Multicultural Korea: ‘Dirty’ Foreigners Spoil the Sauna Water and Spread AIDS

Uzbekistan-born, Korean national Gu Su-jin's passport.

As reported by the Asian Correspondent last week and again this morning on TBSeFM, a  30-year-old Uzbekistan-born woman who is a naturalized Korean citizen was denied entrance to a small sauna in Busan because of her skin color.

But there was a more twisted aspect of the refusal as Korean news first reported.  Allegedly, an employee of the business said: “foreigners may not come in… Foreigners can make the sauna dirty and there is also the problem of AIDS, so Korean guests will feel unwelcome and foreigners are therefore not allowed in at all.”

Gu Su-jin at a public newspaper interview. The sign says "A plan to counter discrimination against foreign residents."

What’s more, after the woman contacted authorities and returned to the sauna, the employees repeated the AIDS statement and again referred to the water being dirtied by the woman, who holds the Korean name Gu Su-jin.  Police told Gu that they could not do anything because there’s no law against prohibiting entrance by foreigners (can you say segregation).

As a result Gu, who attained Korean citizenship in 2009 and is married to a Korean man, has taken the issue to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and launched a public campaign against discrimination of foreign residents.  Reportedly, Gu has a son who’ll be entering elementary school and she intends to prevent such blatant discrimination in the future.

The incident happened on the afternoon of September 25 when Gu visited the sauna.  At first, after being refused entry, she produced her ID and stated that she was a Korean. (Watch Korean news clip here.) Clearly, an ID doesn’t mean a thing–you can say you’re a Korean but if you don’t look like one, you aren’t.

Bonojit Hussain.

This event should remind people of the case of Bonojit Hussain back in July of 2009.  Hussain, a 28-year-old Indian research professor at a Korean university, was riding a bus at night with a female Korean friend, Han Ji-sun.  The bus was travelling through Bucheon, a satellite city east of Seoul, when a 31-year-old seated behind the two started hurling insults that reportedly began with, “What a disgusting odor! You’re dirty.”  This was followed by references to Hussain being “Arab” and “smelly.”

In addition, the man surnamed Park, asked Han, “Are you Korean?  Are you happy to date with a black man?”  Park also reportedly kicked Hussain and Han once he was escorted off of the bus by a fellow passenger, Han and Hussain.  At that time, the group proceeded to a local police station in Bucheon where Hussain and Han attempted to file charges against Park.

Things did not go so smoothly, however.  Hussain and Han claim that the police added more discrimination to the mix, questioning Hussain’s alien registration card, speaking to him in the low form of Korean speech (banmal) and referring to him as “a foreigner with a hard life” even though he was working at a Korean university.  Han said the police treated her with disdain for being with Hussain. Park, on the other hand, was treated with respect despite his uncivilized behavior and intoxication–Hussain and Han say the police sided with Park and urged them not to file charges.

Hussain and Han were offended and determined to set things right.  They filed charges of contempt as there was and is no current law protecting foreigners from such discrimination (the case in Busan should address this as well).  Han, as a Korean, expressed embarrassment at the policemen’s behavior, not to mention Park’s.

In late November of 2009, the Incheon District Court fined Park 1 million won for his insulting behavior toward Hussain.  In the meantime, Hussain took the case to the National Human Rights Commission with the help of human rights groups and gave a speech in February of 2010 to the Korean National Assembly pushing the anti-discrimination bill.

On November 1, 2009, the New York Times ran an article about Hussain’s case and the wider issue of discrimination and xenophobia in South Korea which includes the following quote from Han: “Even a friend of mine confided to me that when he sees a Korean woman walking with a foreign man, he feels as if his own mother betrayed him.”

In August this year, Hussain penned an intriguing piece about this issue of discrimination and “mono-cultural” ethos as it related toNorwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who hailed South Korea’s model of ethnic preservation in his 1500-page manifesto.

According to the Telegraph article linked above, Breivik wrote that “role models,” like Korea and Japan, “represent many of the European classical conservative principles of the 1950s” because they are “scientifically advanced, economically progressive” societies “which will not accept multiculturalism or Cultural Marxist principles.”  He added that the two societies are places “where you can travel freely everywhere without the constant fear of getting raped, ravaged, robbed or killed.”

Hussain points out that, yes, Breivik was a madman spewing political rants, but says he was not “radically off the mark in understanding Korea’s hatred for migrants.”  Hussain aptly focuses his aim on the DDD workers here in Korea who remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy which Hussain says has them “abused in workplaces, incessantly yelled at as ‘black bastards,’ ‘Arab,’ ‘smelly’ etc. A South/Southeast Asian, whose attire does not invoke a definitive image of the elite upper class globe trotting technocrat, is invariably made to undergo psychological and sometimes physical violence, on public transport and in other public places.”

Yet Hussain asserts that Breivik’s admiration of Korean monoculturalism should be a wake-up call for the Korean government (and it should).  But one has to wonder if anyone here even heard of Breivik’s references or listened when they did.  Take a few minutes when you can and ask people you know if they’ve heard of Anders Behring Breivik.   Then ask people about Mr. Hussain and Ms. Han’s case.  Lastly, ask about Gu Su-jin and the humiliation she faced in Busan.

The social awareness of these issues remains limited because negative publicity is the last thing the Korean press wants to deal with, leaving it often buried or discarded by the English press which is still run by the old conservative Korean guard.  Hold more friend festivals and Seoul Hi weeks and meet-your-neighbor days and publicize how welcoming the country is, how the country is foreign friendly, how it is Visit Korea Year/Years, how the World Cup was held here and the Olympics are coming and Girls’ Generation are famous in Europe.

In the end, if anyone really wants the country to become multicultural–and who says that the Koreans have to want a bunch of foreigners moving in–the deep seated bigotry, prejudice, stereotyping and suspicion of strange “foreigners” will obviously have to undergo some serious scrutiny in the public forum with honest, frank and painful discussion between Koreans and foreigners.  People like Bonojit Hussain, Han Ji-sun  and Gu Su-jin are laying the groundwork for when (and if) that day comes.

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