My next-door neighbor’s favorite tale to tell is about the racist Americans. The tale stars a lovable, but overlooked protagonist (my neighbor) battling an important social problem (the language barrier) against the evil discriminatory perpetrators (the Americans).
“The discrimination because I didn’t speak the language was disgusting! So I think it’s really important for the Americans to learn how to be nice people, despite the differences in language,” would always be the beautiful fable-esque ending to her tale.
Although everything she said was entirely correct, I couldn’t help but feel uneased. The more I heard her spin the story, the more I’d come to think that this coming out of her mouth was very hypocritical. After all, my neighbor was the same person that drove away a gyopo (a Korean-American) from our apartment building.
“If everyone in the community isn’t super fluent in Korean, it would be hard to host bi-monthly barbecues within the community,” was the argument she’d make. As if barbecues were really that important to start off with. As if it was really that hard to work past the language barriers to build a stronger community. As if the gyopo was nothing more than an inconvenience, like a fly that needed to be chased out.
This, unfortunately, is not the only incident of discrimination against gyopos and expatriates that comes from the natives. Rachel Cho (YouTube: www.youtube.com/user/born2act135/), is a YouTuber living in Korea. In a few of her videos, she explained how hard the criticisms from Korean natives have been on her.
“My experience coming back to Korea was very chaotic for me. Korea was the one country I thought I could come back to and escape the ridicule I face in America and yet, I didn’t feel welcome here,” she confessed in her video. She stated that instead of understanding how her slightly lacking abilities in Korean comes from the fact that she’s lived in America for most of her life, she faced more ridicule. In fact, most students at her Korean university were eager to dismiss her lacking language proficiency as just plain stupid.
Kevin Park (pseudonym), a college undergraduate student at Brown University, also confessed of how hard it was as a gyopo to sit through internship interviews with companies. He especially found his interview with Durian Market (pseudonym) very frustrating, as most of the questions asked had nothing to do with his eligibility for the intern position he had signed up for. Instead, Park recalls how the entirety of the interview was made up of belittling rhetorical questions that questioned his so-called qualifications as a Korean.
“They had no problems working with foreign investors, and yet they seemed really uncomfortable with having a Korean on board that wasn’t quite as fluent in Korean as them. This didn’t mean that I couldn’t speak Korean. I actually speak it with decent fluency. But it just felt like because I looked like one of them, they hated the fact that I wasn’t fully them,” Park said with disappointment.
In a world that is rapidly growing through cooperation and diversity, discrimination of any kind is unforgivable. And yet, the discrimination we see happening now between the native Korean speakers and the Koreans with limited proficiency in the language disheartens me even more. Due to both subtle and abrasive discrimination like these, it seems as if Korea is parting in more ways than just North and South.
Many gyopos and expatriates come back to Korea in hopes to reconnect with their roots. Although they recognize that there is a large language barrier between them and their culture, they still put in efforts to reconnect. In fact, these efforts that Koreans from abroad put in to reconnecting with their Korean identity should be applauded for. However, most seem like they go back abroad, disappointed by the discrimination that calls them out for being Koreans that are not Korean enough.
Just as we cannot help what race we are born as, many gyopos and expatriates also cannot help their level of fluency in Korean, may it be due to financial, abilitative, or even social factors. Just as the color of our skin does not make us more human than others, the languages we are able to speak should not be an indicator for anyone to limit opportunities and increase discrimination towards those that are not as fluent in the language.
We are often quick when it comes to victimizing ourselves. That’s why it’s easy for us to feel bad for ourselves when we are treated differently for not speaking Italian in Italy. But it often takes some time and an objective mindset to realize that oftentimes, we are often also the perpetrators of the same discrimination. Koreans that cannot speak Korean are not any different from us, just because the language they think and speak in is different from the native norm. Language is a construct, and it’s time for Korea to start connecting with fellow Koreans with our hearts rather than by the fluency of our languages.