Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In the Glass Box

A phone box near our apartment was vandalised earlier this month, and you could tell this was something a little unusual by the fact that people - especially the elderly - were stopping to stare at it as they walked by. I come from a heavily vandalised country - I'm referring to property defacement by individuals in this case rather than the actions of successive governments - so it wasn't anything worth a second glance to me, except that I realised how out of context it seemed, because now I come to think of it I don't think I've ever seen anything here so deliberately vandalised before.

Does it tell you something about living here that I was suddenly a very self-conscious foreigner, mentally willing the locals not to look in my direction? Perhaps I've been exposed to the Korean media for too long. Foreigners - crime - foreigners - crime foreigners - crime...

A young Korean girl flees some evil foreigners in this Chosun Ilbo story

The KT phone boxes in question are actually outside a medium-sized local KT office, so I suppose one mustn't rule out the possibility that it may be an antagonised customer or disgruntled employee...


Kallandra said...

Wow, that is quite... shocking. I wonder what spurred it? Is there much of an angry under-tow to the youth? I imagine it's not really obvious on the surface, but as someone who experiences things from such an emic (internal) perspective, I'm interested in your experiences. Do you feel extremely marginalized? Or is it not an issue for most of the time?

Sorry for so many questions!

Mike said...

I don't get the impression that the there's a particularly angry youth here, but I'm no expert on the subject. I've little doubt from the body language though that there's no comparison between Korean youths and British youths, a good number of whom these days are arguably mentally unstable. The happy slapping phenomenon began in Britain, and that's just scratching the surface of what's going on there.

As for feeling 'marginalised' in Korea, sometimes one can live one's life normally day-to-day feeling generally accepted and welcomed. Or accepted at least (experience may vary for women). But then the mainstream media glibly refer to foreigners as criminals in passing, generally creating the impression that 'pure-blooded' Koreans should be suspicious of anyone who isn't. This is a particular problem, because - in my observation - people here actually really believe what they are told in the papers and on TV, in a way that can seem hard to understand as a Westerner. This is why patently ridiculous notions like 'fan death' are perpetuated in Korea and some people blindly believe it - because they read it in the paper or saw it on the TV.

It's not just the media though, it's an attitude that is endemic in certain sections of society and it goes all the way to the top. For example, this is the translation of the actual opening text of a Parliamentary Bill from about a year ago:

"The Bill to Amend the Korean Immigration Control Act

(Initially Proposed by Assemblyman Shin Hak-Yong)

Nowadays, the number of foreigners working in Korea is increasing, but a good many [Korean: 상당수] have previous convictions for drug and sexual crimes or carry infectious diseases. As we require measures to deal with the threat they pose to our society’s public order and our people’s health, we herein prepare the legal basis to require that foreigners applying for an employment visa submit a criminal background check and a health certificate."

If a Parliamentary member in my country had written that a good many foreigners in Britian "have previous convictions for drug and sexual crimes or carry infectious diseases", I guarantee their career would be over and they would have no place in respectable society. Here such sweeping racial stereotyping and outright hate speech barely raises an eyebrow though.

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