People Are All Different, and Thus All Equal

Emigrant Sensibility in the Age of Globalization: Different Appearance

Lee Hye-won | 기사입력 2022/04/30 [18:14]

People Are All Different, and Thus All Equal

Emigrant Sensibility in the Age of Globalization: Different Appearance

Lee Hye-won | 입력 : 2022/04/30 [18:14]

Editor’s note: Vacation, business travel, migrant labor, language study, study abroad, international marriage, immigration—many of us have such experiences of crossing national borders, and there are many immigrants living in our country. Ilda examines the emigrant sensibility we will need in order to live equally and peacefully in the age of globalization. Lee Hye-won, the first author in this series, is an intern at the Korea Center for United Nations Human Rights Policy. This series is supported by the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.


English streets are lovely, but the people not so much


“The buildings and streets were so beautiful that just while going out into the neighborhood, just leaving my house and getting on a bus, I felt like I was in fairy tale. But the people living there were not so beautiful. Before, the U.K. was to me an advanced, big, and beautiful country.  But the racism, which Korea doesn’t have even though it is much smaller than the U.K., makes it seem smaller than Korea.”


It was the winter of 2013, during my first time in Europe. After finishing my language course at a university in Birmingham, I wrote and turned in the above as part of an essay on my impressions of studying English in the U.K.


Actually, I wasn’t there long enough to be able to make generalizations like, “The U.K. is like this!” And I hadn’t been the target of severe racism or harassment. I think that I wrote and turned in this essay that was so subjective as to be rude to the school because my young heart was hurt that I had endured a few incidents of discrimination, of division between “you” and “I,” and had had to cower and live in anxiety for the sole reason that I was “Asian,” “an alien,” “a foreigner.”


▲ During my time studying English in the U.K. ©Lee Hye-won


I think that because in Korea I had never seen a school like this, composed of students of various races, religions, nationalities, some of them immigrants, some mixed race, I thought of problems like multiculturalism and racism as belonging to other countries. Conversely, I expected that in a country as racially diverse as the U.K., the systems and facilities related to human rights, immigration, and multiculturalism would be well set-up.


It was during an information session and campus tour at the International Student Center of one English university that English students of my age or perhaps even younger stared at me and called me an “elementary school student from the East.” I thought about the popular belief in “Asian babyface” and told myself that “they must be like that because I’m short” and tried to ignore them. Also, since I thought my English was good enough that I could talk through any problems with English students, I made an effort to believe that nationality and race weren’t important when it came to making friends.


Even then, I felt that racism was something from a faraway country long ago, like the United States’ civil war and slavery system that I had learned about in world history class. So I didn’t think that the English students’ rude stares could be because I looked different.


The International Student Center always taught us that they had campus police on standby, so if we were the target of racial discrimination or harassment on the streets or on campus, we should report it immediately. Because of my excitement at the beginning of my studies abroad and disbelief that such a thing would happen to me, this training seemed so strict that it was almost strange.


In reality, I experienced offenses such as [white] English people refusing to get on an elevator with Asians or getting on but holding their nose, and not working together on group projects in class. Luckily, I was never subjected to threats or direct harassment, but when I ate lunch with my friends in the school cafeteria, I listened to their stories of hearing disparaging remarks about Asians or being threatened while walking home, in the university’s corridors, or at a shopping center.


You and I are different, and you are a little funny-looking


I did a homestay with a typical English family. My “home mom” was an elementary school teacher. She and her husband had divorced and they had a son and two daughters. The younger daughter had moved to another area to attend university, and the older one had brought her boyfriend to live in the house with her mother and brother.


I don’t know whether it was because of the culture or if my home mom was open-minded, but she was fine with living with and cooking for her daughter’s boyfriend. As for me, the idea of living with your daughter’s boyfriend was an even bigger culture shock than it would have been for the black people, Asians from many countries, and hijab-wearing women that I met at the university.


At dinner, my home mom would ask what I’d learned and what I’d felt that day. One day I told her about my friend being threatened by a few black people while riding on the second story of the bus home. As one of the warnings she had given me when I had first arrive at the homestay was to avoid 2-story buses if possible, I asked if this kind of incident was what she had had mind.


