The 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony has come and gone, and one of the biggest moments from the ceremony was North and South Korea walking into the arena together, united under one flag made specially for the Winter Olympics. But, apart from that historic sight, there was one other moment that caught my eye, a moment I still haven’t gotten over, and no, it’s not the appearance of Tongan flag bearer Pita Taufatofua. The moment that warmed my heart was when the Rainbow Chorus of the Center for Multicultural Korea (CMCK) sang the South Korean anthem.
If you were like me and wondered who these precious kids were, they are members of the Rainbow Chorus of the Center for Multicultural Korea. The chorus is, according to a 2012 article from Korea Magazine, reposted to Korea.net, “the first-ever multicultural children’s chorus in South Korea and comprises children from families with ten different nationalities including Japanese, Filipino, Russian, Iraqi, and Thai.” Professional musicians train the kids for free, and the chorus is often invited to perform for dignitaries, like the world leaders at the 2010 G-20 Seoul Summit, and at other special occasions.
These kids aren’t just fantastic singers; they are also ambassadors for South Korea’s growing multiculturalism. “The chorus is vitally important to its members—such innocent children who freely mix with one another regardless of nationality and physical features—and provides valuable opportunities for its audiences to better understand what a multicultural society is like,” states the magazine.
Clutching at multiculturalism
Getting a grasp on multiculturalism is one of South Korea’s biggest policy projects. The country is steadily becoming a nation of immigrants; as Korea Magazine wrote in 2012:
“More than 45 million people left and entered South Korea in 2011 alone, and the number of foreigners staying in Korea topped 1.4 million. Yes, Korean society is rapidly going multicultural. Of these 1.4 million, 1.1 million are long-term immigrants, representing 2.2 percent of the Korean population. Nearly 49 percent of them are Korean Chinese who moved back to their ancestral fatherland, followed by Americans at 9.5 percent, Vietnamese at 8.3 percent, and Japanese at 4.2 percent. This surge in foreign settlers in Korea can be attributed to increases in the numbers of migrant workers, marriage immigrants, children born to multicultural families, Korean nationals returning from abroad, and North Korean defectors to South Korea. As South Korea becomes racially and culturally more diverse, the national, local, and municipal governments have been devising new policies to embrace them as members of Korean society.”
The chorus is just one part of South Korea’s arts and culture strategy for welcoming in immigrant families. The Sejong Cultural Center created the Sejong Youth Harmony Orchestra in 2011, offering children from multicultural and low-income families the chance to gain orchestral experience.
South Korea is among a group of Asian countries that are seeing a dramatic decrease in their population; fewer and fewer people are marrying and having children for a host of reasons. However, unlike its neighbors, South Korea is actively welcoming immigrants to help fix their population problem.
“There is real immigration going on that is supported, facilitated, advocated by the South Korean government,” Katharine Moon, chair of Korean Studies at the Brookings Institution, said to NPR’s Elise Hu. As such, South Korea is working overtime to bring the country together on multiculturalism.
Honestly, many Asian nations are coming to terms with the realities of multiculturalism in their populations whether they endorse multiculturalism or not. There have been mixed results, to put it mildly; China, for instance, is becoming more insular and nativist, with racist agendas launched against its African immigrants. South Korea has its share of racism to contend with, too–because South Korea has no anti-discrimination laws in place (measures to pass laws have failed three different times due to outcries from far-right Christian groups, who cite sexual differences as reasons for discrimination), there is no recourse a foreigner can take if they are discriminated against. Indeed, several bars and other recreational spots have denied foreigners entry based on a host of xenophobic and/or racial reasons.
Also, diversity in the political sphere has been met with animosity. Jasmine Lee, an actress from the Philippines who found success in South Korea in entertainment, launched a successful political career and was elected into the Korean National Assembly in 2012. As the first naturalized South Korean and first non-ethnic Korean to be elected, she served until 2016, and throughout her tenure, she received tons of racist comments, despite the swell of support from citizens propelling her to her assembly seat. Even with the hardships she’s faced, she is certain South Korea will have to understand its place in a multicultural future.
