Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

We have all heard of the Anti-Western sentiment within the Korean community, but what I find a little worrying from our own perspective is that Anti-Korean sentiment in our own community seems to be alive and kicking as well, which is making relations a bit prickly sometimes.

Since writing the odd article about Korean culture, writing the blogs, and generally reading more articles and following the news more closely, I have noticed that tempers tend to run rather high on the subject of Korea.  It does feel like Western visitors often show, not just a dislike, but even a hatred of Korea by the time they leave.  The same feelings emanate from Koreans too, of course, but are perhaps more well reported.   Some of the comments I have received on my articles have shocked me and not just the anti-Western toned article on drunken foreigners, but also on more mild articles that are simply neutral or pro-Western.  Even a mild and humorous blog, featured on, received some rather hateful comments, not so much regarding my writing but of Koreans generally  There were also those that went completely the other way and commented that one should never criticize another culture or that Korea is actually much better than the West.  Sometimes, though, it is clear that criticisms on either side are justified and what's more important to point out.

I can fully understand where some of the frustrations with Korean culture come from as I myself went through a period of discontent in my first year here.  It should also be noted that some Korean people bring a certain amount of dislike upon themselves with there sometimes vehemently pro-Korean stance on life.  This can bring up some quite legitimate criticisms about their conduct, especially towards foreigners in their country.  Even at the very beginning of Western involvement in Korea after the second world war the Americans found it difficult to get along with them and, much to the dismay of the Koreans, prefered the company of the Japanese.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being difficult to get along with per se.  I have been reading into the history of Korea recently and it seems to me that Koreans have a history of being quite insular and wanting to be left to their own devices (much like the North is now).  Foreigners have always historically been unwelcome and until the Japanese invaded and the Americans came, Korea was quite an isolated place.  This originated from the late 16th to early 17th century when invasions from Japan and China nearly destroyed the Joseon Dynasty.  This lead to an increasingly harsh isolationist policy and this is where the origin of the term 'The Hermit Kingdom' comes from.  This may explain a lot about their current attitudes and their sometimes unique way of looking at things and indeed for North Korea.  However, I think there is a nobility in wanting to conduct matters in your own way and I think explains some of the uncomfortable assimilations with Western culture in many regards.

On a recent visit to Japan, I had the fortune of bumping into some fellow English teachers who were teaching there.  I brought up the subject of anti-Korean sentiment within some of the Western community and wondered if they had similar problems there.  The answer I got was an almost overwhelming 'no'.  A few teachers have problems but they said most just saw the differences and rolled with the punches and were generally a lot more comfortable with the culture than their counterparts in Korea.

This all seems to suggest that there are some problems in our relationships with Koreans.  Are these issues down to Koreans, Westerners, or both?  It feels like most native English teachers living in Korea are firmly blaming the Koreans.  This could be an illusion as 'The wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the most grease', and perhaps people who don't think this way just do not comment or make their voices heard.  I do feel, though, that there is an air of superiority and attitude about many Westerners who come to Korea.  I cannot provide any evidence but it is just a general perception I get.  I know I had it in the bad times, but with increased exposure to Korea's true culture and a more intimate knowledge of it through my Korean family my opinion steadily changed.

This is not to say that I do not have criticisms about their culture, I do and I do not tend to hold back, especially because I tend to feel the sharper edge of some of their prejudices being in a relationship with a Korean.  However, I do understand why some of the negative aspects of their culture exist and I think this aids me in tempering any anger that could build up.  I also realise where Koreans are coming from when they criticise foreign visitors to their country.  They are sometimes justified and sometimes not when it comes to their complaints about foreigners, and I do think the Western community need to handle these complaints better and learn from them.  Too many visitors to Korea bull-doze their way through cultural faux pas with a complete lack of understanding and sensitivity for where they are.  We cannot all be familiar with Korean culture to a large extent and their is nothing wrong with a certain amount of ignorance with it, but a little more care and thought should be taken sometimes into how we are conducting ourselves.

So the answer to who is to blame for slightly dodgy relations is obviously both, and if one side is more to blame than the other, the lesser party is certainly not blameless.  Even if someone has been a victim of prejudice or bad behaviour from the other side, let us hope that with a little more work to understand each other, better relations can be achieved.  If everyone were to treat every situation anew and not bring any baggage into it, people around the world would get along a lot better and would realise that the vast majority of all people, all around the world, and in all different cultures are good and kind.  This is my experience of my travels, and another experience is that culture has consequences on people's behaviour.  If an aspect of culture is good is should be praised and possibly embraced by other cultures, but if it is bad it has to be called out.  What this doesn't entail is discriminating against the people within the culture itself.


Re: Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

Interesting article. I have been living here in Korea for nearly 3 years, and agree with many of the points you've made. I think a lot of our experiences are similar. I have never taught nor lived in Japan or Taiwan or China but having traveled to all three places, it appeared to me that the Westerners living there seemed a bit more assimilated into the culture. The proportion of Westerners in Japan who spoke at least decent Japanese appeared to me to be much, much higher than the Westerners who can speak Korean.

I've always been curious as to why this is the case? More and more Chinese jobs are offering flight re-imbursement money and paid housing however for the most part over the last 10-15 years this has been something of a uniquely Korean thing. Korea was and continues to be the only Asian country who is willing to pay for you to come here. That, coupled with stereotypes of "English teachers are simply Westerners who couldn't get jobs in their home country" and many of my interactions with Korean men always gave me the impression that an awful many Koreans have some feelings of insecurity; especially about their culture and their language.

To be honest, the vast majority of English teachers I've met are here first and foremost for the money. Of those, almost all of them have said that their first goal was Japan or some other country. I have never met a foreigner who has told me that he/she came here to experience the culture. I met quite a few when I traveled to Japan.

