Posted : 2013-05-15 17:20
Updated : 2013-05-15 17:20

'I am Korean, too'

9-year-old Zambian mother talks about school bullying

This is the third part in a year-long series, "Multiculturalism: The Great Experiment." ㅡ ED.

Kim Ye-ryu, a nine-year-old Kumchon Elementary School student who was born to a Zambian mother and a Korean father, plays a recorder at his house in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday. Discrimination issues against multiethnic children have come to the fore as the number of such children has reached nearly 170,000. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

By Jung Min-ho

Kim Ye-ryu attends Kumchon Elementary School in Paju, northwest of Seoul. The fourth grader, born to a Zambian mother and a Korean father, was called "monkey" on his first day in school and his hair was ridiculed as "a scouring pad."

Although he speaks Korean fluently and prefers K-pop star Lee Seung-gi to Justin Timberlake, Kim is often asked, "Where are you from?" or "Are you familiar with kimchi?"

The nine-year-old was dismissed as "poor, troublesome and stupid" until he proved himself otherwise. Even his teachers, when they met him for the first time, would speak to him slowly on the assumption that his first language was not Korean.

Korea may be said to be going multicultural but change is unlikely to come quickly as most of its citizens have a fixed idea of what "Koreans" should look like.

Jeon Hyeong, a YMCA mentoring program volunteer for multicultural children, said discrimination against one of his charges, a half-Bangladeshi boy, was "very obvious and real" at Bogwang Elementary School in Itaewon, Seoul.

"Despite the fact that the school is in the area with the highest concentration of foreign residents and visitors in Seoul, I frequently saw students jeering at him and even hitting a girl with a multicultural background for no reason," Jeon said. "They seemed to have no sense of guilt."

Discrimination extends beyond those who do not appear to be Korean.

Hideko Yamaguchi, a Japanese professor at Yuhan College, met her Korean husband in 1988 and has lived here since. Her children look Korean but, when the schoolmates of one of her sons discovered he was half-Japanese, he was shunned and ignored.

"Students who have a Japanese mother or father are often blamed by their peers for Japan's wartime atrocities," Yamaguchi said. "This is a form of discrimination because they did not have anything to do with these crimes."

"Korea's multiculturalism has not reached the level where people can discuss how to integrate different cultural groups into a harmonious society and take advantage of the diversity. It is far behind," said Miriam Simasiku, Ye-ryu's Zambian mother.

According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, there were 168,583 children from multiracial families in 2012, a surge from 44,258 in 2007.

Schools have recently introduced government-sponsored "multicultural programs" to deal with the rapid demographic change, but many are seen as ineffective and naive.

"Because society is still immature about the issue, many schools are struggling with how to design and implement the programs," said Kim Joon-sik, head of Asian Friends, a leading civic group for multiracial families.

In some cases, a "multicultural program" consists only of sending multiethnic students to visit traditional palaces or teaching them to make kimchi to instill in them Korean cultural values.

"Korea still has a long way to go," he said.

Another problem facing multiethnic children in schools is that there is no legal ban on racial discrimination in Korea.

Although an anti-discrimination bill was presented in the National Assembly in March, it is unlikely to be passed due to opposition from right-wing lawmakers.

Moreover, there is little attempt in schools to teach about the consequences of racism.

"It is not really the students' fault," said Kim from Asian Friends. "In an environment where their parents openly speak of Africans using derogatory racial words when watching television, children have no choice but to be affected by that culture."

He adds: "Children from multicultural families will play a major role in connecting Korea with the rest of the world. They are the nation's precious assets that should be valued and protected."

Kim said that after World War II, Australia suffered from a population shortage in developing the nation, and politician Arthur Calwell led a full-fledged campaign for mass immigration under the slogan of "populate or perish."

With one of the world's lowest birthrates, Korea may be facing the same challenge. The question is whether Korea is ready to embrace the same solution.

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