“There’s a chance that they won’t reconsider me for my congressional post. But in 10 to 20 years, as long as the borders are not shut, Korea will definitely have become a multicultural society. However, there’s no law or regulation which addresses the imminent multiculturalism,” she told Huffington Post Korea’s Dohoon Kim in 2015. So my goal is to establish within the next 10 years a sort of congressional department that can oversee such a development from a legal and policy standpoint.”
Taking multiculturalism seriously
South Korea has a long way to go with their project of creating a country welcoming and hospitable to all of its citizens, both native and immigrant. But the country has put itself on the fast track towards a unified South Korea, and multiculturalism is something the government sees as one of the top priorities.
“Few countries take multiculturalism as seriously as Korea does. While most countries have vague and ambiguous multicultural policies consisting of either forcing immigrants to assimilate to the local culture or allowing immigrants to integrate while keeping their traditions, Korea has come up with a new concept: tamunhwa,” wrote The Diplomat in 2014. “Tamunhwa means multiculturalism in Korean, and the basic idea is for Koreans to learn as much as they can about immigrants’ original culture while setting up as many cultural immersion programs as possible for immigrants. With foreign residents now accounting for nearly 3 percent of the population of a country that long defined itself as homogeneous, Koreans are taking multiculturalism seriously.”
Along with 2008’s passing of the Multicultural Families Support Act and the creation of centers for multicultural families and global centers that cater to foreign spouses, tourists, migrant workers, and foreign investors, citizens are holding meetings at these centers, asking foreign residents how they feel about their lives in Korea and what could be done to make their time more beneficial. “Meetings are held at global centers where foreigners are asked their opinions on what should change in Korea. Korean language and culture classes are offered free of charge,” wrote the site. “Many Koreans are volunteering to teach Korean or to help migrants. Speech contests are organized where foreigners are encouraged to voice their concerns about Korea.”
However, while meetings and centers are increasing multicultural interest, coupled with more and more non-Koreans appearing on popular television shows, Korea still faces an uphill battle towards being equally and consistently hospitable to its immigrant and multicultural populations.
The increase in foreign workers, particularly foreign English teachers, plus pressure from the U.N. and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, forced South Korea to end a decade-long practice of requiring mandatory HIV tests for teachers in 2017. The test, initially advertised in 2007 as a way to “ease the anxiety of citizens” and “assure the parents” of children taught by foreign English teachers, was, obviously, a sly way to create a catch-all situation for any and all types of discrimination. The test’s popularity was bolstered by the arrest of an English teacher in Thailand for sexually abusing his young students. The teacher in question didn’t have HIV and his crimes weren’t committed in Korea, but because the teacher worked in Seoul before leaving for Thailand, the test was able to garner support.
Teachers, in fact, are one of the biggest drivers of the multiculturalism conversation in Korea. “In a bid to respond to globalization, Korea decided to increase its emphasis on English in curriculums, importing 30,000 teachers in the process. Such teachers often teach less than 30 hours a week and have free weekends, are often young and single, meaning they have a lot of time to spend on the internet,” wrote The Diplomat. “They were the first to draw attention to the issue of multiculturalism and to urge Korea to do something to promote a multicultural society, and they were not always polite about it. Still, they can claim credit to be the first to bring the multiculturalism debate to Korea.”
Some headway is being made with regard to establishments who refuse to serve foreigners. In 2017, Indian student Kislay Kumar received a letter of apology from the owner of The Fountain, a bar in Seoul after video of Kumar being turned away went viral. The letter came after Kumar partnered with the Indian Embassy, who raised Kumar’s case to a department of the South Korean government, and the National Human Rights Commission.
“The letter, from The Fountain’s owner Yoo Seung-woo, reads, ‘First I’d like to apologize for what happened last June. I know nothing I can say can address the hardship you experienced, but nevertheless I’d like to convey my regrets.'” wrote Korea Exposé. “Yoo’s letter goes on to apologize for the ‘immature’ handling of Kumar’s case; Yoo also writes that he has learned a lot from the incident and reflected on how to handle misunderstandings between Koreans and foreigners.”
