Friday, April 7, 2006

우리끼리 우리 아닌 사람들 (Alternate title: Sounds better than Plan A)

I don't know if "Foreigners Day" was Plan A, a mistranslation, or what, but if the Dong-a Ilbo is correct, the new name is a lot better.

"Cultural Diversity Day."

With Korean-African-American NFL football star Hines Ward's visit, the Korean media is abuzz with how shitty life can be for people in Korea with a mixed heritage. This has morphed into a larger discussion of how the hundreds of thousands of "foreigners" living in Korea are often treated in a less than stellar way.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has sparked great interest in biracial people among Koreans. But not every biracial person is as lucky as Ward. Korea has more than 700,000 registered non-Korean residents.

Reflecting this reality, the Korean government is considering designating a "Cultural Diversity Day"� to encourage the nation to be more embracing of non-Korean residents.
The Ministry of Justice began work on establishing such a day and intends to announce the day in May or June, after the appropriate consultations.

The intentions sounds good. Immigration Bureau Director Kang Myeong-deuk says the day, according to the article, "is an opportunity to raise people's awareness of issues regarding foreign residents living in Korea, whose number is expected to surpass one million by 2010."

I have never been comfortable with the "foreigner" designation, and one might notice I usually write the word in quotes if I use it at all. "Foreign" implies strangeness. The words in Korean and Japanese, oegugin and gaijin, respectively, imply outsider status. Maybe not just imply such a status, but reinforce it. I seem to recall that, back in the 1990s, CNN even decided to do away with that term in favor of constructions with "international" in them.

Is someone a stranger or an outsider after being in Korea for twenty years or more, like Father Norbert Tracy and the late John Harvey of Sogang University? Is someone a foreigner after learning the language, buying a home, establishing a career, and starting a family with a local national? Are kyopo less "foreign" than non-Asians, just because of their appearance? Are mixed people who were born in Korea, raised in Korea, speak Korean fluently or near fluently, somehow "foreign"?

I would submit, not really at all. The absence of a green card-type designation for so long only served to artifically enforce a distinction that had ceased to exist long ago—or never actually existed in the first place.

At any rate, "cultural diversity" has a much better ring. It is inclusive. The average Korean might not think he or she has anything to do with "foreigners," but dammit, we're ALL a part of this increasingly diverse culture. "Cultural diversity" is for everyone here.

And I find this encouraging. In a country of 50 million people, there are assholes to be found for sure. But I have faith that the average Korean who holds negative views toward "foreigners" or toward diversity is doing so out of ignorance, not malice or animosity (with notable exceptions to be sure, often involving misogynistic attitudes of "our women").

The average Korean does not know of the immigration woes most foreign nationals face. Because of deliberate or accidental misinformation in the ignorant or agenda-driven media, many Koreans think that English-speaking nationals have a cake-walk when it comes to immigration issues. That contrasts sharply with what they've heard or experienced with getting into countries like the United States for a visit to Disneyland.

The problem is that what they hear is so often wrong, distorted, or only half the picture. And for this, I blame not the media consumer but the media producers. I've said this many times before, but if only half of what the agenda-driven media outlets said was true, it would still be reason for outrage. Fortunately there is greater and greater savvy among many (but certainly not all) media consumers, and the attempts to demonize "others" often falls flat on its face, or at the very least doesn't resonate quite so well as the agenda-planners had hoped.

Koreans learn that diversity equals serious social problems. Many fail to grasp that it is often the rejection and marginalizing of those who are bringing the diversity that is what brings the serious social problems.

Hines Ward's mother speaking out is only the latest in a string of incidents where the average Korean's cognitive dissonance is rattled. I have faith that it will lead to better things. My faith is based on all the changes I've seen since living in Korea as a teenager in the 1980s. Of course, that faith is coupled with the realization that there's still so far to go.

The Ministry of Justice has cited Australia's National Harmony Day� as a good example for Korea to model its day after.
In Australia, not only the government but also private organizations and educational institutions are active in holding various academic forum and events to promote harmony between the locals and foreign residents. We hope the same thing will happen in Korea with the introduction of foreigners� day.
Koreans need education on the matter. There are numerous outlets willing to provide it, once they get religion themselves.

"Cultural Diversity Day" in Korea...ten years ago if I had predicted this, I would have been laughed of Kexpat.

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