Friday, October 22, 2010

Saying "Hi" to the white guy

A MIDDLE-AGED Korean man in a suit said hi to me on the street today. I was on my way to work and he was standing at the top of some steps which emerged from a tunnel under a busy main road. "Hi," I said back, as a reflex. I had no idea who he was and still don't. I didn't stop walking. I don't think he expected me to either.

I don't know why he said hello to a complete stranger. I imagine it was probably because I am foreign and it was his way of saying, strange as it seemed to me, "Welcome to my country". I have had random strangers say hello to me on the street a few times before - presumably for the same reason.

In a city as wealthy and developed as Seoul this may seem strange. Foreigners -- especially whites -- are not exceptionally rare in Seoul. Birds-of-paradise we are not. Much is made in the Korean media of how "multicultural" Korea has become and continues to aim to be. And, indeed, there are now over one million foreigners in the country.

This came about, somewhat like it did in Ireland, in rapid fashion. In the decades after Japanese occupation, Korea remained remarkably ethnically homogeneous. But between 1995 and 2007 the number of foreigners in Korea quadrupled. Quite a rise. So things happened very quickly - surely going someway to explain the curiosity (and, unfortunately, though I believe much less prevalent, xenophobia) newcomers can encounter in Korea.

But Ireland saw a rapid influx too. And could anyone imagine a Chinese person being approached on O'Connell street for a photo or being greeted by strangers in St. Stephen's Green? No, I don't think so. Why?

Actually, Korea's level of immigration has been quite small compared to many nations - certainly much smaller than Ireland's.

One million foreigners sounds like a lot - and in some ways it is for a country with a historically very closed society. But that figure accounts for just over 2 percent of the population. The number of residents born overseas in countries like the U.K. and France easily tops 10 percent. For the U.S. it is over 12 percent - Australia almost a quarter. Korea doesn't come close in comparison -- although, thanks to continuing immigration and Koreans' reluctance to have babies, this is set to change.

Despite all the waffle about multiculturalism, despite the unstoppable march of globalisation, it is not difficult to feel "different" here. And that isn't necessarily something to bemoan or be sanctimonious about. I didn't come here for the Big Macs. I was looking for difference myself.

So next time a "Hi" is thrown my way by a stranger on the street, perhaps I should reply in the same manner.

Stop. Bow. And simply say: "Ahn-young-ha-seh-yo." (안녕하세요)

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