Koreans of RI

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By Noh Sangeun (23S06Q)

My fun fact is having a backup fun fact: that I’m Korean. As Shin Jiyeon (23S03O) puts it, the common response to this is that everyone already knows.

While it might not make for an exciting self-introduction, being Korean has certainly shaped my experience in Singapore, as it presumably has for the twenty thousand-odd others of Korean nationality living in the country. For this article, I interviewed four Korean RI students to find out more about their perspectives on living in Singapore as Koreans.

Caught in 5K(orean)!

Life in Singapore

For many of the interviewees, coming to Singapore was less a choice than a circumstance. Park Juha (23S03Q), Kim Donghyun (23S03N), and Jiyeon followed their parents, who found jobs in Singapore. Kang Taeyoung (4E) was studying at a Singaporean international school in Thailand for four years before he moved to Singapore to pursue secondary education.

It would be fair to say our interviewees have fully acclimatised to the local environment. In fact, all of them named English as their most comfortable language. Juha said that she has “relatively low confidence in school-style academic writing [in Korean]”, while Donghyun describes his proficiency in Korean as “primary school level”.

“Because I don’t study Korean, I ended up drifting away from it,” explained Donghyun. “When I talk to my friends or parents, I feel like my ways of expression are quite limited. I often look for the Korean counterparts of English words but I can’t find them.”

It was a challenge at first to learn English, especially in Singapore: “I just couldn’t understand what people were saying because it was so fast and accented,” said Taeyoung. “For the first few years, I didn’t understand most people other than teachers.” For Donghyun, Singlish was vastly different from the “version of English” he had studied in Korea.

Still, struggles in learning Chinese far overshadow those in learning English for Jiyeon, Juha, and Taeyoung, who took up Chinese as their Mother Tongue subject. “Knowing Korean maybe helped in terms of writing, but talking in Chinese was very hard,” said Juha. “[It might be] because no one really speaks Chinese in school. Everyone just speaks English.”

Staying in Touch

Accustomed as our interviewees may be to Singaporean life, Jiyeon testified that “everything on her Instagram Explore page is in Korean”. Taeyoung only listens to Korean music, and for Juha, K-pop comprises “half of her media diet, balanced with stuff like American movies”.

Visits to Korea are generally made with the purpose of spending time with family or leisure. For Donghyun, who has maintained friendships with his former schoolmates in Korea, they are a chance to strengthen these relationships too. “We do once-a-year meetups and it’s enough to keep us in touch,” he said. “Every time I go back, they’re there for me, so it just became an annual thing.”

“Though I’ve never actually lived in Korea, there’s a familiar scent and temperature of the air; it’s hard to explain. It feels like home, but at the same time, home is Singapore,” mused Jiyeon. “As a kid, I would spend more time in Korea, so maybe it influenced the way I remember it.”

“I used to feel homesick when I was younger, in primary or early secondary school,” said Donghyun. He speculated that he had “grown out of it”, as “things got more overwhelming” in school. “It feels like a waste of time to go all the way over there, and I would rather spend it on myself.”

Juha has a similar experience of getting over  homesickness. “I used to be really homesick in primary school. Now, it’s not that I’m homesick as much as I want to go back to Korea and just be there. I still miss relatives, the vibes, the food; it’s just a different feeling. Korea is just interesting,” she said. “Normally I live in Singapore, so I want something different. Korea is a different environment but it’s something that I’m still comfortable in.”

“Most of my friends are in Singapore anyway. I’ve received my education here and I have a better understanding of the culture and people here as compared to the other two countries that I’ve lived in. It’s a place where I can feel safe and more comfortable,” said Taeyoung.

“I’m more curious about Korea, it’s a kind of regret — it’s where I’m from and I didn’t really get to experience that, so it’s kind of wasted. My relatives are quite old and I haven’t been able to see them since I was quite a young kid, so I’ve lost out on the opportunity to bond and communicate with them.”

Cultural Differences

“The workload and the need to attain perfection is not as high in Singapore as in Korea. In Singapore, there’s more focus on making sure everyone has a well-rounded upbringing.”

Kang Taeyoung (4E)

Asked about the school culture in Korea and Singapore, Jiyeon said that both are  very competitive. “Both countries think of education as a very important thing, but the extent to which Korea pushes students is much greater than that of Singapore,” she said. “There’s a very high sense of rivalry among students in Korea, which Singapore might be succumbing to slowly.”

“Korea has a more tuition-based education system,” added Donghyun. “[Korean] students only go to school for attendance, and a lot of studying is done after school. In Singapore, a lot of work is done in school.”

In terms of social culture in general, both Jiyeon and Juha spoke about the difference in beauty standards. “People don’t usually wear make-up when they come to school in Singapore, but it’s very different in Korea,” said Juha. Jiyeon commented that “even primary schoolers wear make-up in Korea”, and recounted feeling out of place in an amusement park where all the other visitors were wearing the same make-up.

