Multicultural children face discrimination at South Korean schools
Experts say that being treated like second-class citizens means the school dropout rate is four times higher for children with multicultural backgrounds than their peers
By Lee Suh-yoon
Children with multicultural backgrounds face discrimination at school, reflecting the prejudices against biracial people in the wider Korean society. To make Korea accommodating to them requires a change in Koreans’ attitudes, according to experts.
Kim Hye-young, 32, a Korean language teacher at Guro Middle School, says multicultural children at her school often face discrimination from classmates.
“Children from multicultural backgrounds are treated as second-class citizens by their peers,” Kim told The Korea Times on Tuesday. “Some of the students call their classmates with a Chinese parent jjang kkae.” Jjang kkae is a demeaning term Koreans use to refer to Chinese people.
Park Sung-choon, an ethics education professor at Seoul National University, said he made similar observations while interviewing multicultural children.
“One child with a Mongolian parent that I interviewed said it happened everywhere, whether it was in the classroom, the sports field, or a playground,” Park said at a multicultural family forum hosted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, Tuesday. “They made fun of him and ignored him for his family background and accent.”
Due to such circumstances, the school dropout rate is four times higher for children with multicultural backgrounds than their peers, according to 2014 data from the Ministry of Education.
Park says this discrimination of children with mixed heritage is fuelled by a faulty understanding of multiculturalism in Korea.
“Koreans approach minority cultures here as something on the receiving end, as something that requires paternalistic aid,” Park said. “There needs to be more multiculturalism education programmes that teach people to regard countries like Vietnam as equal partners with just as much development potential as Korea.”
As more children of international marriages enter the public education system, schools are becoming the first testing ground for a multicultural Korean society.
Guro Middle School is feeling this change most acutely. It is in Guro-gu, western Seoul, which has a large Chinese population. About 20 per cent of its students have a Korean-Chinese parent.
“The number has increased twofold since I first started teaching here four years ago,” Kim said.
There are about 1 million multicultural children enrolled in the public education system. About 90 per cent are children from marriages between a Korean and a foreigner.
The number of multicultural children increased most steeply in elementary schools, with one in 50 students now having multicultural backgrounds.
Experts forecast that about 20,000 multicultural children will enter elementary school every year.
Kim says these multicultural children have big potential due to their bilingual abilities.
“These children have the potential to become global leaders and build bridges between Korea and other nations on the international stage,” Kim said. “But there needs to be more institutional support for multicultural children at school, especially those who cannot speak Korean well because they lived abroad first.”