Thursday, December 9, 2010

Foreigner Only Taxis

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’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


  1. Ditto! I really can't say anything else which is an addition or in any way more eloquent.

    Thank you for sharing; I'm definitely going to promote this one on my FB page (and/or maybe I'll motivate myself to try and translate some of it into Korean for my study blog.)

  2. I'm posting this for my friend Kyungho, because the system failed him:

    - In the street, you would see a lot of foreigners who came to Korea to work, to live, to teach and.... to get married.
    it is quite common to see someone who has a different look nowadays
    Korea is on the middle of the way to so-called, 'the multicultural society',
    In my thought, to become a multinational or multicultural society, gold sometimes does work as a catalyst.
    people tend to move along with the economical improvement. it expalins the case of Korea that brought many foreigners in a short period of time,
    just about 30 years ago in this country, let's say you were from somewhere in Africa,
    the Koreans would have looked at you just like an alien,
    because it was so rare to see foreigners back then,
    the biggest reason was because Korea was not the place to be to look after 'Gold',
    so immigrations didn't really mean to make sense, Korea could remain a very single racial country with the Korean culture until the Saemaeul revolution began,
    throughout the 80s, 90s, Korea South became one of the major economies in Asia, now in the World.
    So Korea started to get some attention from many different parties,
    Foreign teachers come to Korea to teach their skills and languages, some students come to Korea to study,
    some people come to Korea because they can get better pay slips. some people get married the Korean nations because they seek for better livings here than their original countries.
    if Korea didn't really secure decent income, did those many Foreign teahers ever come to Korea to teach? I don't think so.
    If Korea was nothing more than just an Asian country, could we see those many Foreign students at Schools and colleges? Never. because the culture itself doesn't really tell you the special reason to come to study.
    If Korea didn't pay enough money, I wouldn't really think we could have those workers at factories and restaurants in this country.
    If Korea didn't give more economical motivation to someone who was looking for a 'dream-come-true' place after getting married,
    we wouldn't have seen such many foreign wives from other Asian countries,
    Korea is a typical country that is becoming a multicultural country out of the fast economical development.

    Someone says, Korea is never, ever to become a multicultural country.
    but I disagree with this. because it takes a long period of time to integrate. in other words, it happens very slowly.
    we have only had no more than 30 years of the multiculturalization history. so it is still on the way.


  3. (Part 2 of Kyungho's comments):

    Korea cannot remain a single cultural country forever because it is getting many immigrants every day.
    it doesn't matter if the one gets a Korean citizenship or not because he/she already lives in this country, his/her cultural background already influences, changes some others.
    especially the wives from other Asian countries. they give birth to their children.
    their contribution to this progress is not only their cultural inflow into the society but also their contribution to gradually changing the stereotype of the people.
    'Foreigners can become wives and husbands'. To get married means to become one family. this is a very important point.

    The U.K. would never imagine to become such a multicultural country before the industrial revolution,
    France would never been a multicultural society if they didn't allow the immigrants from their overseas colonies and territories long time ago.
    Surely, no one expected these countries would be today's multicultural countries those days because they didn't expect new cultures would affect their owns.
    but time always does change things. because people finally realize sometimes new things work out better than their current ones.
    that's why a lot of westerners are crazy about the Thai food instead of their own food, for instance.
    it takes time to integrate, chnage, accept new things. Korea just started with it,
    I would say Korea will be a multicultural country after a century expectedly.
    moreover many Korean students study overseas.
    they experience the new cultures in other countries, they come home with this experience to show other people.
    Finally, it will change the whole country.

    thanks for reading my humble writings and your comments are welcome.

    Kyungho Lee

  4. Good points raised here. I agree that, more than anything, time is required. And sometimes when I am steaming inside because yet another person on the subway is staring at me, I say to myself (in my head), "Just imagine what dark-skinned peoples in the U.S. must have felt those years ago (and some, even now, unfortunately). And just imagine what Korea will be like later on, when the "foreignness" of my appearance has finally worn off?" So I try to calm myself by remembering that attitudes are still adjusting. And I also count up all the lovely people on the subway and/or whom I've passed that day who haven't looked at me or gasped at all when I passed by them!

    But I am definitely saddened to know there are foreigner-only taxis, and will diligently resume the translation soon! Sigh...