Koreans‘ xenophobia and globalization
Bibong, Hyangrobong, and Samobawi …. These are the names of peaks on Mt. Bukhan. As a regular mountain hiker in and near Seoul, I found something weird in these names written only in Korean on signboards. I suddenly hit upon a question as to what these names could mean and was confused as to whether the famous "Hyangrobong" on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) border could be this one.
So I accessed the Daum search portal in order to find out what these purely Korean geographic names meant. Eureka! Bibong was Bibong, which could mean "a mountaintop with a monument." The portal site provided the explanation that "a monument was set up here in the Three Kingdom Period to demarcate a national border but it was moved to another place." The website also explained that Hyangrobong, which meant "a mountaintop where an incense-burner is placed," is located on Mt. Bukhan, and that Hyangrobong, which meant "a mountaintop with fragrant reeds," was in Gangwon Province.
The reasons why I raise these questions are multifarious: I want to understand the histories linked to these famous spots, and that signboards in Korea need to be more explanatory to Koreans as well as to foreigners. My idea is that if the Korean names of the peaks on these signboards were written together with Chinese characters, and if these signboards provided more of an explanation to hikers, it would be kinder to Koreans and foreigners who want to understand Korean geographical names by reading Chinese characters.
I sometimes think that if Koreans' personal names inscribed on their business cards were written in Chinese characters together with Korean letters (Hangeul), it would be a lot easier to remember their names by psychological association. In fact, Kim Sang-yeon, the Washington correspondent of the Seoul Shinmun, criticized Choi Young-jin, the newly-appointed Korean ambassador to the U.S., saying he only used Chinese characters and not a single Korean word on his business cards; the exception was "Fax," and this word could not be written in Chinese characters (Seoul Shinmun, March 21, p. 30). My visiting cards are inscribed in Hangeul, Chinese characters, and English for global use.
With regard to business cards, one of my close Taiwanese friends insists that he can remember Koreans' names with more ease if the names have Chinese characters together with Hangeul. My point is that 100 percent pure Hangeul names and directions for places appear to be very "patriotic" and sometimes nationalistic, showing that Koreans proudly use their easy Hangeul writing system. However, this alone makes me think that Koreans are lacking in something very important in this globalized world.
Talking about the globalized world, I would like to turn my eyes to the Seoul subway system. These days, Seoul residents and foreigners traveling in Seoul hear directions in several languages: Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese. A Chinese friend of mine told me that these multilingual directions are also a bit insufficient in providing satisfactory directions. According to his argument, the most conspicuous mistakes are made in pronouncing the names of subway stations: They are all pronounced in Korean, instead of the respective foreign language versions. His claim is that "Shicheong Ekki" (市廳驛, Japanese pronunciation), "Shicheong Jhan" (市廳站, Chinese pronunciation) are incorrect. He claims that newly arrived foreign visitors cannot catch names of subway stations if they are pronounced purely in Korean, interwoven with the respective foreign language versions.
One young Japanese woman, who is a regular member of my hiking group and a true fan of Korean TV dramas, told me that she records the dramas and sees them again and again. She told me that if Korean dramas had Korean subtitles on the TV screen, she could enjoy them more heartily. I believe Korean-language subtitles may serve as a guide to hearing-impaired Koreans and foreigners who want to learn Korean. This young and cute woman returned to Fukushima Prefecture after finishing her two-year stint in Korea. While hearing her speak in Japanese, and often with well-structured Korean sentences interspersed in it, I thought that Korean mass media need to be more considerate of foreigners and Koreans as well. If Korean televisions ran Korean subtitles, foreigners and Koreans could enjoy the programs more fully and in a more diversified manner.
Cyber-bullying against Jasmine Lee has suddenly surfaced as a hot topic in Korean society after the life-or-death April 11 general elections. As is known, the naturalized Philippine woman will become a Korean lawmaker soon. After a spate of heated controversies, she solved the controversy by professing at a press conference that the majority of Koreans were “understanding.” Some commentators stated that Koreans should not be xenophobic people.
Jasmine Lee's case contrasts with the rise of Jim Yong Kim as president of the World Bank. Just after Kim was nominated for that post by President Barack Obama, he toured a few Asian countries, including Korea and Japan. He gave interviews to Korean as well as Japanese media. All Koreans appeared to be admiring him as a successful "Korean." When I watched him giving his interview in English on KBS, with the Korean interviewer speaking in Korean, I thought that he was a very successful "U.S. citizen" with Korean genealogy.
I do not want to be overly fastidious about blood relations and nationalities, because people have already entered a borderless age via the irreversible tides of globalization. However, my intention in discussing names of mountaintops and subway stations, a young Japanese woman fan's passion about Korean TV dramas, the rise of Jasmine Lee and Jim Yong Kim was to provide an opportunity to think about how much Koreans are open to a multicultural and multilingual environment, that is, a globalized environment. Are Koreans sufficiently globalized linguistically, culturally, and psychologically to accept foreign residents and tourists? And on the overwhelming tides of globalization, are Koreans maintaining their true identity and simultaneously making friends with expats domestically and abroad? If Koreans are xenophobic enough to cyber-bully Jasmine Lee, how could Koreans claim that Korean descendents living in Japan are suffering from discrimination in Japanese society? It is high time for Koreans to reflect on to what extent we are xenophobic and to what extent we should globalize ourselves.
The writer is director of public relations and education at the Northeast Asian History Foundation in Seoul. He has a Ph.D. in mass communication. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.