On 18 October, a first lecture of the 20th ASEAN Lecture Series under the theme, ‘Multiculturalism in Korea – Today and Tomorrow’ was held by the ASEAN-Korea Centre (AKC). The invited guest speaker was Mr. Gyeong-seok Oh, President of Gyeonggi Institute of Research and Policy Development for Migrants’ Human Rights. In this lecture, topics discussed include ambivalent attitudes towards multiculturalism and complicated aspects of culture.

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Ms. Jessy-Yeunju Jang, Deputy Secretary General of the AKC and Head of Information and Data Unit, said that “there are approximately 420,000 immigrants from ASEAN and we need to have civic engagement in creating favourable environment to multiculturalism. The AKC is hosting an ASEAN event with a range of ASEAN food options by inviting adolescents from multicultural family backgrounds in order to create an agora for socio-cultural exchange.” The lecture started from a short welcoming remark by Ms. Jang.

Mr. Oh, has made several publications including books, academic journals, articles and research papers. Prior to starting his lecture, he showed his dream of creating society where everyone lives equally together in happiness. Multiculturalism enriches our everyday lives but Korean society has stereotypical perceptions about multiculturalism as persons with other nationalities. For instance, marriage is a formal union of men and women, or a more advanced concept of official recognition of beloved partners regardless of sex. Nevertheless, Korean people describe an international marriage as a marriage to a foreigner. In other countries, such marriage is a union of people in love rather than marriage to specific nationalities, therefore, they describe it as marrying this person. We need to accept that multiculturalism is not a culture of marriage. Mr. Oh added that our society needs to understand the concept of multiculturalism as a means to express unique personality and diverse point of views in open space freely. There is a need for shift from understanding multiculturalism as international marriage to respecting individuals’ creativeness and personalities.

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Mr. Oh discussed the past history of multiculturalism. It was seen as ‘tea culture’ ten years ago in Korea. Providing tea was seen as a culture of Korea and this is what we had to provide when foreigners visited Korea. However, this has moved on to become things of standardised Korea: Kimchi, Kimbap, King Se Jong, Gangnam and etc. Multiculturalism gives us a forum for policy development and we need to research into what directions we should take to advance the understanding of multiculturalism just like the tea culture is no longer perceived as a symbol of multiculturalism in modern Korean society. This means that nationality-oriented way of thinking should be changed. Most people use nationality-oriented classification to define multiculturalism. Questions include whether there is a standardised form of culture for each country is important. Can we say that there is standard dress code or facial features that represent Korean as a whole? How do we know that they are from a specific country by looking at their face? Why do we think that multicultural families have different facial looking? Do we have clear answers to these questions?

In the past, multiculturalism has been accepted as a thing to be dispensed, tolerated and protected. However, this leniency-based approach may need to to be re-examined. Let’s say that people with different skin colour are not Korean. If someone has different skin colour, does it mean that they cannot be Korean for the rest of their life? What if a person who has different skin tones have immigrated or born under parents from different nationalities. Korean society lacks in acknowledging different culture and is unwilling to accept that people who do not have traditional Korean looking are not Korean. Do you believe that someone with foreign looking needs your help or do you think that they are economically less well-off than you? Looking for answers to these questions will broaden our perspectives in understanding multiculturalism.

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In addition, Mr. Oh emphasised that there is no single answer to multiculturalism. When we judge different facets of problems, everyone has diverse criteria in assessing the differences. He added that “it could be boundaries, shape, colour, size but what these approaches share in common are acceptable explanation for their diversified point of views.” Mr. Oh also said that “we can find commonalities between people, we are more willingly to accept the others and recognise the differences. Considering the fact that each country has its own food, sex, customs, norms, beauty, self-esteem, leisure and so on, our society is inevitably obliged to be prepared to accept multiculturalism as a collection of myriad of life factors affecting persons’ characteristic backgrounds.”

Having considered the different factors affecting the cultural norms, Mr. Oh asked a question about rescuing drowning family members: wife and mother. Who would you save if you can choose only one person? Mr. Oh explained that “most people in Korea will choose their parents as their first choice because we believe in the solid foundation of filial duty established over centuries. In other countries with different cultural norms, they choose to save their wife.” An interesting question is why they save the wife first. Mr. Oh stated that “those who would save wife instead of their parents justify by relying on ‘selection theory’. We have not chosen our parents and we are born by the parents without choice. It was their choice to have a baby but not our choice to be born from those parents. However, we have selected our wife and we have made a choice to make life commitments to the person of my choice. Those people have individualistic background. What is given cannot be changed and your look, bodily parts are very unlikely to be changed throughout the life span. However, what is chosen can be changed: nationalities and partners.”

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This is not a black and white discussion, but we are aiming to find mutual grounds for understanding. Mr. Oh reiterated that “acknowledgement of others’ divergence is the thrust concept of multiculturalism. Our society co-exists with multicultural elements everywhere. Understanding it as the classification of nationality is anachronistic. For instance, social and public events organised only for multicultural families cannot be thought of as appropriate public policies.” He showed that figures that “not everyone from multicultural familial backgrounds requires assistance from government and not all of them are low-income households. They all have occupations and manage their businesses to make ends meet just like other Korean people do. Some of them are much richer than native Koreans. Some Koreans do need urgent assistance and support.” Mr. Oh addressed that “the dichotomy between Korean and non-Korean is an incorrect implementation of public policy design. This could only create anti-multicultural environment and Koreans feel contempt of such policies.”

We may see that multiculturalism has brought diversity to our society. Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese foods are easily available on High Street. Furthermore, the quality of life improved by human rights debate, and levels of tolerance have become a usual topic for discussion due to multiculturalism. Without this, policies, laws and social norms could not even have brewed in the first place. Mr. Oh said that “as you have become aware by now, multiculturalism is not something of particularity. We may not need to give them a special look, show compassionate behaviour or make different attitudes. Public policies should be designed for those who need the most rather than providing unconditional givings based on nationalities. We need to say that we marry this person, and not a person from a particular ethnic group.” Everyone is special and everyone is different to some extent. In fact, what we must avoid is defining what constitutes as Korean. Most people say Kimchi, Hanbok, King Sejong as the representatives of Korean way of doing things. These are very framed and even Korean people find them stuffy but we are forcing multicultural families to accept them as homogenized Korean norms. Children of those families also eat Kimchi, learn Korean language, vote and males will go to army, and behave just like Korean children. Having different skin colours do not mean that they are not Korean.

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In a Q&A session, Mr. Oh stated that “it is hard to generalise issues about the formation of Korean character. There are a variety of diversified identities in multiculturalism as well. Having different parental backgrounds can be stressful during the childhood development. There are labour unions for migrants and other representative bodies but membership and activities are not widely supported. This is partly because they do not serve the migrants in Korea. Mr. Oh thinks that there is a generalized form of identity among the multicultural families. If this general status quo is not formed and possessed by the multicultural families, they are unlikely to support one another. Just like this generally established norm is important in multiculturalism, there is a standardised Korean form too. There need to be policies and framework to assist multicultural households to be familiar with the settled Korean norms because this is the minimal requirement to live in Korean society.

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Ms. Jang delivered closing remarks that “some professors at universities from ASEAN region have lower salaries compared to Korean professors doing equivalent job descriptions. We generally have biased views on foreigners and this should be changed. I wish that policy advisers and civil servants work closely to make Korea a better place to live.”

Next week, a second lecture of the 20th ASEAN Lecture Series under the topic, ‘Social Integration in Multiculturalism will be delivered by Joo-yeon Jang, Senior Research Fellow of International Organisation for Migration.

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