A "typical Korean" probably wouldn't call Yang Chan-wook a typical Korean, but he wants to be seen that way. The 37-year-old is a multi-ethnic Korean, part Korean from his mother's side and part African-American from his father's side. And he's working towards better understanding of multi-ethnic Koreans in Korean society with his foundation, the Movement for the Advancement of the Cultural-Diversity of Koreans, also known as MACK.
The MACK Foundation president was born in Korea, but moved around between the U.S., Germany and Korea when he was young. Yang says he really started to come to terms with his dual ethnicities after his parents divorced.
"It was around 10 or 11 when I started to identify myself with the different cultural aspects of my own life that either contradicted or fit into the environment that I was in," says Yang. Until that point, Yang continues, "my ethnicity wasn't really on my mind until I moved to my father's side of the family in an all African-American community." It was there in Chicago where Yang says that his dual-ethnicities were actually being pointed out to him and he had to start thinking about what that meant.
After that, Yang decided to dedicate his life towards helping others with similar backgrounds. He moved back to Korea in 2003. It was here in 2009 where he took the reins of MACK.
"We're different from other multi-cultural foundations because we're focused on Koreans accepting the diversity of its own people," says Yang.
MACK is now run by many multi-ethnic Koreans. The foundation helps others with mixed Korean heritage assimilate as well as educate Koreans about the growing multi-heritage backgrounds of its people. It was originally set up to educate Amerasian children in a Christian environment. Since Yang took over, the foundation still runs the Amerasian Christian Academy in Dongducheon, north of Seoul, but is now non-denominational. It also added social networking as well fundraisers, forums on diversity, scholarships and another school in southern port city of Busan.
"We are currently working on a documentary film on multi-ethnic Koreans in education. We have partnered with Pearl Buck Student Association to bring attention to education inequality in Korea," says Cindy Howe, MACK vice president. She was born in Korea to a Korean mother and African-American father and moved to the U.S. after her 100-day birthday celebration but returned in 2008.
Shin Hei-soo, a U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expert, says that Korea still has many issues accepting a multi-ethnic as well as a multi-cultural society. It's because "Koreans have long historical roots of the family tree," Shin explains. In her hometown area in Gyeonggi Province, where they can count back to 11 generations of the family name Shin, she says even Koreans with a different last name than Shin are still treated as outsiders.
Rural and older generations might have a more conservative view about accepting mixed-race Koreans into society, says Lee Kyu-jae, a recent Hanyang University graduate. "In my opinion, mixed-race Koreans are also our citizens so we shouldn't consider them as foreign or someone who is different." The 26-year-old continues, "because Korea is a single-race nation, most Koreans cannot help having a sense of difference about them. So, they sometimes suffer from hardship due to this unique Korean perspective."
There are over 200,000 multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Koreans living in Korea, according to a 2011 report from the Ministry of Public Administration and Security. But this doesn't account for the numbers of multi-ethnic children who aren't registered, says Yang.
"In less than a decade, it is estimated almost half of the population in the rural areas of Korea will be multi-ethnic youth," says Howe.
Many of these mixed-race Korean children are from marriage immigrants, who according to Shin are women from primarily Southeast Asian countries who marry men in rural areas. "Those children are having lots of problems."
"I think (MACK) has made a difference to families who have or will in the future have mixed-race children. We're giving them knowledge and more understanding toward their future worries and concerns for their children's living in Korea," says Frank Brannen, MACK program coordinator. " Brannen has a Korean mother and an American military father, grew up in many different countries and returned to Korea to learn more about the culture and language. He cites MACK's tutoring and mentoring programs as helpful for educating Koreans to be more accepting of multi-ethnic Koreans.
"The Ministry of Justice is providing educational programs to Korean husbands," says Shin Hei-soo, "although it's been criticized as a formality and not really effective."
Lee Kyu-jae thinks globalization is the reason for the dramatic increase in multi-ethnic Koreans and says the government has a duty to care for them. "The government should create policy for them to be protected in order to avoid any sense of difference. The government has to encourage non-governmental orgs like MACK to be able accomplish their purpose more effectively."
Cindy Howe says that the existing multi-culturalism in Korea is an undervalued resource. "Overall, it is South Korean society that needs to re-evaluate what it means to be Korean," says Howe. "Considering that about 1.7 million Koreans live in America alone and the number of Korean adoptees throughout the world, the global Korean community already exists. So, it makes me ponder what assimilation means in this context."
"I feel that as a Korean, Korea has a lot to offer," says Yang Chan-wook. "We have a beautiful country and beautiful culture, and it becomes more beautiful when we accept the diversity of who we are and when we can share that with the rest of the world."
But still the mindsets and cultural norms have yet to be broken. Frank Brannen says, "I grew up proud to be both American and Korean. But living in Korea I feel more American." (Yonhap)