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(Yonhap Feature) Foreign residents experiencing S. Korea's growing pains of diversity

By Curtis File
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Yonhap) -- Brian had been living in Korea for just over three months when he encountered the unexpected. The ESL instructor, who asked that his last name be withheld, spent a night out with friends in the southern city of Busan and missed the last train home. He decided to go to the nearest "jimjilbang," Korean sauna, to rest until morning. He found a convenient place with an English sign right next to Busan station.

   "I asked in Korean if the place was a jimjilbang and made the sleeping motion with my hands. (The clerk) said 'no sleep,'" said Brian. Confused, he went back outside to consult with the taxi driver who had brought him there. After confirming that the establishment really was a jimjilbang he made a second attempt.

   "I went back inside and pointed at the uniforms behind the desk and said 'I want' but the man behind the counter said 'no foreigners, Koreans only.'" Still fresh to the country, he couldn't make sense of what had just happened. "I blurted out 'that's racist!' So I left and found another place to stay the night."

   A call to the jimjilbang confirmed their policy. When asked why foreign residents are not allowed to use the facilities, the receptionist responded, "I don't know. Maybe the owner doesn't like them." The owner could not be reached for further comments.

   Other international residents have experienced similar situations. Korean booking clubs, nightclubs where patrons are introduced to each other in a date setting, have a reputation for being off limits to the foreign community. Message boards also abound with stories of being refused service at restaurants, bars, and even gyms. In October, a naturalized Korean of Uzbek descent made the news when she was refused entrance to a jimjilbang in Busan.

A sauna for men in Seoul specifies "naegukin," or Korean nationals, on its sign, misleading some to think it does not welcome foreigners. A receptionist explained that what the owner meant was while most of the customers are Japanese, Koreans are also welcome. (Courtesy of Curtis File)

Since 2007, South Korea has been home to over 1 million foreign residents. The Justice Ministry's most recent statistics state there were 1.41 million foreign nationals in South Korea as of September this year. While this only represents 3 percent of the population, it is a historical record for the country known for its history of isolation. The trend has only continued toward greater diversity. According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census results, between 2005 and 2010 South Korea saw a 148 percent increase in the number of foreign residents living in the country for longer than three months.

   The rapid change has been accompanied by some growing pains. Korean law has not expanded with growth in the foreign population, leaving very few protections for those facing discrimination. While some foreign residents are quick to anger about matters of exclusion, others believe the issue is far more complex.

   "There's a tendency for us as Westerners to be hypersensitive," said David Carruth, a 26 year-old American who has been living in Korea for the past six years. He said he sees isolation caused by language barriers and the hyper-vigilance of Western culture, which he says often goes to extremes to avoid appearing racist or insensitive, as a major part of the problem.

   "In general (in Korea), when people are excluded, I don't think it is because of malicious intent," he said. "It's usually to avoid embarrassment over language or it might not even be the type of place you'd want to find yourself in. And sometimes it's just a misunderstanding."

   Indeed, even after six years and gaining fluency in the language, Carruth still has misunderstandings of his own. He talked about a sauna near his Itaewon apartment with a sign out front reading "naegukin," which means Korean nationals. His interpretation of the sign was that the establishment only allowed Koreans. He says other residents in the area shared this understanding. Upon further investigation, however, he was surprised to be welcomed with open arms. A discussion with the friendly receptionist revealed the real purpose of the sign.

   "Our company sign is written in Japanese and most of our clients are Japanese," he said. "We put up the other sign to let Koreans know that they are welcome, too. It's not just for Japanese clients, we let everyone in."

   While experiences of exclusion among foreign residents from the West do surface at times, many people say that those problems are infrequent. The real problems, they say, are among members of the Southeastern and Southwestern Asian communities.

A view of a street in an entertainment district with clubs and karaoke bars

In a poll conducted by the Gyeongnam Migrant Community Service Center (GMCSC), which primarily assists residents from developing countries in Asia, 20.8 percent of foreign workers said that they experienced being physically assaulted in the workplace. According to the GMCSC, most of these immigrants suffer in silence.

   "Complaints about discrimination are quite rare, we receive them maybe once a month," said Jung Mun-soon, a GMCSC representative. "This is because they don't articulate their feelings publicly. Instead, they either stick it out or share with their friends." Indeed, out of three members of the Southeast Asian community contacted, none agreed to share their stories on the record for fear of retaliation.

   But the incidents still take place. One group of Southeast Asians said their credit card was refused at a bar because they were foreign and others said they were not allowed to try on clothing because the clerk feared they would make the clothes smell, said Jung. Like Carruth, she believes the reasons for discrimination are complex.

   "Some Koreans have prejudice towards other Asians because they think they are just coming here to escape poverty," said Jung. "Also, some people think they confirm the power of Korea within Asia by having a low sight of others."

   Whatever the reasons may be, Jung says it is important to be brave and stand up for yourself.

   "When you talk, you raise awareness about it amongst other Koreans and it becomes an issue we can talk about," said Jung. "And always remember, if you ask for help, there are many Koreans that will shed tears with you."