Monday, February 28, 2011

A clearer picture of foreign residents in Korea

This handy Korean-language chart breaks down the numbers of foreign residents in Seoul, as well as which districts have the most and fewest foreign residents. Too many Westerners consider the relationship between Korea and its foreign population to begin and end with its treatment of English teachers, American soldiers and, if there's time, the Japanese. Are visa regulations getting more onerous or simpler? A simple look at E2 visa regulations will tell the story!

A look at the district-by-district foreign population indicates that it's heavily skewed towards towards the southwest districts of Yeongdeungpo (I would die a happy man if I never had to spell Yeoungdeoungpowh in English again) and Guro. About 60,000 of the 250,000 foreign residents of Seoul live in those two districts, followed by nearby Geumcheon and Gwanak, with 17,000 each.

Why do Yeoungdeung-po and Guro have about 8% of the overall population but about 25% of the foreign population? Also, why do most of these 250,000 people never seem to turn up at Gecko's? And, finally, are they the reason that the line for Tuesday night wings at Three Alleys Pub is so long?

Well, it's not like there are a lot of hidden private academies in southwestern Seoul, so maybe there's something else keeping people down there, maybe factory jobs? Can you do that in Korea? Do they recruit Australians for that?

There are 12,000 Americans and 2,000 Canadians living in Seoul, compared to 184,000 Chinese citizens, most of them ethnic Koreans. The ethnic distinction between Chinese is one that seems natural to Koreans and is important in the sense that they can be virtually invisible foreigners in ways that I could never be. Let's add in another 8,000 Taiwanese

At any rate, this means that 70% of the foreign residents of Seoul are Chinese, and while about 5% are American, this number undoubtedly includes American soldiers who tend not to be a part of everyday life in Seoul. But here are the numbers: there are five Mongolians in Seoul for every Australian, three Filipinos for every Briton, and three Vietnamese for every Canadian.

Here are the numbers for foreign nationals in Korea divided by nationality, information that I find excruciatingly hard to find for how obviously it's posted by the government. These are the numbers as of December 2010:

Overall - 918,917 (this is the number of registered residents, another 200,000 are here illegally)
Chinese - 505,415 (I don't count Chinese-Koreans separately)
Vietnam - 98,225
Philippines - 39,525
America - 28,643
Thailand - 27,572
Indonesia - 27,447
Mongolia - 21,775
Taiwan - 21,490
Uzbekistan - 20,766
Japan - 19,448
Sri Lanka - 17,369
Cambodia - 11,672
Bangladesh - 9,317
Nepal - 9,208
Pakistan - 8,328
Canada - 7,301
India - 4,752
United Kingdom - 4,130

Now, that gives us about 50,000 Westerners at most, weighed against hundreds of thousands of non-Westerners, whose ranks would be bigger still if you consider how many people are here illegally.

However, how often do we even discuss the 95% or so of foreign residents who are not English-speaking Westerners? The response, I suppose, will be that it's natural for us to be concerned with 'our own kind' first and foremost, but that's the sort of parochial thinking for which we spend all day criticizing Koreans. Koreans are woefully unaware of foreign residents, we say, and then we as Westerners are woefully unaware of our own relative unimportance.

Moreso than English, the use of Chinese and Vietnamese is mandated in public, is it not? Bus stops are announced in English and Korean only, but there are about seven Chinese speakers for every English speaker. We equate "foreign-friendly" with "English-speaking", "foreign population" with "other white people" and "foreigner bars" with "bars where English-speakers gather".

The social invisibility of migrant workers is immense. You and I will never have any problem making friends with Koreans or getting someone to cater to our needs. But middle-aged men don't make a habit out of shouting greetings at Thai or Filipinos walking down the street, or of practicing their awkward Bengali. Visa regulations might treat English teachers as potential rapists with full-blown AIDS, but daily life dishes out much worse to our Asian counterparts.

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