On Being a Foreigner in Korea

From Ask a Korean:

Based on implicit association test, Korean college students were found to be significantly more racist than non-Korean college students.

In other news, water is wet.

Unsurprising news, but my favourite part is his one-line commentary.  It’s nice to see a Korean who isn’t rabidly nationalistic.  Not that all Koreans are, but the wrath of Korean netizens is legendary.  There have honestly been foreigners hospitalized in Seoul over stuff said online.  Periodically the embassy here sends out a notice saying to avoid certain areas of Seoul due to recent violence and threats that moved from online to offline, and The Metropolitician has a very popular post about how to avoid being assaulted in Korea, and what to do/not to do if you are.  Crazy, eh?

I’ve faced two kinds of harassment here in korea: harassment for being foreign/American, and harassment for being a foreign female.  I’ll give a few examples.

My experience with being a foreign female:

1.  There’s a guy in town who basically made it so that a Canadian foreigner in town and I could no longer sit outside the Family Mart and drink quietly or eat ice cream while the weather was warm enough to do so.  He would come over, varying degrees of drunk, and touch us, despite us telling him not to in Korean.  A few times when we had a guy friend with us, said friend would stand up and get in his face about it, but he still wouldn’t leave, and the Canadian and I would have to get up and go into the store to avoid him.

2. Especially considering that I have a somewhat Russian appearance due to my Russian background, I have to deal with being asked if I’m “a Russian girl” on a regular basis, and all the freaking time in cities.  Many (I’d argue most, actually) Russian girls in Korea are prostitutes, and if you are blonde and Slavic-looking, many men will just assume you’re a prostitute.  I’ve been asked “Russian?  How much?” by many, many men, and I really need to come up with a comparatively offensive response.

My experience with being a foreigner/American in general:

1. This one is my personal favourite.  When Marc came to visit me in July, we went to Seoul for a couple days.  One day, we were waiting in line for an elevator at a train station, as we had heavy bags with us that would not have made it up the stairs easily.  There were three middle-aged to older women ahead of us in line, and a Korean family behind us.  The extremely slow elevator finally arrived, and the women ahead of us got on.  We got on after them, but there was no room for the Korean family.  Almost immediately they began shouting at us loudly, and tried to shove us off the elevator.  I started shouting back, and the women started to hit Marc and I with both their hands and bags/purses.  As far as we could tell, they wanted us to get off the elevator and let the Korean family on instead.  One of the women was holding the elevator open, and so when it became clear that these women were not going to stop beating us, we got off, and the elevator closed and they went on their merry way.  Ironically, the Korean family they were trying to exchange us for became frightened by the whole incident and left.

2. Back during the whole Mad Cow protests, many, many Americans started saying the classic “I’m a Canadian” line when asked by Koreans if they were American.  There was an upsurge in violence toward Americans at the time, and I will admit that I used that line once or twice when I suspected that the person asking was probably not fond of Americans.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m proud of being an American.  But, I also take my own personal safety into consideration.  On one of the trips I took to Seoul in August, I got spit on by a Korean while on the subway, after I answered “yes” to a question of “American?” – I have since begun to simply ignore people who try to talk to me on the subway.  Headphones are great for this.

3. For those unaware, I drive a scooter/motorcycle here in Korea.  The schools I teach at are not in town, and the buses are inconvenient, so I opted to purchase my own transportation.  As is common here in Korea, I have latched a plastic crate to the back of the bike, to carry stuff in.  It is very, very useful.  However, it has one bad aspect: the local kids have begun to use it as a sort of game.  The elementary (and even middle school) kids in town have decided to play a sort of game of chicken with me and my bike.  You see, if there is a group of them at the corner, and I am at the stoplight, they will sometimes dare eachother to run up and throw a piece of trash into my bike’s crate; bonus points, I assume, if they can do it without me noticing.  I have gotten to school sometimes and found half-eaten ice cream bars, empty bottles and cans, even used tissues in the crate.  It is really disgusting, and is a great example of how foreigners are sometimes regarded as almost sub-humans here.  I could draw some parallels, but it would likely offend various groups of people, so I won’t.

That’s enough for now.  If I write more, I think it will make me more riled up than I like to be.  But, if you’re a foreigner here in Korea and have your own stories of harassment, I would love to hear them.


  1. I had just more bitter experience, i come from singapore and on a short business trip. One korean, rather a mentally retarded approached me and asked if i was from bangladesh, gosh and started dancing, apparently using vulgar language, which i anyway can’t understand.

    I almost would have whacked him, before others intervened, pretty bad experience.

    Despite such stray cases, most others have been quite nice. But a monkey is enough to spoil a garden.

    • I remember one day I was coming from Noksapyeong, for those of you who know Noksapyeong in Seoul. I was was getting of train at Yeonshinnae station and all of a sudden a Korean man who was headed towards the elevator yelled at me saying “HELLO MR MONKEY”. That night I felt so bad within me, though I didn’t so anything to him because no one would have taken sides with me. So being a foreigner in Korea is not easy, you must be ready to take a lot of shit.