Kumar, who has since found a job in Seoul in overseas sales and marketing for a laser company, said that while the apology encourages him, there’s still a matter of changing people’s hearts. He hopes his case can be a step towards the Korean government finally passing an anti-discrimination law.
“This one incident can make people cautious about their actions, but it can’t change their mentality,” he said. “It has to come in the textbooks. The mind has to be opened and that has to come through education.”
Spurts of multicultural acceptance amid shortcomings
In some ways to the outside eye (like mine), Korea seems like it’s taking one step forward and two steps back with their acceptance of multiculturalism. But Moon told Linda Poon of CityLab that the country is actually making fast strides to cram tons of multicultural knowledge into a society that has been culturally homogeneous for centuries.
“This is a huge social change for a society that has been homogeneous in so many ways for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Moon, adding that the Korean national identity is partially founded on the belief that Koreans stem from a “thousand years of ‘pure’ ancestral bloodlines, common language, customs, and history,” and has more recently been founded on reclaiming sovereignty after 40 years of Japanese colonialism before World War II.
Moon wants people to remember Korea’s short history as a democracy. Moon, Poon wrote, “says Korea is still a very young democracy. And Korea’s immigration issues are complex, given its various categories of immigrants. They’re further complicated by an inflow [of] North Korean defectors, who face discrimination in South Korea, as well. And compared to its older and equally homogeneous neighbor, Japan, which also lacks broad anti-discrimination laws and whose prime minister has publicly rejected immigration despite a shrinking population, ‘South Korea is actually on an accelerated route,’ she said. After all, it took U.S. almost 200 years after declaring its independence to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
In short, Moon is asking us to be patient with South Korea as it figures out its place in a multicultural society. As a nation grappling with a changing social and national identity due to globalization, it shouldn’t be a surprise South Korea is going through what can generously be called a challenging growing phase. But for some, I’m sure, patience is wearing thin. However, with organizations like the Rainbow Chorus, Korea is determined to show itself and the world it’s determined to move in the right direction, regardless of how many mistakes are made along the way. One place where multiculturalism is succeeding is in the “borderless village” of Wongok, which is home to 17,000 residents, two-thirds of which are non-Korean.
While much of Korean multiculturalism is built upon complete assimilation into Korean culture, Moon told Hu that Wongok is actually employing “true multiculturalism…mixing and blending and fusing of different languages, cultures, customs.”
Kim Young-sook, a teacher and multicultural coordinator at Ansan West Elementary School, told Hu the school acts as a place where kids can learn more about each other and their respective cultures. “[In] places with multicultural kids, the kids can interact with each another and get into conflicts with one another and break prejudices.”
Kim also said her interactions with the kids have helped her break some of her own prejudices. “Multicultural people are people that Koreans have to work together with to make Korea into a better country,” she said. “Wongok Village is what Korea will look like in the future.” The lesson the children have taught her, Hu wrote, is that “they relate to one another as peers–not as different peoples.”
It’s this principle that Korea hopes the Rainbow Chorus represents to the world. The country still has tons of challenges to surmount in order to achieve true multiculturalism; even the entity of the Rainbow Chorus itself has been critiqued. In her Seoul Journal of Korean Studies paper “The Rainbow Chorus: Performing Cultural Identity in South Korea,” researcher (and mother of a Rainbow Chorus member) Hilary Finchum-Sung asserts the use of the chorus as proof of South Korea’s multiculturalism is part of the country’s mixed-messaging when it comes to multiculturalism; on the one hand, multiculturalism is becoming more and more discussed in South Korea’s popular media. However, stereotypes about multicultural children and families–that they’re poor and inferior to “real” Korean children–still remain. The Rainbow Chorus could be seen as a genuine outlet for growth and understanding; according to Finchum-Sung, the CMCK was founded by former broadcasting radio announcer Yi Hyonjong and her colleagues after realizing few programs in South Korea catered to children’s emotional and social welfare. But the chorus can also be seen as performative, a PR stunt to showcase a quick and easily digestible version of multiculturalism that plays on genuine empathy as much as it does existing harmful tropes.
