Why do “Foreigner Only” taxis make me angry? [For the Korean translation by my friend, please follow this link.]
Okay, maybe angry is not the correct word choice here, but honestly every time I see one of the new taxi cabs running around Seoul that say boldly on their doors “Foreigners Only” with the word “English” prominently displayed I grit my teeth. Seriously, we already had the system by which the taxi driver could use his cell phone (yes, all taxi drivers have cell phones) to call for free translation in several different languages, day or night. So why do we need to now assert that certain taxis are off limits to regular Korean passengers?
What country are we in, anyway?
Right, the Republic of Korea. This place where people speak Korean. Which is not (by numbers of native speakers) a minor language. Not that that makes a difference, I’m just saying it’s not like learning the language recently discovered in India that all of about 800 people speak. It’s Korean. (Just in case you were curious, according to a widely disputed Wikipedia list of languages by number of native speakers worldwide, Korean is # 18). So, Korean. One of the most spoken languages in the world, in a vibrant country that by almost all measures is a first-world developed nation (despite the number of people who still seem to be hung up on calling it “developing”), yet because a few Western people come here on tours (a very very few) and a few Westerners live here in business, English teaching or military positions for the most part, Koreans suddenly think they need to bend over backwards to accommodate the English speakers (despite more Chinese and Japanese tourists and business people than all Westerners, English speaking or not, plus the increasingly large number of long-term residents from elsewhere in Asia including Vietnamese modern-day picture-brides).
Korea is really excited about becoming a “multicultural society” (it’s been a big buzz word/phrase the past couple years) yet they never seem to consider that many of their efforts towards multi-culturalism are efforts that defeat multi-culturalism. I have never seen in America anything like a “Foreigners Only” sign on a taxi. You can have a French language kindergarten, or Chinese immersion program in grade school (my friend has her daughter in one of these, they try to teach several subjects in Chinese) but you can’t deny children from any background enroll in them (my friend’s daughter is blue-eyed and blond-haired). The American government and employers don’t try to coerce their foreign employees into using those special set-ups (though of course companies probably tell their employees about all local schooling options). Yet in Korea they’re now trying to set up special schools to take half-Korean kids (the sons and daughters of the rural men who tend to marry women from less economically powerful parts of Asia when the Korean women all say “heck no” to living on a farm with rice and chili peppers and aging in-laws) and special pre-school and kindergarten classes for the children of the foreign professors at Seoul National University. Uh, hello. Do you really think you’ll defeat the prejudices and preconceptions of the “ethnically homogenous” Korean people by keeping Korean kids separated from the foreign and half-Korean kids? Multi-cultural means you allow people to interact and hopefully to learn that they're not so different from each other after all, not that you set them apart.
A million years ago I worked at a pre-school and kindergarten in Seattle that took half its kids from the at-risk and differently abled population (it was called Northwest Center for the Retarded, now it has dropped the end of the name), we had kids who lived in cars with their parents and kids with autism, cerebral palsy, etc. Each classroom had at least one aide who was high-functioning but disabled. I worked with the coolest guy, Randy. He was autistic and really into ferries, and since my hometown is an island… well, I was in with him from day one as we chatted about the car capacity, current run (ex. Vashon to Seattle or San Juans to Anacortes) and the year of commission and shipyard in which various ferries were built. But the point was that half the kids were totally “normal” and the center even had a waiting list and it had to use a lottery system to let kids in! And all those kids learned that people come in different stripes and they learned how to help and be compassionate and interact normally with each other. It was really inspiring. Dietary restrictions aside, they all shared the same snacks and nap times and games and went out on the playground at the same time.
If Korea really wanted to become a multicultural society, they’d learn to how to interact with different people without making a big production out of it (including their own disabled people most of whom are invisible as they’re too shameful to the families to go out, or kept in group homes because no one in their family wants to take care of them). They wouldn’t try to compartmentalize anyone who was sort of different into separate taxis or residences or schools.
Yesterday I was walking through downtown Daegu and I saw four middle-school girls in their awkward school uniforms. They were laughing and joking around excitedly in outdoor voices, one of them was a towering blond girl. They were all speaking Korean. Korea, that’s the future you should want. Even back in the day (50+ years ago) foreigners who were in Korea would enroll their kids in Korean schools. It's up to the parents to decide if they want to spend mass-bucks on the private schools the government seems so in favor of. The foreign schools in Korea are an option that seems most attractive to new arrivals (with kids a little too old to learn Korean by immersion) and rich Koreans (determined their children will have a leg up if they learn in a western atmosphere), but these schools do very little to promote multiculturalism.
And if you want to achieve it, stop bending over backwards to “help” foreigners feel comfortable in your country. Realize that most of the foreigners and somewhat foreign (like the half Koreans) in this country just want to go through their day with the least acknowledgement of their foreign-ness possible. Even if they can’t speak Korean well, they just want to go where they are going and do what they need to do without anyone acting uncomfortable to see a foreigner in front of them, without any children pointing or screaming “hi, hi, hi” until they get a response and they prefer the store clerk to use normal Korean manners instead of silently shoving a calculator with the price in their face. And try (I know it’s hard) to understand that you may see someone who looks foreign but doesn’t feel that they are a foreigner. There are many half-Korean people who in fact were raised in Korea or raised culturally Korean, and they definitely don’t want to be singled out in each interaction as a foreigner. Err on the side of assuming the person in front of you wants you to act the same way you acted to the previous guest in your restaurant, the last customer at your counter and how you act towards almost every other person you see on the street.
There are Pakistanis who have lived here 20 years, Germans who speak better Korean than most Korean college kids and academics who have devoted their life to studying Korea. Statistically speaking, unless you live near a military base most of the foreigners you see will be in the process of learning Korean (and if you're a foreigner in Korea and you're reading this and you think this isn't true, remember, not everyone is getting paid to teach English, there are many other foreigners). When in doubt, just pretend you already live in multicultural society, the multicultural society of Korea, where the language is Korean. Embrace multiculturalism and interact in no special way what-so-ever.
Want to Read More?
A few relevant writings on this theme, probably all better thought out that mine:
Jason Lim “When Our Children Don’t Look Korean”
So-Mang Yang “The Korean Way to Multiculturalism”
Peter Underwood (yes, that Underwood family): “Multiculturalism in Korea”
Korea.net’s “Policies Directions to Help Multicultural Families” [sic]
Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives website’s “Emergence of New Citizens and Discourse of Multiculturalism in Korea”
Roboseyo’s articles “Korean Multiculturalism: Putting them Furriners in their Place” and “Random Notes: Multiculturalism in Korea and Crowdsourced Translation”
Kosian’s blog “Korea Greets New Era of Multiculturalism”