  2. Oh yes, most Koreans are fine, and some are even really helpful and will go out of their way to help foreigners. But, there are enough that are blatantly xenophobic to make it an unpleasant place for most foreigners.

  3. Heeh. You think being a foreigner in Korea is bad? Try being a foreigner in America over the span of half a lifetime..

  4. That sounds terrible, I read an article about discrimination in Korea, which said that it is one of the nations that does not have much tolerance for foreigners. I don’t want to believe this, since I dream of one day living in Korea, so my for now I’m going to think that discrimination in Korea is as it is in other nations, I live in the US right now and I have faced discrimination and upfront racism. I think that discrimination is not about a nation, is about people, like in all places some people will be outright racist while others will be much more accepting.

    • I also want to live in Korea one day, or perhaps Japan. Being half Finnish, half Filipino, I have a great understanding, appreciation, and love for East Asian culture, and I dream about residing in that part of the world in the future. I currently live in Canada and will enter my twelfth grade. My only obstacle/fear is how high the levels of discrimination and xenophobia in Korea and Japan are. I know that some areas are more likely to be open to foreigners than others [ like Canada and the US ], but a lot of the articles I’m finding on this topic are almost all in the negative. It really makes me wonder what I should do.

      • Hey Risa-chan! :) let me tell you that in Japan you have absolutely nothing to worry about. I have lived in Japan for 4 years and im mixed-race (dad is Jamaican, Chinese, and Native American and my mom is Russian, Italian, and Ethiopian. When living in Japan, I had have the best experiences of my life, I never felt any hostility or discrimination towards the people at all. The only discrimination i have faced there was just a old woman in the Ginza district in Tokyo calling me a “African cheetah” lmfaooo the only reason for that was b/c i was rushing in a boutique in order to go back to my apartment in time to cook for my boyfriend (he’s half Japanese and quarter Lebanese/quarter Italian and was born and raised in Japan). Risa go to JAPAN YOU WILL LOVE IT THERE LIKE I DID!

      • I go to the Korean International School, which is, obviously, in Korea. It’s really fun here and i really love it. I don’t know what it’s like in Japan, but I want to tell you that Korea is not a racist country like the author of the article above has asserted.

        • It may appear that way, but having grown up and lived in Korea for 18 years (I too attended international school but can speak the language fluently), I can vouch for the author of this article. Racism is sadly pervasive in Korea; what we in America consider to be racial epithets are not thought of in the same way in Korea. That said, things are getting better.

  5. Hi I’m an Indonesian and I’m also a Muslim..I’m planning to go to Korea next year to live there for 6months/a year..Now I’m in the middle of trying to make it happens(money and the stuff). I’ve wanted to go to Korea since I saw this country by seeing its broadcast TV regularly and so i was in love and still in love with Korean..I’ve seen many documentary about Korean life and they’re really sweet..I’m quite shocked seeing this article honestly..and it makes me have a second thought about my plan to go to Korea..I mean if westerners are not that acceptable in Korea which most of countries really welcome to them (specially in my country), what about me an Asian Muslim..(moreover I’m wearing Hijab/ veil to cover my hair so no doubt people will recognize me as a Muslim)

    I hope anyone will answer my worry

    • Hi I’m Korean and I’m a high school student. Even though I, myself is a Korean, I am also shocked by this article. I assure you that those people who were bothering the writer of the article were just a small minority of people. Most of us Koreans welcome most foreigners, especially in Kang-Nam, Seoul. I personally believe that this article may be a little exaggerated, but if it had really happened, I am very sorry for.. whoever the author is.

      • Hi I’m Muslim as well and i’m African American i would really like to move to Korea but I heard that they treat people of darker skin, not the best? Do they treat darker people worse than other foreigners who may be white?

  6. If you people want to know how Koreans really are when it comes to the way they treat non-Koreans, just look at the case of Hines Ward.

    Look at the way “half Koreans” are treated in general. Look at how Koreans ALLOW them to be treated. I’m being serious.

    Many of those “impure” Koreans have been living there for decades. Have any of them become community leaders? NOPE! Have any of them risen up to become famous actors, singers or academics? NOPE! Why not I ask you?

    Now, compare this to how successful Koreans have become after immigrating to other countries. Seriously, compare the success of biracial Koreans in Korea to that of the Korean immigrants.

    Looking at that, no one, not even a Korean national can argue against the only conclusion that can be drawn logically…unless they are really stupid.

    Korean xenophobia has gotten worse since the 2002 World Cup.

    I spent close to 10 yrs there and Korean xenophobia got worse and worse.

    When the US armoured vehicle ACCIDENTLY killed those two girls, US soldiers were kidnapped, assaulted, stabbed and tortored BY KOREANS. Black and white people were harrassed and hounded and many signs saying, No Americans”, and even “No Foreigners” were hung.

    This is not a fantasy, it actually happened and is well documented! Research it for yourselves.

    Koreans are taught in school and by their parents that they are racially pure! Sound like the teachings of a little Austrian corporal you may have heard about in the past?

