Finding Common Ground in Korea’s Diversity

This article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of The Korea Herald. Words by Anita McKay.


It’s just past noon and the stretch of road occupied by the Sunday Filipino Market in Hyewha-dong is already bustling. Amid clatter of conversations taking place in Korean, English and Tagalog, stall owners selling fresh, homemade and imported goods, try to draw in passersby with friendly smiles.

“Hyewha-dong is very popular for Filipinos,” Jambo, 39, said while helping out at a friend’s stall. He arrived here three years ago from the Philippines without knowing anyone and came to the area after his boss suggested it. Soon, it became a regular weekend spot.

“It is a Sunday meeting for all the Filipinos,” he said.

With the nearby Catholic Church offering sermons in Tagalog, Hyewha-dong has become a focal point for the Filipino community, giving newcomers the opportunity to socialize and get information about their new home. The area is gaining more importance with the growth of the community here. According to Interior Ministry data, the number of Filipinos and their children in Korea was 79,000 in November 2015, up from 58,000 at the beginning of 2011.

With a growing, close community, information about changes to visas and laws is widely available through prominent websites or high profile figures in the community.

Jasmine Lee, president of the Filipino Korean Heritage Association (Filkoha), said that this is one of the community’s biggest strengths.

“Filipinos are one of those nationalities who are very fond of gathering,” she said. “So people know where to find (others),” she added referring to the Hyewha-dong area.

But for Lee, the problem with this is that there are so many regional groups within the community distributing information that is separate from one another. With Filkoha, Lee is aiming to become a “one-stop” shop for anyone looking for information on the Philippines or the community here.

“We’re trying to concentrate on cultural and educational projects to promote mutual understanding (between Korea and the Philippines),” she said of the newly founded association.

As one of the most prominent Filipinas here, Lee has used her profile to help bolster Korea’s understanding of its growing multicultural society. Since she arrived here in the mid-1990s she has found success on the small screen and recently finished a four-year term in the National Assembly where she was the first naturalized Korean to sit as a lawmaker.

While her time in the National Assembly may be over, her ambition to push through policies geared toward helping Korea adapt to its growing diverse society continues through Filkoha.

“Currently the perception by Korean society when it comes to immigrants isn’t that good, which is the case all over the world,” she said. With the influx of marriage migrants here in the early 2000s, Lee said the media picked up overwhelmingly on only the negative stories: wives running away, kids that are not adjusted well and domestic violence — the picture of a happy multicultural family was absent.

Due to this, the policies that followed focused on welfare, rather than developing migrant communities, leaving Koreans with a negative impression.

With Filkoha, Lee aims to change this perception. Through events celebrating the traditions of both the Philippines and Korea, Lee wants to build a strong integrated Filipino community that is also open to others from diverse backgrounds.

“We would like people to see that we are official members of society, not just beneficiaries of welfare,” she said.

In her 25 years here she believes that she has already witnessed a shift in people’s attitudes.

Drawing on her own experiences from when she first arrived in the country, she recalled that Koreans would “scurry away” if a foreigner approached them. And while she was more recently subjected to racial abuse after she won her seat in the National Assembly, she said that the younger generation are “more open” to multiculturalism, diversity and meeting foreigners.

Even with these changes, Lee still says there is a lot of progress to be made and with no blueprint to follow, the road forward could be rocky. During her time as a lawmaker, Lee stressed that Korea could not follow immigration policies from the US or Germany because Korea is not an immigrant country. Instead, she pushed — and continues to push — for laws and rules that fit Korea’s situation.

One of the main problems she sees is that multicultural families or foreigners who settle here are viewed as a separate entity. Currently the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family deals with multicultural families — which is defined as having one Korean spouse and one foreign spouse; for Lee, this is where the confusion lies. In order for progress to start being made, she wants multicultural families to fall under general policies instead of being dealt with under a separate law.

“All of these multicultural families themselves are also families in Korea so we have to learn to put everyone together so there will be more time to mingle, more time to know each other and more time to realize that multicultural families are like any other normal family here in Korea,” she said.

While Filkoha will be focusing its first year on getting its feet off the ground, it is hoping to bring the Filipino community together with Koreans and the wider international community here. The long-term plan for the association, however, extends much further. With such a large number of people settling here from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Lee is aiming to develop Filkoha into an ASEAN-like model, linking countries together and celebrating each other’s culture.

“We’re trying to look for ways to connect the dots starting with Filkoha,” she said.

Filkoha will be holding its first event, “Bingo ng Wika,” on Aug. 26 in Euljiro to celebrate Filipino Language Month. The event will include games and competitions centered on the Filipino language and is open to anyone interested in learning about Filipino culture. All proceeds will go toward the establishment of a Filipino-Korean Heritage Learning Center.

Among the sponsors of the event is the Philippine-based Korean association the Mango Scholarship Committee of the Korean Sports Association. The event will take place on the fourth floor of the KEBHana Bank building near Euiljiro 1-ga Station, Exit No. 5 from 2-5 p.m.

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