Re: Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

I am not a westerner, but a brown person from a developing country. I  have lived as a a foreigner in the United States, Europe, and Korea.  I have never felt more discrimination than here.

Koreans are assured of their racial superiority. They respect you caucasians so they veil it in your presence. But amongs any other race, they openly proclaim their purity, and talk about how we are dirty, openly.

You write your article from a western perspective, and lay some of the blame on the westerners.  From my experience, Westerners generally react hatefully against people who act hatefully first.





Re: Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

True exposure to Korean culture? Not everyone can or wants to get a korean girlfriend... Not an insult, just an observation. Most people that say other judge it too hard and unfairly have a sexual connection to this place. And, if they really want to be left alone, then dont have 1000's of job offers in world papers lookin for people to try to teach here. You have to be ignorant to want a closed society while inviting people to come here for various jobs. That is why I think this country is terrible. They want to prosper from us, but not actaully deal with us. That is immoral and hateful at its root.

Re: Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

I agree completely with #3 in both how Koreans treat those from developing countries (i.e. brown people) and how westerners tend to dish out hate after hate has been dished out to them first.  From my own experience, I started out trying to be polite to all Koreans I met. When that jsut earned me some discrimination, I stopped.  Now when I approach Koreans I don't know I adopt a very neutral attitude. Doesn't seem to matter if I'm Mr Polite, Mr. A-hole or Mr. Neutral.  Some Koreans just don't want us here no matter how we are their hate is evident. That's a small percentage, but then I'm a white male, tall and (some say) handsome, which is the kind they tend to treat better than other looks.   I suspect those who are darker, heavier, uglier - whatever, get a lot higher percentage of haters



Re: Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

I feel like it has a lot to do with the reasons that westerers come over for and what their goals and expectations are of their new home. I feel like the foreigners in Japan chose to live in Japan for love and/or interest of the culture while many foriegners I've talked to in korea had no idea what they were getting into when they signed up for a job. They just chose Korea out of all the countries in Asia to teach ESL in because it paid the most. This expectation (or lack there of) can lead to confusion and frustration when encountered with a culture that is so entirely different from their own. Koreans expectations of foreigners in their country is also a little vague. Like what your article says, if both Koreans and Westerners were to learn a little more about each other, our relations would be much better off.

Re: Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

I found this blog post pretty good, well-balanced, and interesting, and I would agree with most of what the writer said.

As for discrimination, it is true that Koreans tend to discriminate people from developing countries (who doesn't in the Western world?), especially Southeast Asians and Chinese people. This is a very sad reality and many Koreans are aware of this fact (see on Youtube, for example, the MBC episode that was made on that subject, where a Southeast Asian asks for directions on the streets of Seoul), but it is likely going to take more than a few years for such an attitude to change.

As for Westerners, I have found Koreans in general to be very kind and understanding. Of course, a lot of ajummas and ajohssis are super rude and lack manners and common sense. However it is important to remember that they act this way toward everybody, not just foreigners. And as the writer of this blog post has pointed out, when you actually think as to why they might have such an attitude, and just how hard their life has been and probably still is, it makes your anger tone down a little bit.

To the person who replied that not everybody get can close to Korean culture because they are not necessarily interested in getting a Korean g/f, well this is totally BS. You don't need a Korean g/f to learn about Korean culture, I don't understand your line of reasoning. Anybody can start learning Korean on his own, or by taking lessons at the numerous schools offering Korean classes around town (even for free!). Learning about a culture is all about open-mindedness, motivation, and interest. Having a g/f certainly might be a motivation booster, but it is by no way a prerequisite.


Re: Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

My story is opposite yours. I had been living quite well in China for 2 years and a friend invited me to come along with him to Korea. I came on the seen, as I've done in any country, with openess the anticipation of something new. My first few years here, I've been here for 9, were good times. Sure some aspects urked me but rolled with it. However, as time went on and this urksome behaviour continued, the more I understood the culture, the more I could understand what the people around were saying, the less I liked it. Sometimes I've wished to have never learned the language because being ignorant of the conversation would have been preferable. Not knowing how they really feel would have been preferable. I'm married as well and with that a Korean family. This is didn't help my view point at all. My wife, she's awesome, her family... not so much. For you, the more you knew the more you liked/understood. For me, the more I knew the more I wished I didn't know.

Re: Anti-Korean Sentiment in the Western Community

Great read but I gotta tell you....not surprisingly, the comments are proving to be equally intriguing. Having experience living in both Korea and Japan, you get out what you put my opinion. The Japanese were kind, respectful and quite reserved whereas the Korean populous in more cases has been very open to sharing their culture with my wife and I. My advice to newbies here is always the same. You are going to have days when you absolutely want to lose it....but you had those back home. You are also going to have moments that negate many of those lesser experiences and hopefully give you a glimpse of the deeper "take-aways" you can have here along with a paycheck. I get stares, people saying things that I half understand to know their not nice...but I smile, bow and keep a focus on the fact that regardless, i'm an ambassador for my country in the minds of each person I interact with....and whether they realize it or are they (meaning the locals). In a breif interaction its possible for me to change perspectives and create a foundation for a new way of thinking. Granted, as previously commented, being a caucasian I cannot begin to fully understand the experiences of those who are here and feel discriminated against. Those stories make me sad and as the author wrote....being a historically isolated society, many racist undertones definitely still exist. Unfortunately they aren't going away anytime soon. Life as a foreigner in a foreign land will teach you alot about people but in the end, as cliche as it are left with two viable choices for life the change you want to see in the world....or go home and chalk one up to experience. Happy Tuesday!