    There are some good things about living in Korea, but not many. If you go there, you will meet some nice people who won’t see you as a threat, a foreign slut/prostitute, a Korean woman stealer etc.., but most will. It is almost always lies. Their media has portrayed this image for years and average, everyday Koreans LET it happen. This is also well documented.

    Some Koreans are not prejudiced against foreigners, but most are, you can take that to the bank.

    Koreans have this expression if you will that the people who scream the loudest get their point across and their way.

    If this is true, than those Koreans who support minority rights in Korea are almost nil.

    Imagine if there were signs put on buses in a major US city saying, “Koreans! You are being watched!” Well, Koreans did such a thing to foreign English teachers/profs in the city of Daejon. This is also well documented.


    Very few people stay there longer than a year or two and most end up hating Korea when they leave.

    The Korean media almost always portrays foreigners in a negative light. Why just a few years ago they printed a cartoon of a “pure” Korean girl being chased down the street by dark skinned, knife weilding South East Asian men.

    Once again, everything here that I said is well documented. These aren’t anecdotes.

    Japan is much better for foreigners than Korea, afterall the ethnic Koreans in Japan are treated like shit in Japan yet do not return to Korea! Why is that?

    And we Westerners are the barbarians…yeah, ok!

    • For starters, there are many, many half-Korean people who had become famous actors. You just don’t know them because you haven’t lived there enough. There are plenty of Western and Korean people who became singers or actors, and there is even an African American-and-Korean singer who became really famous. Also, if you had killed two students by driving a tank over them, wouldn’t you obviously say that it was an accident? Would you say that it was intentional?And how do you know that people who are treated like shit in Japan don’t return to Korea?

      I’m an American who have lived in Korea for 12 years, and it was a great experience for me.

  7. I am a half Korea and a half Russian girl, came to Korea to work and live here. I hoped to find here a job as an English Teacher, coz i do not have problems with my English and my major is English Filology. But i am turned down for each job that i applied, coz i am not a native speaker. It is a bit ambarrassing…and i feel myself as zero…It is terrible…
    i do not want to give up…
    Probably, i need to find something another… i do not know…

    • Dear Rimma,
      Your written English isn’t the best. If you spoken English is of a similar standard, perhaps that is why you didn’t get the job?

  8. Hi
    while i was looking for some websites about foreigners in Korea, i found out about your blog and this posting.
    I must tell you that the experiences you had in my home country is horrible and i can’t imagine how terrifying it was for you and i am sincerely sorry for what you have gone through.
    I am a 100% Korean, but i have done my high-schooling in Australia. So i understand how difficult and lonely it is to live in a foreign country as an ethnic minority Although my experience was a whole lot better than yours.
    I am so sorry instead of the people who have done you wrong.

  9. Having lived in Korea as a non-Korean Asian from the UK (!) and studying at Yonsei for a few years, I did have my ups and downs- people were either thinking of me as thai or vietnamese or they’d want to be friends with me once they knew I was British (usually saying things like “David Beckham!”, “Manchester United”, “Buckingham Palace!”). When I hung out with chinese friends and spoke chinese in the street, there was an occasion where drunk middle-aged Korean men actually shouted at us “Chinese people should all die” as we walked past. I understood and expected this kind of behaviour from the more traditional Korean men and women, given the history. However, to my surprise, we had an even more shocking experience in a restaurant in Sinchon (student area in Seoul) where young people actually started talking about us and even the restaurant staff were shouting across to each other about the two chinese people “sitting over there”. To my utter embarrassment, the group of students next to us started saying things, completely stereotyping how chinese people dress, how they hate communism, how dirty chinese are etc. Although I can speak Korean (studied for 4 years as my major at Uni) and my parents are from Hong Kong so nothing to do with communism(!), I was so uncomfortable, I just stood up and left, didn’t think there was any point in trying to defend myself. Returning to the UK seemed to be a relief at the time. But having those difficult experiences in Korea actually heightened my sensitivity to racism. I became more defensive every time someone shouted “chinky”, “egg-fried rice” or “ni hao” to me in the street. The difference was, I could respond back.
    The same thing happens wherever you go. I’m sure it would be equally upsetting to experience those kinds of situations wherever you are, even if you were discriminated in Europe for being American. The difference is that, in Korea, due to later development and industrialisation, they still hold on to many traditional values such as “racial purity” and the concept of a pure blood line. Not only that but they’ve had so much antagonism being in the centre of China, Japan, Russia and even the US. It’s only understandable that they’d develop this innate nationalism and defensive attitude towards foreigners. I’m sure that over time, whether they are prepared or not, they will eventually have to accept the presence of foreigners in their country.

  10. Sebastian Goodmann

    The story that was written out on the top seems to portray a couple of bad experiences as the whole picture. Yes, we also had 2 encounters when we were in South Korea where we were insulted due to being foreigners but we realized the people who attacking us were not the normal average person, but a weirdo. The majority of the people were very nice to us and willing to help us. I guess it depends on how open minded you are when you are coping with a foreign culture. I find it not fair to generalize a country and the people with selective views.

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