Korean Hospitals Learn to Say 'Push' in 4 Languages

Editor's note: This is a response to the NY Times article "Baby Boom of Mixed Children Tests South Korea" by Martin Fackler.

With unprecedented levels of international exchange and the shortage of eligible women especially in the Korean countryside, the number of international marriages and children born of these multi-ethnic families in South Korea has increased drastically over the past few years. The fact that the total number of children from what are called multicultural families in South Korea rose to 107,689 in May of this year from 58,007 last December (according to Korea's Ministry of Public Security) attest to this quickly evolving social trend. Other than implying significant changes in Korea's population demographics (Demographers say that more than one in nine children could be of mixed background by 2020 if marriages to foreigners continue to increase at their current rate) this phenomenon is also shedding light on ethnic Koreans' attitude for children who are part-Korean ethnically and the conflicts that these children face in Korean society.

Born in Korea of ethnically Korean parents in the late 1980s, I grew up with the perception that only Koreans--who look Korean, speak Korean, and lead a Korean lifestyle--lived in Korea. All my neighbors, family friends, and classmates in elementary, middle, and high schools fit this description, and it was difficult to imagine non-Koreans living alongside me in Korea. Foreigners and mixed-blood Koreans (translated directly from the Korean word, "혼혈아") were  limited to the business and entertainment sectors, and could not really be considered Korean.

Unlike the theory of the melting pot (or salad bowl) that Americans have accepted to explain the cultural diversity of the United States, Koreans have historically conceptualized their country Korea as a single-ethnic country--"단일민족 (单一民族)." This is a philosophy that many Koreans are proud of, since it implies that Koreans, as a single people, have stuck together through thick and thin to persevere and maintain their own country, language and culture. 

This deep-rooted perception of Korea as a country for only ethnic Koreans has influenced Koreans' perceptions of foreigners and mixed individuals. Even now, with increasing numbers of foreign visitors to Korea and international marriages, the standard that almost all ethnic Koreans have for a "true Korean" has not changed. Basically, if a person does not look Korean or cannot speak the language, Koreans don't consider them Korean. I have to admit, even though I have lived in the United States for almost half of my lifetime and have been in contact with people who look different from me, it's hard for me to accept Korean-Americans who cannot speak the language fluently or half-Koreans who do not look Korean as truly Korean. 

I think the Korean government deserves some credit for its efforts (although mostly spurred by national needs to mitigate the effects of sub-par birth rates and the quickly aging society) to integrate multicultural families into Korean society, but it is not nearly enough to compensate for the discrimination and prejudice that such families face from ethnic Koreans. It is a sad truth that children with mixed ethnicities are often ostracized in Korea, a country that only began contemplating the concept of ethnic diversity when labor shortages forced it to accept foreign workers a decade ago. Quoting from the NYT article mentioned below, "The risk has been underscored by recent studies showing that the children of mixed marriages are more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse or bullying in school." 

In addition to the differences in outer appearance, these kids have a tougher time assimilating because most are not comfortable with the Korean language. Because there is often a shortage of females and surplus of males, especially in the countryside, many multi-ethnic families are born as a result of Korean men marrying foreign-born women. Since children often have a easier time picking up the language that their mothers speak, they have a hard time learning Korean because they only use it at school and use it sparsely with their working fathers. I can't begin to imagine what these kids go through...when my family moved back to Korea after living in the U.S. for nearly 7 years, I was teased at school for my "American-accented Korean" every day, and I had a hard time getting used to it. And considering the fact that I look Korean, speak the language, and was in middle school...these multi-ethnic children are in for a rough time.

-Jeeyoon Yu (CAS '11)


  1. I guess my rough perception of a Korean lifestyle is a combination of having certain foods (rice and kimchi as staple foods), customs (celebrating Korean traditional holidays, honoring ancestors), and habits (bowing to superiors, yielding your seats to elderly persons on buses) as a part of daily life. They are also my opinions on common characteristics most Korean families share, so people may disagree with me.

    And yes, one half-Korean who looks more "Korean" than another half-Korean would be more accepted in Korean society, just like how people who look Caucasian are considered Westerners in many Asian countries.

    Also, the fact Korea has always been a homogeneous country has never been disputed, by both Korean and foreign researchers, and has been acknowledged by the UN. For example, in the observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on the Republic of Korea in September 1996 it is stated that "The Committee notes that the Republic of Korea, of which the population has historically been ethnically homogeneous, has for several years been experiencing a rapid growth of its foreign population." http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/0/ e05ea258e611970fc12563e0004fbf5c?Opendocument)

    I am very much aware of other countries who try to give off the impression of being a historically homogeneous nation, such as Japan, but Korea as had little cause or practical reason to deal with the issue of racial discrimination (up until recently, when the foreigner population in Korea reached a substantial number), as seen from the total absence of racial uprisings or riots in history.

  2. Oops. I think I added a space somewhere in there: this link works. http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/0/e05ea258e611970fc12563e0004fbf5c?Opendocument

    And yes, I completely agree with you on your thoughts on our identification of ethnicities with regard to nations.

    Oh, and you can get pretty decent kimchi at H-Mart near the 69th Street Station...just take the Market-Frankford Line all the way to the end. Or ask any of your friends who seem Korean ;)


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