article in Korean to say basically what you’re saying here. Maybe because I’m saying it (my white American privilege again) people will listen.

      Reply
  18. A Multicultural Korea: Inevitable or Impossible? | The Culture Muncher
    September 27, 2013

    […] dynamics in an increasingly multicultural country, check out Sarah Shaw’s writing here and here, and you can watch Al Jazeera’s take on multiculturalism in Korea […]

    Reply
  19. jimmy
    September 30, 2013

    Great article. I had almost identical experiences while living in a small city in Japan for 3 years. If you’re white, you’re treated like royalty… and in fact I met one of the crown princes of Japan because I was invited to a reception as the token white guy. Although I misunderstood the event and came straight from the beach in my swim suit and sandals… but they still let me in to my embarrassment. The special treatment even extended to the legal system. I was stopped for a few traffic violations over the years – one being fairly serious – and was always let off with a warning. All this privilege can corrupt your values and morals over time if there are no consequences for your actions year after year. Being a white guy in Asia can make you feel untouchable, which isn’t good in the long run.

    Reply
  20. CedarBough
    October 9, 2013

    there are points you’re making that I really agree with, especially the larger point about white privilege while living in Korea. But, and I hate to sound harsh, if you’re so very interested in Korea and so aware of how you’re being treated, why go along with it? Learn the language already. Refuse the interpreter. Tell the bank teller (in Korean) that as long as you’re in Korea, it’s your responsibility to speak Korean. Ask people if they’d be as nice to a foreigner who wasn’t white (or female, or presumably attractive). I get the same “benefits” of being a foreigner, but I also call people out for acting that way and explain that their “help” as they find me a fork at a restaurant is a form of prejudice, a double standard.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      October 9, 2013

      Hi cederbough
      I have studied Korean throughout the 3 years I lived in Korea-i also studied full-time for a semester. Sure I go to the bank without an interpreter, and I’ve had these conversations you speak of with Korean friends and co-workers many times. The point of this article is to show how white people are given special privileges over others–especially when it comes to not being expected to speak the language.

      Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      October 9, 2013

      But I do agree with your suggestions… In my opinion, Westerners should make an effort to learn the language, adapt to Korean culture and promote equality.

      Reply
  21. One Shot: New Laws for Multicultural Marriages in Korea | The Culture Muncher
    October 22, 2013

    […] You may notice that there are no Caucasian women in that particular centre. At this point, white foreigners seem to be granted the privilege to retain a certain amount of their respective cultures. This new law may place more expectation on white spouses of Korean citizens. For more on white privilege in Korea, see these posts by The Unlikely Expat and Sarah Shaw of Mapping Words. […]

    Reply
  22. Craig
    October 28, 2013

    A lot of this isn’t about privilege and racism. It’s about privilege and class.

    What your analysis misses is this: Almost every aspect of public life, including almost all human interaction, is completely circumscribed by money and class. It’s the near-total be-all and end-all here. Simply by being from a wealthy country or associated with a wealthy country and high-status background, you are Superior. Your foibles are excusable; your achievements amazing, even if irrelevant.

    You miss the corollary. These same standards also apply to Koreans. They constantly and savagely measure each other up.

    Wealthy, attractive Koreans are given passes, and awards for trivial things. You need to attach your photo to job applications. Ugly girls and short men need not bother applying.

    Every aspect of life in Korea is completely dominated and informed by rank and social status. It governs almost everything in a way even people from large Western cities immersed in materialism can’t really grasp.

    You just happen to be white. White has associations. De facto, it’s racial privilege, but that’s not the whole story nor the culturally motivating factor. Absent large, militarily powerful wealthy societies, you’d find yourself in the back of the line with Sri Lankan employees toute de suite.

    Reply
  23. George
    October 28, 2013

    Although not a native English speaker and not a teacher here, I often felt offended by the low expectations and standards that Koreans have for westerners. My experiences during the first years have generally been very similar to yours: an awkward blend of unexpected advantages and random discrimination.
    The solution to this problem is to excel in Korean language and social understanding to that level where the people around you automatically stop seeing you as a foreigner – and you stop feeling like one yourself. I guarantee you that it’s possible so if you’re staying for more I wish you best luck.

    Reply
    • Che
      November 17, 2013

      George, I agree that learning ‘native-like Korean’ would- after a moment- stop the discrimination. But, yo, that’s real hard! I’ve been in SK for eight years and never, never met a non-native Korean speaker who has learned such Korean. Especially a native English speaker. It’s just too hard, there’s no motivation, or like me, you get too tired of the discrimination and turn into a hermit poised to leave the country. White ‘privilege’i.e., linguistically realized’discrimination’ examples: (every day in public)Korean native speakers answering my Korean in English, “Wow, your Korean is so good!”, “Where are you from? I’m from Geumho Dong, yo! No, no, originally? Where were you born?” “You’re a foreigner!” The author and everybody who has responded here problematically assume that being racially non-East Asian equates with being a foreigner. That’s as prejudicial as the native Korean speakers, themselves. Check the Korean dictionary, though: “A foreigner is someone who doesn’t have South Korean nationality.” Catch my drift? You gotta go around checking passports and ID cards to determine nationalities; don’t base it on race/accent in Korean. Then check the super problematic definition for ‘ethnicity’, or ‘민족’, which implies that one not even change one’s nationality to become Korean: it’s realized linguistically. Funny, though, that it’s only the dictionary I’ve ever met that reifies this ideology.

      Reply
  24. My Nguyen
    October 28, 2013

    Hi,

    This is a very interesting blog post. I totally agree with all you said. I’m a Vietnamese but my ESL is fluent with no accent. However, I have really hard time looking for a ESL teaching part-time job because I don’t look white enough (I’m a college student now). One time, the recruiter even told me to lie to the parents that I was American-Vietnamese…She actually told the parents first without my acknowledgement so I had to follow suit. This part made that job the hardest I’ve ever been through.
    Anyway, great experience. I don’t regret a bit coming here.
    By the way, can you give me more info about the free Korean course you’re in now? I’m looking for full time class at the moment.
    Thanks :)

    Reply
  25. Juniper
    November 30, 2013

    I was privileged right into an AIDS and drug test that none of my Korean teacher colleagues had to deal with. I did feel special. Thanks Korea.

    Reply
  26. Alex M
    December 5, 2013

    Negative: Ive been harassed by the police in Korea. They took my ARC abd said they wouldnt give it back unless I paid them. Dude, you have my walet and its past midnight, how do you plan on me getting money?

    No amount of old ladies giving me fruit can make up for that (or other old ladies in the market fighting over if they should give me more or less for my money or just refusing service)

    Reply
  27. Girls That Go! An Interview with Sarah Shaw of Mapping Words
    May 5, 2014

    […] You recently wrote an interesting post about white privilege in Korea. Have you experienced similar treatment in any other countries you’ve visited, or has it been […]

    Reply

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