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Homogeneous South Korea deals with growing multiculturalism

The South Korean government has introduced a new school for the children of bi-racial parents. The country's growing multicultural population continues to struggle with stereotypes and discrimination.

Dr. Hong In-pyo doesn't speak the language of most of his patients. Instead he hires foreign students at local universities to help translate. Hong heads the Seoul Multicultural Family Clinic, the first publically funded hospital for families with only one Korean spouse. His clients are mostly women from China or Southeast Asia who have married Korean men, one of the fastest growing demographics in this nation of 49 million. And their offspring are on the rise too, says Hong. "They are the next generation of the nation."

Hong is not exaggerating. According to government statistics the birthrate of children born into families with only one Korean parent is outpacing that of children in traditional families, who have lower birthrates.

"By 2050 these multicultural children will make up 10 percent of the population," Hong adds.

Seoul skyline

'By 2050, multicultural children will make up 10 percent of the population'

Korea's changing face

Enkhjagal Khishigbaatar's family represents the changing face of modern South Korea. The 32-year-old is originally from Mongolia and now lives in Seoul with her South Korean husband and their two young sons, ages 3 and 5.

Khishigbaatar says adjusting to life in Korea wasn't as difficult as she expected, thanks to efforts by the South Korean government to help settle multicultural families.

"There are many multicultural family training and support centers. I received a lot of help there. I have even helped other women married to Koreans find jobs here and fit in. It's been great here," she says.

These centers were created to assist the hundreds of thousands of young newlywed women from mostly developing Asian countries who now call South Korea home. These international marriages, often arranged by a broker, are the result of a male-heavy gender gap in the countryside that has left many Korean men unable to find wives.

Victims of racism

But many non-Korean women and their children face setbacks in society. Racial diversity is not something South Koreans are familiar with. Ethnic homogeneity is a source of pride for many and only until recently did school textbooks proclaim the Korean people's "pure blood" as a virtue.

Foreign women and their half-Korean offspring are often the victims of racism. The multicultural kids are especially discriminated against by their full-Korean peers, according to Kim Hee-kyung of Save the Children's Seoul division. She says Korean children learn stereotypes and prejudice from their parents and through the media and feel unabashed to tease or bully their peers who they see as different. Kim says multicultural kids with a mother from Southeast Asia get made fun of the most.

"They (Korean students) see themselves as superior to children with Southeast Asian heritage. They say they are dumb or poor, because Southeast Asian countries are less developed than Korea and that's why they assume they are inferior to them."

Kim says that this bullying has resulted in multicultural children being taken out of school altogether. Research cited by Save the Children reveals that up to 30 percent of all biracial kids in South Korea stay home with their foreign mothers and thus aren't receiving education or learning to speak Korean proficiently.

This has the South Korean government worried, says Chung Chin-sung, a lecturer in sociology at Seoul National University.

"These children experience isolation and their academic records are very low," she says. "Without any help, they will not be able to fit into Korean society."

Improving integration

Last year, Chung served on a presidential committee that recommended the creation of an alternative school for multicultural children so that these kids don't fall through the cracks as they grow up.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government took the committee's advice to heart and last month opened the Dasom High School for Multicultural Children, enrolling 48-students who have either one Korean parent or stepparent.

At Dasom these students, who have all grown up overseas, learn the Korean language and can train for careers in either the tourism or multimedia fields. For almost all of these high schoolers, it's the first school they've attended since moving to South Korea.

Students at the Dasom High School for Multicultural Children in Seoul study Korean as a second lanauge

The government has started introducing integration programs

"I like the school a lot and I'm happy that I've made friends with students from Japan, Hong Kong and Vietnam," says 18-year-old Liang Man Ni, who came to Seoul three years ago with her Korean mother and Chinese father.

But the real test for Dasom will be when the generation of multicultural children born in Korea over the past decade reaches their teens, says Seoul National University's Chung. She says she hopes those kids don't need to attend the school at all.

"In principle, those children from different backgrounds should be integrated with other students, but there are children who cannot well adjust to normal school," Chung says. "I think this school can be a last chance for those children."

Enkhjagal Khishigbaatar, the Mongolian woman with two young sons, says her friends have warned her about the prejudice that some multicultural children face as they get older.

But she says her boys so far haven't experienced any problems and she's not worried about discrimination here.

"I'm more concerned that since my sons are growing up here and going to school with Koreans, they will have a culture shock if they visit Mongolia and be treated as foreigners there," Khishigbaatar says.

She says she hopes her sons will grow up to feel just as Mongolian as they do Korean.

Author: Jason Strother
Editor: Sarah Berning

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