In light of the history of black people being discriminated against by whites, I thought that black people discriminating against Asians and imitating their “slanty eyes” was very strange. I got the feeling that there was a hierarchy of races.


After my home mom heard the story, she apologized to me. She said, “It’s a shameful thing. We are taught not to do such things, but a lot of people still hold wrong ideas and they often do shameful things.” She added that even though there’s a system that regulates against discrimination, it takes a long time to change people’s minds about such a matter.


Most of the people I met in the U.K. approached me when I had lost my way, helped me, and became my friends. Yet as many good people as there were, there was an equal number of those who put up divisions and seemed to be saying, “You and I are different, and you are a little funny-looking.” While my time studying in the U.K. was enjoyable and let me make many good friends, it was the first time I experienced being an outsider, not because of a language barrier but because of my appearance.


So when I finished my studies and returned to Korea, I fired off—to the innocent school—what was for me a strong complaint about the unpleasant racial discrimination I had experienced.


People whose difference is their charm


As I returned to Korea, I decided: I would leave behind the viewpoint that I had learned in school, which said vaguely, “Don’t discriminate,” and “Accommodate and understand other multiculturalism.” I wanted to take an active approach. I left for Mongolia thinking, “Yeah, first let’s find out what this ‘difference’ is.” Unlike the places I had gone for language study, I chose a non-English-speaking area for the purpose of truly experiencing difference.


▲ In Mongolia ©Lee Hye-won


I slept in a ger, the traditional house of Mongolian nomadic peoples, shot arrows, and rode a horse. I touched a hot stone that had just been pulled out of a dish of horhog, a traditional food, and heard about their culture in their language. We didn’t have a common language, but I tried to learn Mongolian and they tried to learn Korean. Our languages and cultures were different, but we learned about those differences and had fun together. Ironically, it even seemed like we could understand each other better because we were different.


As I did my short-term volunteer work, I even started to fundamentally question whether we really were different. Even Koreans are all different from each other. Individuals are all different in their particulars like gender and personality. Just as people who are meeting for the first time—even if they are all Korean—get to know each other’s tendencies and what they have in common, “difference” is, in the end, a matter of relationships between people. Thus getting to know people from a different country was actually a more pleasant and enjoyable process. We who were different at first were equal and the same in the end.


I came back to Korea and worked as an interpreter at events like the World Wheelchair Basketball Championship, the Incheon Asian Games, the Asian Para Games, international film festivals, and the Boccia World Open. I spent time with people who not only spoke a different language but also had a different religion, appearance, and culture. These new friends from other countries gave me the precious gift of teaching me about and giving me a taste of their countries. I didn’t classify the ways that their cultures were different from mine. I tried to just listen and experience each culture as it was. These friends that were “different” from me were very likable.


Watching TV programs on which foreigners appear


It’s been a few years since the time I said that despite its size, Korea is a big country because it doesn’t have as much racial discrimination as the U.K. Now Korea can no longer be called a country of “one people,” and when you walk down the street in Seoul, you’ll run into people of a surprising variety of races. After experiencing being an alien, learning the charms of difference, and coming back to Korea, I’ve started to ask some questions in light of the changes that have happened to Korean society. 


Recently, many TV programs have featured foreigners of various races coming on and telling their stories. The first that come to mind are JTBC’s Non-Summit, on which people of a variety of nationalities discuss their perspectives on different issues and cultures, and MBC’s Hello! Stranger, on which foreign men and women talk about their experiences in Korea and introduce their countries’ unique cultures while staying at a guesthouse,


When you add the foreigners who appear on Real Men to experience military life, a foreigner named Fabian appearing on I Live Alone and talking as well as any Korean about living thriftily, etc., you realize how easy it is to see foreigners on entertainment programs.


These foreigners in the media, who can speak Korean well and express their opinions well, are cool and amazing. Sometimes I feel that they, who love Korea even more than I do, are admirable and adorable. With almost no prejudice, Koreans are showing an affinity for the foreigners appearing on Non-Summit and or the few foreigner celebrities like Sam Hammington.


