On a hot summer’s eve in Busan, I was enjoying a few drinks on Haeundae Beach among my South Korean friends when all of a sudden a lonely stranger of South Asian appearance approached me and said, “Brother, life is tough here. Can I join?”
Cue awkward silence.
On a 12-hour flight from Seoul to Amsterdam, I sat next to a seemingly wealthy Angolese student who was studying towards his Master’s degree in South Korea. He was wearing diamond-studded earrings, thick gold rings, immaculate leather shoes, and a Fendi belt. It looked as though he had not met another foreigner in months, so happy was he to talk to me. “Korea. A strange country, don’t you think?” I did not understand what he meant. “Adapting, it’s not so easy. I’ve learned the language, but still don’t have many Korean friends”, he continued.
Attending an international student meeting in Seoul to discuss issues affecting our school life in South Korea in order to campaign for policy change, I entered the room with a list of complaints: plagiarism, disinterested professors, frequent cancellations of class. But the other students had a very different agenda: racist remarks by professors, seemingly unequal treatment vis-à-vis Korean students, and a sense of abandonment.
Once in Gimbap Cheonguk – the staple 24-hour eatery found on almost every street of Seoul – I noticed two waitresses chatting away in Mandarin. A grumpy old customer shouted at them, “This is Korea! Speak Korean.” The same man then approached me, staring at my heavy designer watch, and complimented me on it in English, “Very beautiful.”
And finally, I asked a former Korean flatmate if he would date a black girl. He replied, “I hate chocolate people”. “Then what I am?” I asked. His answer: “Oh… you’re… different”.
Yes, it is true, I am different even though I too am brown. My parents are originally from Sri Lanka, but they moved to the suburbs of London well before I was born. I am British, and until recently have always lived in England. Though I had an upbringing of relative ease, being one of the few brown people in the area was sometimes not so pleasant.
Yet in South Korea, I have yet to experience discrimination. Before coming here, I was warned time and again that South Koreans were racist. Having had a few negative experiences in the home of multiculturalism that is the U.K., I was ready for it. ‘Bring it on’, I thought to myself. But ‘it’ never came. I went to the countryside, and contrary to expectation ended up being treated like royalty. In fact, no matter where I go in South Korea, I don’t feel my skin colour has put me in a position of suffering discrimination.
The Pakistani worker, the Angolese prince, the South-East Asian students, the Chinese-Korean waitresses and a hypothetical black girlfriend. All seemed to have the tough end of the stick. Except me. But I do not come from any of their countries. I come from the West.
The former NFL superstar Hines Ward, born to a black father and a Korean mother, made a dramatic “home-coming” in 2006 and was the subject of every editorial and TV programme glorifying Korea’s new-found acceptance of damunhwa – multiculturalism. But for his visibly dark skin colour and his body half-full of African-American blood, Ward was a successful Korean man from America in South Koreans’ eyes, shedding his black-ness the moment he achieved fame and wealth. I too, though not as dark as Ward, feel bleached. Because Koreans are colour-blind towards the West, its attributes, and its subjects, myself included.
Coming from that position of privilege, on top of being male in one of the worst countries in the world for women to live in, I am grateful for being so well-received in South Korea. I am grateful to the romanticised image of the U.K. that is portrayed around the world including Seoul. I am grateful to TV shows such as Skins, Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. I am grateful to Her Majesty the Queen, ‘gentlemen’, Oasis, the Beatles, British English, Benedict Cumberbatch, fish and chips, football, Park Ji-Sung and Manchester United.
I used to be called every night for dinners, drinks and parties. But I wondered which one of my several hundred South Korean friends on KakaoTalk would come to my rescue were I to be bleeding alone in a backstreet at night. Not many sprung to mind. I realised that for all that I am, I am sometimes just a fanciable foreigner to be around. I apparently am sophisticated enough, speak flawless English, and have a golden passport to paradise. Maybe for those reasons I have had South Korean girls fling themselves onto me at the mention of my hometown.
Despite all my whitening, South Koreans are not stupid. I am obviously NOT white. I sometimes get asked, “British, but your parents?” I used to fear this question, for it would smear my shining allure. Yet I found out on answering that I would receive compliments and expressions of approval and affinity. Perhaps they are thinking, “His parents were not lazy, and made it – yeoksi Asian mentality”. For all my brown-ness, I am also appreciated for my Asian side, for I apparently understand ‘Asian’ values of hard work, filial piety, and loyalty unlike those genuine but selfish Westerners. But my Asian side is approved only because it is embedded within my larger identity as a Brit.
The words “racist” and “xenophobic” are often used to describe the South Korean population. While racism does exist in Korea, it is not a Korean phenomenon per se. I have been made to feel more uncomfortable and unwelcome due to my skin tone in the U.K. than anywhere else in the world. My race is undesirable in South Korea, yet my nationality forgives my skin colour. I am not racially discriminated against because I am British.
Scholar Pak No-ja calls South Korea “economically racist”, saying that income is what South Koreans use to judge a person’s value. I partially agree. South Koreans are forever calculating value for money and cost benefit, be it on a job, in a relationship, or in marriage. They look up to the rich while frowning down on those from countries and classes worse off than theirs, seen as having been too lazy to build an economy and make a living, unlike South Korea and its citizens. They perceive the ‘others’ as beggars and losers.
Usually, skin colour signals the country of origin. The most ignorant of people will use only that to judge others. But the reality in South Korea is more complicated. The Angolese student was evidently richer than I could possibly imagine, but was still undesirable in South Korea because he was dark and Angolese.
What I most often see in South Korea is not racial discrimination. I call what is happening here “passport discrimination”.
Cover Image: The Royal Gazette