LIFE IN KOREA: Racial Bias in South Korea

by Lara Tosh, 21/02/2012

PART 1:  Alive & Well Within the English Language Education Industry

What follows is one native-English-speaking woman’s story of frustration with the Korean English language education industry…Let’s call her Susan.

Susan has been an English language teaching professional for about 30 years and is educated to the Master’s level.  She has taught English in India, then Japan, and most recently in Germany at the post-secondary level.  Her husband had taken a job in South Korea 8 years ago, while she & her son (still in school) remained in Germany –where she is still presently teaching English at a post-secondary institution. Because her son has completed his studies, Susan was hoping to join her husband in South Korea this year.

It just so happened that, at about the same time, a friend of Susan’s was planning to leave her job at a South Korean private institute (known locally as a “hackwon” or “hogwon”), so she recommended Susan as someone who would be more than qualified to fill her shoes.  Susan simply wished to find employment that would allow her to join her husband, while also being able to legally continue to do what she loves:  teach English.

Susan sent in her resume and was soon contacted by the enthusiastic hackwon owner.  A phone interview was set up and seemed to be going extremely well until she was asked her nationality.  Susan, a native English-speaker, happens to be a citizen of both India and Germany.   That was pretty much the end of the conversation.  The interviewer seemed to “cool off” and ended things with a very polite-sounding, “I’ll let you know”.   After that point there was no further contact.  No emails, no phone calls –Susan didn’t even receive a rejection letter.

Neither her English-speaking abilities, nor her professional qualifications could have counted against her, hence the title of this article…

PART 2:  Alive & Well Within “Corporate Korea”

I recently (2011) had the experience of completing a 6 month contract as an in-house globalization consultant, within a major Korean corporation that has been doing business internationally for several decades.   One of the key reasons my services had been engaged was that I am a native English speaker.  One important aspect of my work inside that company was to help bring their employees up to a certain level of “comfort” with respect to interacting with what Koreans collectively refer to as “foreigners” (the term used to refer to ALL non-Koreans) and making more effective use of their existing English levels in professional situations.

At this point, allow me to interject with the rarely explicitly stated, but deeply held, narrow Korean stereotype of what constitutes an “English-speaking foreigner”.  When I first came here in the late 90’s this term seemed to mean: “Caucasian who speaks with a North American accent”.  Over the years, I had assumed that this concept would expand and deepen, as more expatriates from other parts of the world come to Korea –both for personal & professional reasons.  This being said, allow me to continue:

Near the end of my 6 months, I was offered an extension, which I declined.  I was then asked to help HR with the process of interviewing and choosing a suitable replacement.  I agreed and asked them what they were looking for.  At that time they told me that the most important things were that the person was a native English-speaker, with at least 2 years of corporate experience of ANY kind, who had earned at least a Bachelor’s degree.  At that point I specifically asked if gender and ethnicity (physical appearance), or accent mattered.  I was told emphatically, “No!  Of course not!”.

I was surprised and impressed by this answer because over the course of my 12+ years living and working in this culture –within a wide variety of professional contexts, this was the FIRST time I had NOT been taken aside and told: “We want a Caucasian, preferably a female (pretty if possible), from either Canada or the USA”.  So, I put the word out amongst my professional network of others who either had done or would’ve been able to do what I had been doing with the company in question.  I collected several resumes and forwarded them to those in charge of the hiring process, explaining that these were people with whom I had worked in the past, and who I felt would be a good fit for the position.

NONE of them received interviews.

Why not?  ...because the HR people were, in truth, looking for: a Caucasian female North American -preferably with corporate experience, but that part didn’t really matter that much.

How did I find this out? ...well, believe it or not, I was explicitly TOLD this by a middle-level manager.

(WHAT?!?) ...Yes, that's right.  After having glanced at the resumes of the qualified, educated, experienced, native-English-speaking candidates which I had put forth; I was taken into a meeting room (by said manager) and was told that they (the corporation) actually wanted a Caucasian North-American female.

WHY? …because, “as you know, most Koreans believe that only a white person can be a native English-speaker …and a Canadian or American Accent is best.” (FYI: the person telling me all this had travelled extensively and was educated to the Master’s level). 

He finished things off by saying that it was important that the candidate also be a female because, “females are more easily managed …and they are more ‘agreeable’ towards doing extra things than men.” -Yes, it was EXTREMELY difficult to bite my tongue (I’m female).

This insightful, albeit disappointing, conversation occurred because I had submitted the resumes of 3 males and one female:  The female was Asian in appearance (she was American –and a native English-speaker), the rest were Caucasian males –one of them was from Australia. 

I had really begun to believe that things had changed considerably with respect to the racist hiring practices (and stereotypes with respect to females) here.   Evidently, these biases are still alive and well when it comes to non-executive level, corporate positions in South Korea.


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