Are these images offensive?
- A blond-haired Asian man with facial hair wearing a blue turban and a red bindi dot on his forehead ready to eat a bowl of Chinese noodles
- A group of people from different ethnic backgrounds in traditional clothing: people in the Korean hanbok, the Indian sari, the Scottish kilt…and a naked alien with metallic skin, muttering (literally), “$%*$#@” — signifiers of some alien, foreign, illegible language.
Sure, the context is important, so here it is: These images are part of CJ CGV’s ad for a discount event on April Fool’s this Sunday. The event, by South Korea’s largest multiplex cinema chain, aims to foster multiculturalism by offering discounts to moviegoers speaking in a foreign language, or dressing up as a foreigner. If you speak in any non-Korean language, you can watch a movie for 8,000 won (around $7.50). If you dress up in traditional garb, you get a 50 percent discount.
“Oh no, this is just not gonna work well,” was the first thing that came to Jennifer You’s mind. You, 31, is originally from Las Vegas and has lived in South Korea since 2008. She is married to a South Korean man and has an 11-month-old son.
“I don’t think Korea has a strong enough history of training in cultural sensitivity to handle an event like this with tact,” she told Korea Exposé.
She remembers attending an event promoting multiculturalism, where cute hand puppets represented people from different countries. The German puppet wore its traditional clothing; the Japanese one wore a kimono; and an African puppet wore a big loincloth and had big overdrawn lips. “First of all, Africa’s not a country,” You said, who is of African-American descent.
Racism and cultural insensitivity aren’t new stories in South Korea. Every year, some K-pop star or another comes under fire (remember G-dragon in blackface? Don’t forget Taeyang claiming “I’m yellow but my soul is black“?). Bars, clubs and restaurants in Seoul have barred foreigners from entering (like this one, this one, and oh this one too). Well- and ill-meaning tokenism of other cultures are too numerous to count.
So You wasn’t particularly shocked by the CJ CGV advertisement. “I thought, it’s all par for the course,” she laughed. “I was more just surprised that it could still get through so many levels of PR people, the marketing team, who said, ‘This sounds like a great idea!'”
“This is an April Fool’s event, intended to delight our moviegoers,” said a representative from CJ CGV’s PR team. “We’ve expanded globally to many other countries. We want Koreans and foreigners to all have a good time.”
You pointed out that not all of the discount event is offensive. “I would love to get a discount for speaking a foreign language,” she said. “I thought that part was amazing. Someone who has taken the time to learn a foreign language has probably taken the time to learn the culture. They probably have a better understanding than the stereotypes. CGV should have stopped there….”
CGV doesn’t offer clear guidelines on how to be culturally sensitive. It says theaters will not recognize profane and offensive language, but customers speaking in “extraterrestrial” languages will get a discount.
The representative emphasized that offensive displays — like blackface — aren’t part of the organizer’s intentions. “We’re not intending to promote racial discrimination. I don’t understand why this event is controversial in the foreigner community.”
Reactions on social media have been mixed — at least from the Korean side. Many South Koreans seemed amused and excited, commenting on CGV’s Facebook (post now deleted), “Are you Filippino?” “Let’s pretend to be aliens and get the discount,” “I’m gonna change my citizenship to Iceland on April Fool’s day and color my face like the aurora lights!”
Some South Koreans criticized CGV: “This shows a serious lack of sensitivity, to see an organization with a huge reputation to invest the time and money, pioneering in cultural appropriation,” said one.
Reactions from the English-speaking community have been overwhelmingly negative. “What is funny about being a foreign person?” commented Ariel Campbell, an English teacher in Bucheon. “Speaking a foreign language is good, but dressing as a foreigner is not good. People are not costumes. Cultures are not costumes. This is a bad idea. I’m sure it will be very offensive. How can Korea become part of the global world but still think these kind of things are acceptable?”
“I’m worried our intentions have been misunderstood,” said the CJ CGV rep. “These concerns seem over the top. They seem like exaggerated concerns that misinterpret our original objectives.”
South Korea is still ethnically homogeneous. Out of over 51 million people, around 2 million residents are foreigners.
A 2015 government survey showed that South Koreans scored an average of 53.95 points out of 100 in their “ability to accept multiculturalism.” This score was about three points higher than in 2011. The survey pointed out that while South Koreans’ aversion to and stereotypes against foreigners had improved, there was an increasing tendency to demand “unilateral assimilation” from foreigners.
“More than being offended, people sort of feel disappointed that they’re still being ‘othered’ in this way in Korea,” You said. “I’ve been here for ten years. I consider it my home. My son is Korean. But it still kinda sucks to have it still be like, ‘Oh, it’s a funny thing to look like me. Oh, how hilarious.'”
Update: CJ CGV says foreigners can also get discounts if they speak in other foreign languages / dress as other foreigners. The company has removed the original image of an Asian man in a blue turban. The main promotional line has also been changed from “(Pretend to) be a foreigner and get a discount!” to “Special foreigner discount if you speak in a foreign language.”
Cover image: An image from CJ CGV’s promotional poster, advertising the April Fool’s discount event. (Source: Courtesy of CJ CGV)