Korea’s Changing Identity

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This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Groove Korea. Photos by Blair Kitchener. Read the magazine here


“I think it’s positive,” Shauente Waters, an American English teacher, says of the multicultural label that is used to describe her family. “At the moment for Korean people, multicultural is OK,” Shin, Dong-beom (DB), her husband, offers. “Before [they would ask] ‘Why did you marry a foreigner?’ They thought that we had to marry a Korean person.”

Shauente came to Korea in 2008. Within four years she had met and married her now husband and they currently have two children, 3-year-old Kai and 8-month-old Casey. While their experience of being a multicultural, multiracial family in Korea has been positive, Shauente still feels more consideration needs to be given to the concept of who is considered Korean.

“The one question he always gets is ‘Oh, where are you from? At first my husband would always say ‘He’s from here,’ but now he just says, ‘Oh, he’s American,’ even though he’s speaking Korean,” she says about her 3-year-old son.

“They don’t see a Korean person, they see a foreigner.”

Korea’s social landscape is changing. Since 2006, there has been a steady increase in the population of foreign residents entering and settling on the southern peninsula. This influx of immigration, spurred by job opportunities and marriage, has brought with it new cultures, ethnicities, and lifestyles to a country that is considered one of the most homogenous in the world. This has challenged the belief in Korea’s ethnocultural identity — a belief that is still widespread enough to push Shauente and DB to leave.

“I guess I just worry about my kids because [Kai] does look more American, more black American,” Shauente says. “I don’t want him to have a negative experience here. It’s ok in daycare — the kids are sweet. It’s once you get to elementary school.”

Driving diversity

Over the past 10 years, the number of foreign residents in Korea has more than tripled. The latest government figures show that the foreign population — which include naturalized Koreans and their children, those who acquired citizenship from marriage, as well as non-Korean passport holders who have been in the country for more than 90 days — account for 3.4 percent of the population. While international marriages have been decreasing since 2006, they still accounted for just over 7 percent of all marriages in 2014.

With this year-on-year increase in the foreign population, the government has developed and implemented new policies aimed at accommodating the demographic change. In 2006, it was announced that Korea’s ethics textbook would include the concept of a multicultural and multiethnic society, challenging the idea of the one bloodline nation. Four years later it became mandatory for sons from multicultural families to serve in the military. In 2012, Philippine-born Jasmine Lee became the first naturalized Korean to be elected to government, having been selected as a proportional representative for the ruling Saenuri Party. Her appointment to date has been marred by controversy, and she has been the target of xenophobic comments decrying the idea of multiculturalism.

While efforts have been made to help Korea in its transition toward a multicultural society, changing the one bloodline mind-set that has been dominant for so long may require more time.

Brandan D’Amico, an English teacher from the US and his girlfriend, Sonja van den Berg, a Korean adoptee from the Netherlands who is a PhD candidate at Ewha Womans University, have an 18-month-old daughter. One of the reasons they have ruled out raising a family in Korea is because of the treatment their child could face in school from her peers.

After showing a student a photograph of his daughter, Brandan was told that she should expect some confrontation when she gets to middle school. “The first thing [the student] said is ‘She’s pretty, she looks healthy — you must be a proud dad.’ And then a couple of weeks later, he saw another photo that I just thought I would show at the end of class and he said ‘She’s not going to have a good time in school.’”

When Brandan  asked why he was told its “because it’s very easy to see that she’s not 100 percent Korean.”

The idea of who is Korean is changing. In 2012 biracial babies accounted for 4.7 percent of all births — an increase from 2.9 percent in 2008 — signaling a change in the demographics. Still, cases of discrimination and xenophobia are not uncommon. Last year Mutuma Ruteere, the U.N. special rapporteur on racism, called on the government to develop anti-discrimination laws stating that multiculturalism is “not a one-way street.” He urged the government to “prevent the proliferation of racist and xenophobic movements” by dispelling myths promoted by groups who oppose multiculturalism.