Meanwhile, Donghyun felt that both Singapore and Korea were “Asian countries that are very conservative”, giving rise to minimal differences in social culture.

That said, Donghyun thought that there was a greater focus on social interactions in Singapore. “Sometimes I feel that Korean people are more selfish, and too caught up in their own lives. Singaporeans are more conscious about what other people around them are doing,” he said.

“Korea places less value on friendships,” Taeyoung said. “People in my friend groups are more cordial in Singapore.”

Identity

“Though I’ve lived my whole life in Singapore, people still don’t treat me as a Singaporean.”

Shin Jiyeon (23S03O)

Most of our interviewees view being Korean as the larger part of their identity. “I don’t feel particularly Singaporean, and I don’t have much cause to,” said Juha. “You just get the sense that, because you’re not Singaporean nationality-wise, you have to identify with something. That makes me notice differences in culture more.”

Experiences of being singled out as a Korean strengthened this sentiment. “People called me ‘the Korean dude’. The more they called me that, the more I felt like I was Korean and not Singaporean,” said Donghyun.

“I wouldn’t have been very conscious about being Korean if I was in Korea,” remarked Taeyoung. “But in Singapore, regardless of what activities I am participating in, I’m labelled as ‘the Korean dude’. A lot of people associate me with being Korean, and that makes me feel like being Korean makes up more of my identity.”

Our interviewees linked such a phenomenon to the prominence of Korean culture on the international stage. “Especially with the rise of Korean culture and K-pop, people find it fascinating that you’re Korean, and they just keep bringing it up,” said Taeyoung. “Random people just come up to me and ask me to translate stuff from songs or to sing the song.” Jiyeon had a similar experience of “getting asked about K-dramas, or to translate or say stuff in Korean”

Despite also being the butt of “a lot of jokes regarding K-pop and BTS”, they hesitated to characterise such occurrences as discrimination. “I didn’t face discrimination; maybe in primary school, but it wasn’t casual racism so much as people being insensitive. It was harmless stuff like bringing my lunchbox and getting asked what the food was,” said Juha. “From upper primary onwards, Korean culture became a positively viewed thing, and so there was no shaming of culture.”

“I never felt insulted, but there were borderline offensive comments. Maybe they were made not purposely but due to a lack of awareness,” commented Jiyeon. “People associate Korea with plastic surgery, so I’ve gotten asked if I’ve done plastic surgery before or if I will do it in the future. It was the only comment I found offensive, and I almost wrote my whole personal essay (a project in secondary school) about that one comment about me.”

Sometimes, however, there are  practical inconveniences to being Korean. For example, Donghyun explained that people tend to think of him as someone of Chinese background. “Adults will start speaking to me in Chinese and then I’ll say I don’t understand before they  repeat it in English. It makes me feel like I’m out of place — after a while the feeling goes away, but at that moment I feel like I’m at the wrong place.”

For Taeyoung, his nationality has implications on what opportunities he can access. Though his performance qualifies him for the national Mathematics Olympiad team, he is not allowed to attend the training sessions since he is Korean. “All these opportunities are off-limits for me because I am not  a PR,” said Taeyoung. “I don’t think I can achieve my full potential this way.”

While their experience overseas makes them a minority in Korea as well, our interviewees also did not feel they had faced any discrimination in Korea. “Koreans who didn’t spend much of their lives in Korea are obviously a minority, but I don’t feel like it affects anything,” Juha said. “I still speak Korean, so people would assume I grew up in Korea.”

“When I talk to my family members in Korea, they’ll ask me why I have the accent, because my Korean sounds like that of someone who doesn’t live in Korea,” said Jiyeon, laughing.

“My friends tell me I’m very lucky to be studying overseas, and they’re the only ones I interact with. Maybe I’m lucky, and maybe I feel different from them. I speak the same language and so I don’t feel that there are any barriers; there’s just a feeling of being different that I get sometimes when I talk to other Korean people,” reflected Donghyun.

Looking back…

“If you’re a foreign student, I suggest that you embrace your identity. Don’t try to force yourself to blend in with the new culture,” said Taeyoung, when asked if he had any advice for someone following his footsteps. “I tried too hard to be Singaporean when I first came. I was forcibly trying to speak Singlish, but the more I did that the more I felt out of place.”

Similarly, Jiyeon advised one to “stay true to yourself”. “You don’t need to fake who you are to fit in or anything. If you know who you are, that’s enough,” she said.

Juha had more practical advice: to continue writing in Korean. “My writing skills in Korean are quite bad. You still speak to your family in Korean so speaking is fine, but writing skills will go away.”

“It’s a multicultural society so it’s not bad to be a foreigner in Singapore,” said Donghyun. “Don’t let it get to you.”

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