Foreigners in South Korea

A blurred action photo of pedestrians moving through a subway terminal.

Inside the Metropolitan Subway in Seoul. Photo © Sung Kuk Kim/123rf.

Unfortunately, much of South Korea’s contact with foreign nations has been of the negative variety. Most of the peninsula’s earliest exchanges were with neighboring China, which was alternately a rival and a “big brother” of sorts to which Korea’s rulers paid tribute in return for China allowing their shifting territories to function quasi-independently. But not every empire was so amenable; from the 13th to the 20th centuries Korea endured a nearly constant barrage of attempted conquest, invaded and ruled on and off by the Mongols, Chinese, and Japanese. A move by the battle-weary nation to close its borders to the outside world in the early 19th century was repealed under pressure from trade-hungry Western powers. Some of the Korean wariness of outsiders turned out to be justified; most of the world stood by as Japan took over the peninsula in the early 20th century, and there was a similar lack of protest when World War II ended and newly independent Korea was divided into what were essentially U.S. and Russian client states. The Korean War of 1950-1953 involved massive numbers of foreign troops on both sides, and a significant U.S. military presence remains in South Korea to this day, proof to some of the two nations’ stalwart alliance but a major source of resentment to others.

Any foreign resident showing a genuine interest in the country—by learning a few Korean phrases, for example, or enjoying the local cuisine—will find no shortage of delighted would-be guides, friends, or teachers.Since so much of South Korea’s foreign relations have been characterized by strife, betrayal, and bloodshed, it is perhaps understandable that views on foreigners are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, South Koreans are immensely curious about other countries and highly appreciative—envious, even—of their assets and achievements. They desperately want foreigners to have a positive impression of their nation and are deeply concerned about the way the country is portrayed to the outside world. The result, desirable or not, is that expatriates tend to come in for plenty of special treatment. Nearly every foreign resident will have a story or two to tell about being offered assistance when they looked lost, strangers pressing umbrellas into their hands when they were stuck in the rain without one, or restaurant servers bringing them free extras. Any foreign resident showing a genuine interest in the country—by learning a few Korean phrases, for example, or enjoying the local cuisine—will find no shortage of delighted would-be guides, friends, or teachers. The former “Hermit Kingdom” also seems to have both feet squarely in the globalization camp: Learning English is a priority for most of the population, new foreign restaurants spring up in Seoul every weekend, and much fuss is now made about the need to build a more multicultural society.

On the other hand, a lot of old suspicions and resentments die hard. With some justification, given the country’s turbulent history, South Koreans sometimes seem to feel the world is out to get them, or at least to hold the country back. Any perceived insult or injustice—Japan’s claim to a set of islets that South Korea insists are its territory is a current example—can send the entire nation into what looks like paroxysms of rage, sparking angry outpourings in the media, protests on the streets, and other behavior that looks downright xenophobic. Foreign nationals will sometimes find their countries singled out for criticism or be roped into emotional debates about wrongs that the South Koreans view as grave but that they know little about. These sorts of exchanges tend to be most charged when they involve the two countries that have influenced South Korea’s modern history the most—the United States and Japan, which are regularly cast as bullies in any bilateral issue or dispute. Foreigners may also find that locals react somewhat defensively to talk that (intentionally or not) denigrates South Korea or compares it to other places—a casual remark that one prefers Thai to Korean food, for example, may elicit stony silence.

Some foreign residents find the regular extolling of South Korea’s supposedly unique characteristics or achievements, both by the media and South Koreans themselves, a tad tiring—and indeed, heartfelt dissertations on the nutritional value of the local staple kimchi or the “scientific” properties of the local script tend to lose their appeal when you’ve heard them dozens of times. Some also find that while South Koreans are big proponents of the “when in Rome” philosophy—meaning that foreigners should conform to local cultural norms—they seem to stick to the “Korean way” wherever they happen to be, and genuinely believe their culture is one that non-Koreans will never “get.”

Non-Koreans are a relatively rare sight in many places and can find themselves being stared at, trailed by schoolkids shouting greetings, or otherwise singled out for attention, which can be traumatic or a lot of fun, depending on the mood of the victim.It’s difficult to deny that Caucasians sometimes receive better treatment than visitors of other ethnic backgrounds, especially at the hands of officials or employers. This is mainly the result of a naive but still common view that “developed” nations have more to teach South Korea and that their people are therefore more deserving of respect. Japanese and U.S. nationals may find some South Koreans are less than enamored of their home countries due to the checkered history Korea shares with both places, but this prejudice rarely manifests itself as anything serious. Basically South Koreans find all foreigners equally confusing and curious.

While it is not much of an issue in Seoul, foreigners in less cosmopolitan parts of the country may experience what some have termed the “freak” factor. Non-Koreans are a relatively rare sight in many places and can find themselves being stared at, trailed by schoolkids shouting greetings, or otherwise singled out for attention, which can be traumatic or a lot of fun, depending on the mood of the victim.

So how does one deal with these sometimes exasperating experiences? First, don’t take it personally—most South Koreans have little trouble differentiating between individuals and their nation or government, and any negative sentiment directed toward where you happen to be from is almost never intended as a personal slight. Second, practice understanding—this is a country that has suffered at the hands of larger nations more than most, and it is still to some extent rebuilding its pride and identity. Third, remember that the South Koreans are relatively new to all this—overseas travel was rigorously controlled for years by dictatorial governments, and it’s only in the last decade or so that the country has had a sizable contingent of nonmilitary foreign residents, so it’s natural that some of the interactions between foreigners and locals can be a bit gaffe-prone and awkward. And finally, remember that despite what the government and some media outlets may lead you to believe, many South Koreans are highly conscious of their country’s failings and discuss them exhaustively—it’s simply a dialogue that, for reasons of language and pride, foreign nationals are rarely involved in. South Korea has become a much more diverse and tolerant place over the last few years, and it will become even more so as non-Koreans become a greater part of the social fabric.


Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in South Korea.

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