Cultural differences

In 2008, the Multicultural Families Support Act — which defines a multicultural family as any foreigner in Korea who has or has had a marital relationship with a Korean national or a family which includes a naturalized Korean — was established to help multicultural families integrate into Korean society. According to the Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family, there are currently 159 multicultural family support centers nationwide providing language, employment, education, and family support. Even with this support available, there are some issues that government policies can’t help.

After the birth of their first child, Shauente and DB had to find a balance between what she describes as his “old-school Korean” view of running a household and her attitude that the responsibilities should be shared.

“Even though I work, he automatically thinks I should do more with the kids because I’m the mother,” she said.

“We had some problems with the first baby, but now with the second one he’s like ‘OK, I’ll help clean and I’ll help do this with the kids.’”

One of the biggest challenges Shauente faces with her 3-year-old son is the language. “Even though I’ve been speaking to him in English since he was born, he just doesn’t hear it enough,” she says. “His English is quite limited.”

Shauente’s Korean is lacking. For now she feels her and her son have acquired their own language that allows them to communicate, yet she is keen for it to develop into something more meaningful. “I am eager to have deeper conversations with him, especially at 3 years old and 4 years old kids start saying funny things and I don’t want to miss out on it.”

While differences are often highlighted, raising a multicultural family can bring with it new shared experiences. Michael Cardoza, an English textbook writer from LA, has a 3-month-old daughter with his Korean wife, Kim Hyun-soo. Since they married in 2013, both Michael and Hyun-soo have embraced each other’s traditions celebrating their daughters 100 days and having a western-style Christmas.

“Anybody who is married to someone who is not of your culture, just like anybody in another culture, you’re marrying into the culture just not into the person,” Michael says.

For him, this includes learning the language. Even though he is working at improving his self-described “conversational” Korean, family gatherings during traditional holidays can sometimes make for an uncomfortable situation.

“It’s frustrating when her father tries to say something to me and I don’t get it,” he says. “These people are my family and I want to be able to express myself to them and I want them to be able to freely express themselves to me.”

These frustrating situations are something that Michael tries to work through. As the couple plan on moving to the US in five years, he feels that he shouldn’t complain as his wife will likely go through a similar experience — a daunting prospect for Hyun-soo.

“I’m a little worried because I’m used to living with my family here and when we move there, definitely, I’m going to miss my family a lot.”

The decision to leave

Moving thousands of miles away to raise your family in your spouse’s country is not an easy decision to make. As well as being separated from family, both traditions and heritage can become lost in the dominant culture of the new home country — something that Hyun-soo is preparing for.

“I’m going to try to let my children know the Korean traditions, like the Seollal meals,” she said.

“I don’t want them to forget anything about Korea so I will try to teach them as much as I can.”

One of the reasons Michael and Hyun-soo plan on leaving Korea is to be closer to Michael’s family, but there are other concerns pushing them to leave. “I don’t want the hagwon pressure kind of thing that you see here, but the US education system isn’t exactly on the rise,” Michael says. “I’d rather have the more laid back lifestyle along with the opportunity to do more sports and have a backyard (for her) to run around in.”

Korea’s education system is known for its high performance high pressure environment. While Brandan and Sonja are undecided whether they will move to the US or the Netherlands, schooling is a main factor in their decision to go.

“It’s not particularly awful here, it’s not particularly great here. No, I don’t want her to be raised in the education system, but not because of the racism or whatever, it’s because the education system is an awful meat grinder,” Brandan says.

Shauente and DB share this sentiment about the schooling system, but the main reason driving them to leave is what Shauente sees as the lack of acknowledgement surrounding the changing identity of what makes a person Korean — something she wants her children to be aware and proud of.

“I think kids who come from two cultures kind of always have to face these identity questions — ‘Who am I?’ Which side do I relate to more? Identify with more? I hope that we can give them equal parts with both.”

Special thanks to Blair Kitchener for facilitating the interviews. These photographs are part of his documentary-style project on the neighborhood and residents of Haebangchon in Seoul. To view more of his work, visit www.blairkitchener.com.



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