Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Separate but equal, alive and well in Korea

As Korea tries to accommodate the two percent of its population that is made up of ethnic non-Koreans, both resident and citizens, it is taking a variety of steps. They're always well-intentioned, but sometimes they're comic debacles and other times they're sorely-needed improvements. For a lot of people I know, these improvements are great, but I worry that these improvements, instead of allowing non-Koreans to integrate into society, are creating two parallel societies.

A while back I wrote on Twitter about going to Starbucks, trying to use the wireless and being rejected because access required a Korean citizen's ID number. A number of people wrote on Twitter that they'd been using wireless at Starbucks with their ID for a long time, and even Starbucks wrote back with a perplexed but polite email saying the same thing.

Lo and behold, it turned out that there were two versions of the wireless page. The Korean version was only set up to accept Korean ID numbers, and I needed to go to the English version to be able to use my ID number. As an aside, I suspect though I'm not sure, that given Korea's penchant for trying to attract blue-eyed foreigners with "foreigner-only tags", the English page won't take Korean ID numbers.

Banks, along with Internet laws that would make China proud, are a bane of my existence. I'm not the only one who feels this way. So, naturally, banks set up "foreigner-only branches", VIP centers, "global centers" and other gimmicks. You might see where this is going. If there are foreigner-only branches, doesn't that mean that all other branches are Korean-only branches?

When I complained to Shinhan bank that I signed up for an account only to be summarily refused a bank card, some cheerful soul suggested that I vist "the Shinhan Bank Seoul Global Center to guarantee consistent English-speaking VIP service every time." That would be nice, but wouldn't it be better if I could be treated like a human being in Korean at the branch 1200 metres from my house?

On the other hand, wanting to be treated like a human being in Korean isn't as marketable as opening up an English-language branch. I'm obviously a minority in trying to use services intended for Koreans in Korean. Nine out of ten people, I'm sure, when trying to use wireless at Starbucks, simply click to the English part to get away from the gobbledygook.

What this does is create two societies and two sets of services. If this model spreads, Korea will have two sets of services: one for the 95% that are ethnic Korean and one for everybody else. In its defense, this is similar to the sort of multiculturalism we practice at home. We don't make Chinese immigrants learn English, we have bank tellers that speak Chinese. We don't condemn parents who can't speak English, we send home school notices in English and Punjabi.

The problem, I feel, is that while these parallel services make everything convenient for those non-Koreans who: a) speak English b) live in central Seoul c) have relatively simple problems, they don't really solve the problem. The problem in so many cases isn't language, it's an unwillingness to try and deal with non-Koreans and their needs or problems. We are, like it or not, difficult customers, and the response we often get is a bald-faced lie or some other bizarre excuse ("you must bring a letter from your principal notarized by the Taiwanese consulate in Paraguay in order to be able to buy more than a dozen bananas on a Tuesday").

Imagine if you took an elderly Canadian woman who came from Sri Lanka to a CIBC branch to make an account. The teller photocopied all the documentation the woman brought, and then asked her to simply visit the bank whenever she needed to withdraw money. Then you told CIBC about the summary refusal of basic service, and they didn't apologize, but suggested that the woman visit their branch that specializes in Sri Lankan customers in Scarborough, which would be nice if she didn't live in Milton.

Korean multiculturalism is something to be applauded, considering the nearly Canadian increase in foreign residents and immigrants over the past decade. Yes, there is still obvious racism, provincialism and other head-shaking problems, but didn't we in Canada persist in referring to East Asians as Orientals until the not-so-distant past? It is clear that Korea will try many things to serve not only foreign residents, but the many mixed-race and new citizens of different ethnicities, and it will both succeed and fail in doing so.

If the trend is going to be to do things like this, where Korea simply makes new schools instead of dealing with racist tendencies which prevent mixed-race kids from going to school, the result is going to be a large underclass of disaffected, rejected citizens. Such groups can end up causing more problems for the state than they would have solved by adding to the work force and tax base.


Tuttle said...

"We don't make Chinese immigrants learn English, we have bank tellers that speak Chinese. We don't condemn parents who can't speak English, we send home school notices in English and Punjabi."

Well, okay, Adeel, you're Canada-ian, but in the good US of old A we don't do any such of a thing. Foreign kids in American school have to learn English, there's no two ways about it. BNL, the kids interpret for parents.

In dealing with Korean bureaucracy, esp online, there's a continuum from "It's really annoying" to "It just can't be done." The only time it's all wonderful and they all speak English fluently is at the Pension office when you get ready to LEAVE the country forever! Or so I'm told.

FWIW, the Hana branch I go to in my little neck of the woods (try explaining that idiom to a Korean) has two--yes, two--young ladies whose English is good enough for me to accomplish any tasks I've needed (so far).

Adeel said...

The pension office is the best part of the Korean government, you're right. Part of it is that, supposedly, unlike the labour board, they're empowered to actually enforce the law, which they tend to do with force and immediacy.

I should make clear I don't want there to be a pension office without English speakers. I don't want there to be a separate "Office of Post-Retirement Income for Alien Foreigner from Overseas Country" designed only to deal with non-Koreans.

Anonymous said...

I was going to cut-and-paste that exact same paragraph. From my childhood in Toronto and Mississauga, it didn't seem like children who couldn't speak English weren't expected to learn English, and the same for their parents. In Mississauga we had a high-proportion of East and South Asian students but to my knowledge multi-lingual notes were never distributed to parents.

But I'm white, and a native English speaker.

I don't think it's the same as you describe in Korea: yes, there are branches of banks that accomodate other languages—in communities with high proportions of people who speak those languages. No one would bat an eye if a "foreigner" (not sure how to translate that in this case, except as "immigrant", but those are different concepts) decided to open up an English-language account (or whatever—I mean, it would be the same account).

Adeel said...

To clarify, I meant elderly Chinese immigrants who don't have a great command of the language and aren't going to start in their '70s, not school-aged immigrants.

It's not the case that most things were sent home in Punjabi, but I remember a few cases over the years. Here is, for the record, the Peel board's website in Korean, among dozens of other languages.

Anonymous said...

Is it a huge problem if very elderly Chinese immigrants who can't or won't learn English don't?