The fact that so many foreigners are appearing in the media shows that Korea is a multicultural and multiracial society, but it doesn’t mean that social systems are in place or people have the awareness and education to accept those of other races.  Outside of the well-scripted media, the looks that Koreans turn on people like foreign laborers riding the subway, Southeast Asians, and Chinese restaurant workers still contain quite a bit of prejudice.


▲ At one of the events at which I’ve worked as a translator ©Lee Hye-won


The racism among us


A black man who appeared on KBS’s Hello Counselor in 2013 said that Koreans’ discrimination against foreigners was nearly the same as it had been 36 years earlier, and that it wouldn’t change in the future. He said he had seen many instances of Koreans wiping their hands after touching a black person’s hand, as if they had been smeared with dirt.


Once an EBS program did an experiment in which a (white) American and a Southeast Asian stopped Koreans on the street to ask for directions. Koreans who didn’t speak much English helped the white person however they could, such as by going with him to show him the way. The Southeast Asian, however, had trouble getting Koreans to even start talking to him.


This past March, a language institute in Cheongdam-dong caused controversy when it posted an ad for [English] teachers that specified “whites only,” and KBS aired an episode of My Neighbor, Charles in which a foreigner from Côte d’Ivoire who works in a market was hurt to the point of tears by merchants’ derogatory marks about black people.


The term “peoples of color” [yu-saek-in-jong] refers to races that “have” a color, but white, brown, and yellow are all colors. I think that calling all non-white races “peoples of color” despite that is a white supremacist mistake. It cannot but be ironic that, even as we are called people of color, we discriminate against and look with prejudice at other people of color.


Occasionally, the media offhandedly inculcates prejudice about certain races. For example, when someone says to a black person appearing on Real Men that because he is not very strong, it’s like only his skin is black, or when someone on Hello! Stranger says that a black person must be able to tolerate heat well and so sends them to experience a Korean sauna. We don’t feel uncomfortable watching these scenes, but actually they are racist in that they divide people by race and use that characteristic to confine them.


When I, as someone who’s experienced being a stranger in a foreign land, consider foreigners in Korea and the way that Koreans see them, I often think that Koreans don’t even know what racism is.


Listening to the stories of marginalized people


As I had found it fascinating to spend time with people who are “different,” I spent my last semester before graduating university in 2014 interpreting for people visiting Korea from a variety of countries. While I wanted to work for a foreign private company, I also wanted to help the world’s poorer areas. As a compromise, I attempted to get a job with an international organization or international aid organization.


▲ A mural near our office ©Lee Hye-won


There was no surefire way to get a job with an NGO, but while I was searching I heard about the Korean Center for United Nations Human Rights Policy (KOCUN). I’ve now been an intern there since the beginning of April. I mainly work with the U.N. division; I prepare weekly briefs on the human rights issues that the UN Human Rights Council deals with and domestic human rights issues. Sometimes I write newspaper articles about our projects or issues, or do paperwork for our migrant women projects.


Thankfully, the people at this, my first workplace, are friendly and don’t discriminate against interns. Since entering this organization that specializes in human rights, I’ve found that many of the things that I thought I knew were wrong. I’ve started to feel that a lot of independent study is required if you want to work for the human rights of social minorities. At some point, I started reading a lot of newspapers and other materials.


While watching the people here talk about human rights, I feel that they are trying ceaselessly to take on and heal incurable diseases. When I think of the human rights violations committed by the government, those against women and immigrants, those that must be happening right now somewhere in the world, I feel like our task is an impossible one.


However, the reason I feel an affinity for this work and want to listen more passionately to the stories of people who are being discriminated against is that I’ve realized that if I give up, there will truly be no one by their sides. It’s very sad when I feel that the powerless have only other powerless people by their sides. I often think, with regret, that if the powerful would use some of their power to help, problems would be solved much more easily...


It is upsetting that the world as I’ve seen it while working here is quite unequal and cold, and it treats the stories of marginalized people as if they were someone else’s problems. I wonder if it isn’t because I’ve experience being one of the weak that I can be on their side and sympathize with their stories. Of course you and I are different. But because we are all different, we are equal. I hope that more people will raise their voice in support of people who are discriminated against.


Published: June 4, 2015

Translated by Marilyn Hook

*Original article:


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