By Phil Barnes
Copy edited and produced by Laura Straub
Every morning, after boarding Seoul’s bustling subway on her way to work, Lara Tosh casually waited for a stranger to ask the question. She never had to wait long.
“Uh, excuse me Miss, are you a Russian prostitute?”
Thirteen years later, Tosh (who is actually Canadian-born) laughs at the old routine. “The question” isn’t asked much anymore – Tosh is now in her 40s and thinks that old age may have something to do with it. But she is quick to point out another, more prevalent reason: South Korea’s homogeneous culture is quickly becoming more colored.
Increasing diversity in South Korea
According to the Korean National Statistics Office, foreigners living in South Korea totaled 390,000 in 1997 -- two years before Tosh’s arrival. In 2009, there were over 1 million expatriates in the country (120,000 from the United States).
Year after year, the number keeps climbing.
Dr. Jinseng Park recently opened the doors of his Seoul-based psychotherapy clinic to foreigners in order to compensate for their rapid population growth.
“Korean society has been the same for 5000 years,” he says. “Many of us aren’t used to seeing any color. When I visited the U.S., I was confused because there were so many people of different ethnicities. But it’s certainly changing here.”
And with diversity comes acceptance…slowly but surely.
Increasing multicultural families
|Multi cultural couple Yvon Malenfant and his wife Jae-Sook|
There were 35,098 marriages between foreigners and Koreans in 2010, a sharp increase from a mere 12,300 reported ten years prior.
Six years ago, Lara Tosh married Y.B. Ahn (a Korean man). He is from a conservative family, and initially, Tosh’s relations with his parents were shaky to say the least.
“When I met with my future husband’s in laws, there was 20 minutes of non-stop screaming and crying,” Tosh says. “At first they didn’t want their son, especially their eldest, to marry me…a foreigner.”
Tosh’s relationship with her in laws has improved drastically over time, (she describes her connection with Ahn’s mother as “totally awesome”) but Korean culture still shocks her occasionally. Ahn’s age gives him priority due to his family’s traditional, hierarchical structure, and Tosh often finds herself baffled over resulting responsibilities.
“I actually had to name my newborn nephew,” she says. “It was very strange -- but its stuff like this that makes it fun and interesting to be married to a man of another culture. I definitely see more couples like me now, too. It’s on the rise.”
Yvon Malenfant, a private inter-faith pastoral counselor, is another foreigner who found love in Korea. He has been married to his wife, Jae-Sook, for 13 years.
“My wife and I were both 36 when we decided to get engaged. Her parents thought she would grow into an old maid and were just happy she found somebody.”
When they first married, Jae-sook was called a “Yankee wife” by her neighbors. But not so much anymore.
“Foreigners are more tolerated now than ever before,” says Dr. Park. “Parents are accepting them into their family and culture. It’s all about awareness. Once the shock factor fades away, so does discrimination.”
With the bulk of expatriates hailing from China, Park notes that prejudice still exists throughout Korea, but it varies depending on a foreigner’s background.
“Women or men that come here from other Asian countries are considered by many to be poor and stupid, based on the economical status of their country compared to Korea,” he says. “We consider Americans and westerners to be intelligent based on the success of their countries, but there is still a bit of uneasiness towards them, because they don’t look the same.”
“But this is changing.”
Men living in rural areas of South Korea often marry “mail order brides” from Vietnam, Cambodia, or China because native women tend to gravitate toward wealthier, urban areas. In bigger cities, such as Seoul and Gyeonggi-do, westerner / Korean couples are much more prominent.
But as multicultural couples have kids in both urban and rural sectors, a new crisis is emerging.
Bullying aimed at the multicultural community
“Bullying and racism in schools are already big problems,” says Malenfant. “And they are bound to increase drastically as more foreigner / Korean couples give birth to children of mixed ethnicity.”
Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor and intercultural specialist at Korea University, predicts that bi-ethnic/bi-racial enrollment will rise to 16 percent in 2018 and to more than 870,000 (26 percent) in 2050. If this proves to be the case, Koreans’ progression of accepting other ethnicities will be put into overdrive.
A new social order
Dr. Park knows that the social order is transforming – that more cultures are becoming accepted. But, Korean society may be changing too fast. Tradition is tough to break. It takes awhile...years, even decades.
While holding hands with her husband in public, Lara Tosh’s eyes still meet the suspicious gaze of older Koreans. She doesn’t let it affect her though. In fact, she implements her own family rules at home, many of which differ from the traditional Korean hierarchy.
“Even though my husband is twenty days older than me, I’m still the boss of the house. What I say goes.”
Tosh may very well be a contributor to a South Korean cultural renaissance in the near future, but it won’t come easy. Change never comes easy.