However, regardless of South Korea’s failings when it comes to grappling with multiculturalism, a positive message can be taken from seeing a bunch of kids singing in harmony–that actual harmony can be achieved. Choruses have often been used as a way to show an idealized version of humanity; Sister Act 2, for instance, is a film based entirely on the idealistic notion of a group of kids coming together to change their lives and the lives of their community. Like most groups, the chorus is often used to prove people can learn from one another, forget prejudices, and work together to create something beautiful. As a novice to the Rainbow Choir, that’s the message I took from them as I watched them sing their country’s national anthem. After all of the research I’ve done while writing this article, that’s the message I still take away; I am an optimist at heart, after all. In their own way, these children are helping Korea get one step closer towards realizing a more equitable society for all who live within its borders. The message South Korea wanted to send has been heard loud and clear; now it’s on the country to fulfill their promises, especially to the kids who helped them achieve their Olympics goals.♦
Further reading: A snapshot of multiculturalism in South Korea | The Korea Herald
It’s been a long time coming for K-pop fans, especially the ardent fans of boy band BTS. In May, the group snatched up the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, beating out stateside mainstays like Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber. Their win served as a prelude to their biggest moment in the American spotlight yet–a full performance at the American Music Awards this past Sunday.
When I watched this performance live, I felt like the reaction the entire crowd had must have been what it was like for audiences to see The Beatles for the first time in the 1960s. There was a different energy building up to the performance, and that energy kept building throughout. It was eye-opening for me, and it should have been eye-opening to any concert promoters, stadium owners, and record labels. BTS is ready to explode onto the American scene.
But, despite BTS and other K-pop groups and solo artists having intense fans that span age groups, social classes and racial lines in America, American mainstream music coverage has largely steered clear of giving these artists press. Now, thanks to the electric AMA performance, America has to reckon with the power of not only BTS, but Asian pop stars as a whole.
The musical glass ceiling
K-pop and Asian singers in general have had it tough finding success and respect in America. Even when BTS won their Billboard Award, there were viewers (seemingly mostly superfans of the losers) who delved into racist, xenophobic rhetoric because their fave lost. The general consensus of these superfans, according to Paste Magazine‘s Martin Tsai, was that BTS stick to Korea.
“Of course, the two Canadian nominees in the category (Bieber and Mendes) have eluded this knee-jerk outrage and xenophobia, as has just about every Brit in American pop history from the Beatles to One Direction,” he wrote. “It’s the type of blowback that ensues whenever a person of color upsets the cultural status quo—as when Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, when Jeremy Lin first played for the Knicks, or when Takuma Sato won this year’s Indianapolis 500 and prompted the now-fired Denver Post sports writer Terry Frei to tweet how that made him ‘uncomfortable.’ Indeed, the American soundscape has proven to be a final frontier for Asians and Asian-Americans to find their footing.”
Tsai writes about how many Asian and Asian-American singers have tried their turn at breaking into America’s discriminatory music industry with varying degrees of success. Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” for instance, is the only Billboard Hot 100 chart topper by an Asian singer, and that was in 1963. (The song later became a hit for the group A Taste of Honey, who covered it in 1981, yet another chapter in the push-and-pull between black and Asian diasporic experiences in America.)
The crossover hit most people remember with some freshness is Psy, whose “Gangnam Style” became a viral sensation. However, his follow-up single didn’t do near as well, and for many in America, “Gangnam Style” was always seen, as Tsai describes, “a novelty song.” Psy’s appearance, for better or worse, also helped him gain short-lived success in America; unlike BTS, who are young and look and behave like living Ken dolls, Americans saw Psy with the same stereotypical lens used on most Asian men–Psy is goofy, funny and, to the audience, seemingly unaware of why he’s seen as such, which makes him more of a target for racial stereotypes. (However, Psy a bad boy jokester-critic in Korea, is the complete opposite of “unaware”; he was America’s Favorite Asian until word got out about how Psy had performed songs protesting the U.S. military, particularly over the beheading of a Korean missionary by Islamic extremists in Iraq. Even “Gangnam Style is a protest song of sorts, criticizing the upscale Seoul neighborhood Gangman’s needless opulence and materialism.)
