Segregation of the International Community in Gwangju

The 16th Annual Gwangju International Community Day used to be a weekend. In 2010 was only a day.  And what a day it was. Held this year at on Saturday October 9th from 11:30-5pm outside of the Kim DaeJung Convention Center in Sangmu it was a great success. Over 500 people took the time to register at the GIC booth, and foot traffic was well over a thousand people.

Growing from the Migrants’ Day concept sixteen years ago, GIC Day, has changed from Foreigners’ Day into a more assimilated multicultural celebration of our community, international and Korean, right here in Gwangju.  Originally held in September or October, 2009 saw it held in May as a “Friendship Day” at Chondae. Over the years, it’s been held at Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, Chosun University, Chonnam National University and the Kim Dae Jung Convention Center.

International Segmentation

Gwangju has 1.4 million residents. In Gwangju and Jeollanamdo there are about 33,000 people who are not Korean. Gwangju has about  12,000 foreign residents and Jeollanamdo around 21,000. Ten years ago that number was about 3,000 in Gwangju and 4,000 in Jeollanamdo. Numbers have steadily increased year by year as Korea has increased its number of work and student visas issued.

  Total population of Gwangju Total population of foreign residents(G+J) The foreign population 
1994 1,273,854 2,371 G-1,146
1995 1,287,134 2,745 G-1,330
1996 1,302,261 4,228 G-1,930
1997 1,326,478 5,509 G-2,285
1998 1,342,009 5,533 G-1,883
1999 1,359,646 6,297 G-2,239
2000 1,375,212 7,318 G-3,038
2001 1,387,360 8,339 G-3,507
2002 1,401,525 9,490 G-3,992
2003 1,400,683 11,613 G-4,934
2004 1,406,915 13,562 G- 5,756
2005 1,408,106 15,621 G- 6,357
      J- 9,257
2006 1,415,953 20,058 G-8,155 
      J- 11,905
2007 1,423,460 25,142 G- 10,011
      J- 15126
2008 1,434,625 31,613 G- 11,923
      J- 19,690
2009 33,337 G- 12,188
      J- 21,149

Much has been said and written about the increase in multicultural families, the increase in the number of English teachers imported and the ever increasing 3D factory workers – legal and illegal being imported.  But little is said about how these groups are segregated in the Korean landscape.

GIC Day helps to delineate how these groups are segregated. Affluent and enfranchised  foreigners – English teachers and visiting international students are the primary participants with a substantial showing of the more affluent and internationally minded Koreans.

Missing were migrant workers and foreign brides of multicultural families.  There are several agencies that have emerged to meet the social and assimilation needs of these segments of foreigners.

Foreign wives of Koreans

I don’t know how to label or address this particular segment of the international population. Do I go really PC or do I use the language that I experience daily in talking about this issue? I have chosen the less PC approach to reach my Korean readers and not overly intellectualize the discussion about this social group.

Foreign wives of Koreans frequently are encouraged to take classes and give cultural performances at different culture centers near their home. For example JangHeung will host a local festival and have the multicultural families (read foreign wives of Korean men) perform traditional dances for the Korean public.

Additionally, language classes are primarily sponsored by the government to aid in the assimilation of these multicultural families. Knowledge is power and this assists the foreign wives to be able to integrate their young family into the local schools and other social institutions.

Stigmas fall on to the children of multicultural families as a “mixed” breed child. This stereotype is especially prevalent in the rural areas where attitudes are more traditionally closed and suffer from the “Hermit Kingdom” complex of socialization which emphasizes a distrust of and condescension of foreigners.

Women often coming from developing countries to marry Korean men have been segmented as a social group which needs substantial help from the government in order to maintain social stability in Korea. Communities suffering from rural flight, Korean men who have been ostracized as quality husband material for Korean females, and the population demographics of Korea having been skewed for years by practices such as abortion of female fetuses and family planning preferences of having male rather than female children, has caused the foreign brides multicultural solution to be a popular trend for the still family oriented Korean populous.

 The Korean public and the Korean government is hard at work to support multicultural families during this difficult friction of cultural values. Additionally, lawsuits against wedding recruiting agents are being initiated by human rights NGOs in Korea.

Migrant Workers

Also missing were migrant workers at GIC Day. In the past and in other cities, migrant workers at factories are often packed up onto a bus and bussed in to the more community friendly venues for Migrants Day. 

