Inter-Cultural Children Are Ours, Not Theirs
Lee So-jin, 11, knows that Filipinos tend to move their eyebrows up when they say hello to people. ``No one actually taught me the way they greet each other. I just came to know it after I had seen many Filipinos using their eyebrows when they say hello to others,'' she said.
So-jin's father is a Filipino and he met his Korean wife in the Philippines. They got married and lived there until they had two girls.
The 11-year was the second child of the inter-racial family, and lived in the Southeast Asian country until she attended a kindergarten in Korea.
``I was so young when I was in the Philippines and therefore I don't remember exactly how fluent my Filipino was. But my mom and dad told me that I spoke in the local language when I talked with my grandmother and other relatives who still live there,'' she said.
So-jin forgot the local language and now she does not speak Filipino any more.
When she speaks with her grandmother by phone, her father translates her words in English into Filipino for his mother.
The little girl, who is now attending an elementary school in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, is one of 30 students having participated in the Hope Kids APEC, a cultural awareness program aimed at raising awareness of the importance of cultural exchange activities for children from inter-cultural families.
The two-day program was hosted by the Asia Treasure Network, a social and cultural services provider for children, in collaboration with the APEC Education Foundation, an inter-governmental group established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
During the session, children from inter-racial families, along with those from Korean families, participated in several events including a classical music concert held at the Seoul Arts Center and had first-hand experience of how a television program is made at the Seoul Broadcasting System.
The young cultural ambassadors also had an opportunity to present the unique culture of their parents through non-verbal communication tools.
Diversity as virtue
Many children having joined the cultural awareness program told The Korea Times that they were proud of their cultural traits which their pure Korean classmates did not have.
Kim Yeon-mi, 11, said she felt herself more open-minded toward foreign culture than her classmates whose parents are both Koreans.
``My mom is a Japanese, and I have the privilege of learning Japanese culture without making any extra effort because it is part of my life at home,'' she said.
Svetlana Kang, another 11-year old, said her mom, who is from Uzbekistan, made huge efforts to ``master'' the Korean language and culture so as to make her life here more enjoyable.
``Her hard work passed on to me, and I came to learn more enthusiastically about the Korean culture,'' she said.
Her first name Svetlana means ``light,'' ``clean,'' or ``holy'' in Russian and she was born in Uzbekistan and raised there until she was 10 years old.
Svetlana's father, who is Korean, met his wife in Uzbekistan and they got married there.
``I easily learned the culture of my mother's home country as she taught me all the time at home. I've been to Uzbekistan several times before, and I feel fortunate to visit the country that many of my classmates and friends have never been to,'' she said.
So-jin said she was able to learn English more easily than her classmates due to her bilingual father who speaks Filipino as well as English.
``My classmates are working hard to learn English. To me, it's easy to learn the language as my father answers my questions in English. I learned it quickly with his help,'' she said.
So-jin said she is happy to have big eyes, which resembles her father, as many of her classmates envy them.
Kang Ho-bin, 13, is attending a magnet English conversation class.
Ho-bin attributed his strength in the foreign language to his mother from the Philippines.
``My mom does not speak Korean very well so I explain to her about Korean culture and language in English. It helped me a lot to improve my English language skills,'' he said.
Awareness of Cultural Differences
Some of the children, however, said they experienced bad things because of their different cultural backgrounds.
Svetlana said her classmates bullied her shortly after she joined her elementary school.
``My Korean language was so poor at the time. Some of my classmates made fun of me for my Korean language skill. I was stressed out and one day I burst into tears before them,'' she said.
The 11-year old strove to improve her language skill and now she feels comfortable about her Korean.
According to a Ministry of Health and Welfare survey in 2005, Svetlana is not the only inter-racial child who has experienced bullying at school.
It found that 17.6 percent of children from interracial marriages in rural areas have been bullied by their peers in school.
Park Jung-sook, CEO of Asia Treasure Network, said in an interview with The Korea Times that society needs to be more open-minded toward multi-cultural families.
``I think that the media and society should take inter-cultural families and their children as part of us so that they can integrate into society without difficulties,'' she said.
``One way we can do this is to look at the positive aspects of inter-cultural families, including their solid understanding of multiculturalism and strong foreign language skills, and give them more opportunities to demonstrate their strengths,'' she said.
According to the Ministry of Justice, two out of 100 people living in Korea are foreign nationals. The ministry said that proportion is projected to be as large as 5 percent of the total population by 2020.
The increasing number of foreigners here has contributed to an increase in inter-cultural marriages.
In 2007 some 38,000 inter-racial couples were married, which accounts for 11 percent of all married couples that year.
The government of Gyeonggi Province, which takes the lion's share of the inter-cultural couples accounting for 20 percent of them, conducted an opinion survey of the families in 2006.
The majority of migrant spouses, mostly women, answered that learning Korean was a major challenge, which made it difficult for them to adjust to the new culture.
The survey also found that many of them wanted to work.
Based on the results, the local government hammered out a set of measures for the families and offered Korean language learning and cultural assistance programs.
Still many policymakers and lawmakers consider the inter-racial children and families as a group who need protection, and few of them place integration as a policy priority.
The National Assembly passed a bill to ``protect'' inter-racial families and their children, which went into effect in September. The legislation stresses the need for tailored policy support at the central and local government level.
Many local governments provide foreign spouses and children from inter-racial families with supportive language and social services programs.
Song Tae-soo of the Korea Labor Education Institute in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, argued that the role of government was crucial in building a solid infrastructure in favor of diversity.
``Social integration should be the primary policy goal the government needs to pursue,'' he said.
Park of Asia Treasure Network agreed, saying now is the time for community members to turn their eyes to building an atmosphere where cultural differences are respected and valued.
``On the second day of our cultural awareness program, we awarded certificates of cultural ambassador to the children, asking them to play a role in raising awareness of their parents' countries among Koreans and bridging the two cultures,'' she said.
``Being different is a good thing that needs to be respected. You need to have pride in the characteristics that you have from your cultural background,'' she told the children during the program.