Psy’s success in America does, sadly, hinge partially on the goofy stereotype he was able to fill. Think back to American Idol–out of the number of Asian contestants that have tried out, how many do you remember as being 1) actually good 2) actually handsome and 3) actually taken seriously? The closest to ever reach the level of being taken as a legit artist was Anoop Desai, and even then, the judges (and the coaches, quite frankly) weren’t ever sure of what mold he should belong to. When he did sing his preferred genre, R&B, it was often taken as a surprise or even a joke. The cover he became known for, Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” was looked at as part-sideshow, part-participation trophy. Despite the crowd (and Anoop’s hormonal fans) screaming for him, his performance was still seen as “Can you believe this Indian kid is gyrating and singing black music?”
Interestingly enough, I’ve actually interviewed Desai way back in 2009, sometime after his season’s American Idol tour ended. Back then, he said he had actually quit his degree in college and moved to Atlanta to pursue music full-time. I’d hoped we’d be able to see Desai on the big stage soon, promoting his own album. So far, not yet.
For what it’s worth, it seems like Asian artists are taken way more seriously on The Voice, in which your voice, not your looks, are what goes into you being picked. Take for instance Tessanne Chin, a Chinese-Jamaican artist who was able to release her second album and major release Count on My Love and sing for President Barack Obama. Or Judith Hill, a biracial Japanese-African American artist who had not only sung with Michael Jackson and was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, but was able to release Back in Time, a CD produced by Prince after her stint on the show.
Still, what’s holding Desai back is the same thing that has held back many Asian and Asian-American artists–the stereotypes many music execs still have when it comes to Asian artists and Asians in general. In 2007, The New York Times profiled Harlemm Lee, a Detroit native of Chinese and Filipino descent who was looking to make it big as a singer. However, after landing a spot on 2003 NBC singing reality show Fame and gaining a record contract–his second in his music career, Lee never achieved the success he was hoping for. As of the time of the article, Lee was working as a secretary.
“In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor,” he said. “You don’t fit.” On his MySpace page, he wrote, “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”
Asian artists today: BTS and beyond
Thankfully, it seems like a groundswell of support for Asian artists has been building in America, possibly leading to BTS’ big AMAs moment. Buzzfeed’s Tanya Chen released a list of 21 Asian American artists music fans should know in 2013, including rapper Dumbfoundead, whose music video “SAFE” took on the movie industry’s whitewashing and discrimination against Asian actors.
NPR’s Mallory Yu wrote about this year’s SXSW Asian-American showcase, spearheaded by LA-based nonprofit Kollaboration. And last year, Splinter News declared K-pop star Eric Nam as the first K-pop artist to actually make it big in America. It’s important to note that Nam, like many American-born Asian superstars before him, had to go overseas to find fame back home; he’s originally from Atlanta, and as Isha Aran wrote, “has a cultural fluidity that–at least by American audiences–is rarely seen from K-pop stars.”
BTS is primed to be in a position to bust open the doors for all of the Eric Nams, Girls’ Generations, 21E1s, and Dumbfoundeads on both sides of the ocean, and the AMAs is just one of the biggest glass ceilings to crack.
I remember my mom talking about how she used to mark her calendar for video release dates by Britney Spears or *NSYNC, and wake up to watch MTV,” wrote Jordyn, a BTS superfan in Las Vegas, to The Fader‘s Owen Myers. “It was something I could never relate to, and I thought that it was lost on our generation. When I saw the first video from BTS, I finally understood what she meant.”
“They are terrific and the most popular K-pop band in the world right now,” said Susan Rosenbluth, senior vice president at Goldenvoice/AEG Presents, whose firm promoted BTS’ international “Wings Tour”, to Paste.
“I think if they wanted to cross over and do more, they will…I think it will take certain things like winning awards, being in the general-market eye, so to speak, by marketing their brand in the U.S. more, in Mexico more, in other parts of the world more than just on the internet, and by virtue of the music that they put out in the future. [If] they wanted to sing more in English, they could.”
From what the band has said in interviews, they are looking to put out more English-spoken content. And, if their breakout performance from the AMAs is any indication, we certainly haven’t seen the last of BTS in our neck of the woods.