GIC Day was once Migrants Day. I can remember 2003 and 2004 when buses from the factories arrived. It was a time for working class factory workers to interact with middle class teachers and Koreans.

I remember my first GIC Day. Some Korean volunteers were going around asking foreigners to do a survey. The questions asked about how Korea and Koreans treated me, a foreigner.  One of the specific questions asked me if I thought Koreans looked down on people of color.  And as an example of people of color they listed Southeast Asians, Indians, and Africans.

The survey conducted by a sweet university student who barely spoke English, made me blanch and my head spin around. I was so unnerved. But it is an experience I am grateful for. It helped me to be more community minded towards the diversity of international people in Korea. It helped me be more humble about the stereotypes I benefited from in Korea. As an educated Caucasian English speaking woman, I have been given the status of princess by Korea. The stereotype about color made me overwhelming uncomfortable with the benefits of linguistic imperialism that permeates Korea and how I benefit because of the self-imposed imperialism of English language and westernization especially of urban life.

Just as the government subsidizes and supports events for foreign brides, so do they underwrite events for factory workers. More and more migrant centers are opening around the country. In Gwangju they have emerged near the factories and are affiliated with Christian churches. Through GIC’s Bridges Program, four volunteers have visited the migrant centers looking for ways to connect GIC community and benefits to factory workers at the migrant centers.

Upon one such visit we ran into a festival. It was hosted by the migrant center and was heavily attended by not just factory workers but families of the workers as well. The event was hosted by the companies as well as the migrant center with funds from the government.

Additionally you see small businesses popping up to cater to these communities. Most English teachers will know of the Underground Grocer in downtown Gwangju, but there are also other places around Gwangju which provide goods to foreigners. The Thai Restaurant and two Chinese groceries in Songjeongri are always busy because of the Thai and Chinese workers that live in the area. Hannam has an Asia grocery which serves Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese food. Additionally the mosque on the north side of Gwangju also has an international grocery nearby. Halal meat can be found in any of the international groceries. A separate Asia has emerged in Gwangju. I overheard a comment the other day. How it was funny that there was an Asian Food Mart in an Asian country.  The segregation highlights the emergence and increasing stabilization and strength of nonKorean communities in Korea.

Foreign husbands of Korean women

Another category that is never included in the Korea government’s categorization of foreigners is the foreign husbands of Korean women. This segment of the international population is extremely disenfranchised when it comes to government funding. Yet the stigmatization of being supported by the government and additionally having segregated school which teach in a language other than Korean is sensitive topic. So far there is no acceptable discourse in any language about this segment of our community and the social issues and problems that they endures.

In Closing

Korea is one of the safest places I have ever lived. For the population density, things go very smooth here. I sincerely hope that this safety continues and is extended to all who make Korea home, even temporarily. I hope that Korea continues its dedication to integration of foreigners so that one day, the word foreigner melts out of meaning.

One Response to “Segregation of the International Community in Gwangju”
  1. Very interesting and informative article, thanks very much. I think that, with the increase of numbers of foreigners in Gwangju, it feels like there used to be a ‘hub’ for the more caucasian element in Gwangju, in the form of the GIC, which is probably (and thankfully?) gone to a large degree now (maybe 5-6 years ago)… whether that is anything to do with the GIC or whether it is simply a natural progression of the plurality of the foreign communities here, I don’t know.

    Gwangju News used to have a couple of pages devoted to reports from the foreign communities in Gwangju. It covered other countries in Asia and sometimes other countries that weren’t particularly the west. I think that needs to come back… the larger the variety the better, inclusive rather than exclusive… it was one of the many things I wanted to re-implement as editor but didn’t get chance. Often its just a case of foreigners knowing a certain publication is out there in order to get writers involved.

    Nowadays maybe the Gwangju News is not the forum for it (too pc?) but something of that order would be great, journalistically, in Gwangju. Just think, a place where one could read quick monthly reports on what was happening in a variety of different countries, from as large a number of foreign residents in Gwangju as you could corral into it, something unprejudiced and free from the editorships of the larger newspapers, magazines and T.V channels. Great.

    Perhaps there’s a kind of diasporic journalism in English, on the international community in Korea, that is only just being born, and our blogs and small magazines need to really focus on that rather then the big glossies with govt funding and various hidden agendas. Meaning; if this representative journalism is to come to fruition, it will have to be open-minded, pioneering and (maybe most important?) unpaid/voluntary.

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