The Other Foreigners

I’m never going to say my working conditions here are perfect, and I have little faith in the legal system to defend me on the grounds of my contract here in Korea… but you know, I have a hell of a hard time complaining when little reminders of how the other foreigners in Korea live. By the other foreigners, I mean the migrant workers who are outside of the English-teaching niche. Many of them live in Korea illegally, go unpaid, suffer all kinds of abuses from their “employers”, and are persecuted by the law. (The same legal authorities who refuse to crack down on the Korean sweatshop owners, of course.) They face deportation to situations just as bad as in Korea, and since they’re absolutely dispensable to their employers, they often live rootless, nomadic lives here in Korea. And where even us relatively privileged white/Korean-blooded foreigners experience instances of racism, you can be certain that many Nepali, Indian, and Southeast Asian workers experience a kind of racism most people lucky enough to be able to read this page cannot even imagine. They’re among the most used class of people in the country, and yet invisible to most people, who usually mean “white person” when they say the word “foreigner”. It’s enough to break your heart to imagine living that way, at least it is enough to break my heart.

(In the above picture, a Korean employer says to his Bangladeshi employee, “You bastard, work faster!” and all the Bangladeshi says in return is, “Yes sir.” That’s about right for a lot of foreign workers in Korea who work in the 3-D jobs: dangerous, dirty, and difficult jobs that nobody else wants to do.)

An article at the Digital Chosun Ilbo discusses the release by the Ansan Migrant Center of pictures drawn by some workers in situations like this; they were drawn in Seoul, during the 40th day of their sit-in.

The center’s general secretary, Kim Jae-geun, said the drawing session was organized “to give sit-in participants the opportunity to express, in drawings, their feelings at being chased by the law and what they remember most about their time in Korea.”

“It’s sad that the drawings portray Koreans as being people who ignore suffering and are egotistical,” said Kim.

It is, however, good to see that there is a movement for reform, a movement that is being driven along by Koreans who really care about these issues and are trying to make life better for these people. Maybe we only hear about the big organizations in Seoul, but there is, it seems, a grassroots movement growing all over. Here in Jeonju there’s such an organization as well; my band played a fundraiser for the office, that’s how I know. (Otherwise, if m band’s bassist wasn’t getting into social activism, I’d probably never heard of it.) Actually, I think grassroots movements are on the rise here. A few weeks ago I was given a lollipop by a group, and the group, a friend explained later, exists to prevent the sexual abuse of the mentally handicapped. That’s pretty specialized, and it’s quite surprising. I had no idea such a group existed in Korea.

What’s heartening about this is that, in a society that is prone to feeling shame, people are having the guts to admit there are big problems that need solving. The first step is always admitting there is a problem. It’s also beautiful to see that people are admitting problems that they themselves don’t suffer from. The compassion is there. Foreigners often think compassion here ends at the family’s front door, but the hard work that these people put in shows this isn’t true, at least it’s no more true than in the West or anywhere else in the world.

Here’s a shoutout to Joshua at Katolik Shinja, where I found the link to this article.

2 thoughts on “The Other Foreigners

  1. While Thais are generally quite tolerant towards “farangs” (they are almost treated superiorly here), there is some discrimination when it comes to people from South Asian and Arabic nations. While it’s usually just harmless jokes and quips, it’s still uncalled for. But that’s great to see that there is reform underway in Korea. Similar things should happen here in Thailand too, because stories about racism in any shape or form are always disheartening to hear. Oh, great article btw!

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