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Mixed-race Koreans urge identity rethink

Things have come a long way since the 1970s when mixed-race Koreans here were spat upon and beaten up for being different.

The kids of that time, whose fathers were often foreign soldiers who first came here during the Korean War, used to find it hard to walk down the street for fear of discrimination.

These days, the Korean government and charities are investing heavily in programs to support multicultural families and overt discrimination against Amerasians is rare.

But African-American Korean Yang Chan-wook, who goes by his Korean name here rather than his western name of Gregory Diggs, said that small daily occurrences remind him that this society does not yet fully accept him.

“In the 1970s these kids could not go to school, but even now, mixed-race Koreans going into public schools have a pretty high dropout rate,” he said.

“Sometimes when I am on the bus people will look at me and if they think that I am not Korean they will not sit next to me or they will move when I sit down. This kind of thing is still existent. Also, it can be difficult to get people to stop speaking English with me. Even if I have been speaking in Korean with them for 20 minutes they will still try to speak in English as if they thought I could not understand.
Chang-wook Gregory Diggs Yang (left, second row) poses with members of the M.A.C.K. Foundation. (M.A.C.K. Foundation)
Chang-wook Gregory Diggs Yang (left, second row) poses with members of the M.A.C.K. Foundation. (M.A.C.K. Foundation)
“These are the kind of areas where Korean society needs to move a little so that other mixed Koreans and their children do not need to go through the same thing.”

Yang left Korea at age 1 in 1976 when his U.S. soldier father moved posts, but said other parents felt obliged to move abroad to save their mixed-race kids from discrimination.

“From what I am told from the way society was then, and even for some parents today, they had to choose to get their children out because there were no opportunities for them here,” he said.

Yang recalled his mother’s reluctance to take him to an evening event while he returned to live in Busan from age 7-9.

“I asked why I couldn’t go and she said: ‘Because you are half-Korean.’

“That might have been her nice way of saying that it might have been dangerous for me or embarrassing for the family,” he said.

After living with this prejudice, Yang started the M.A.C.K. Foundation (Movement for the Advancement of the Cultural diversity of Koreans) upon returning in 2003, basing it on a similar mission started in Chicago in 1995.

The non-profit organization’s Renaissance K.I.D. Project educates people in businesses, schools and community groups here on prejudice, social responsibility and diversity awareness.

“We are challenging the idea of how we categorize being Korean,” Yang said. “The first step is to build awareness that we need to stop looking at being Korean as if there were only one kind of identity.

“We are trying to go out into the Korean communities and ask ourselves what is it about us as Koreans that is not allowing us to accept these other parts of Korea. We need to look at what is blocking us from accepting diversity and creating discrimination against mixed Koreans.” he said.

“Our country should accept all of us and celebrate diversity.”

Though Yang originally intended to start a foundation to help Amerasians travel to the U.S. for study, he soon found that a lot of Koreans of mixed ethnicity here now didn’t necessarily want to go to America.

Feeling at home

“Korea was home for them,” he said. “It used to be that going to the states was the big dream for mixed Asians because they thought that life would be so much better there.

“But when I came here in 2003 I found that things had changed. They just wanted not to be discriminated against in Korea.

“There was a need to change society. Rather than focusing on simply helping mixed Koreans we needed to focus on society and its acceptance of Amerasians as well as Southeast Asians and adoptee groups.”

One problem spot is the fact that mixed-race Koreans are not permitted dual citizenship, while Korean adoptees returning to their birth country may hold two passports.

“If you are mixed in Korea you are expected to accept one identity,” he said. “When you are 18 you have to choose which citizenship you want, and in Korea that really is your identity. In Western cultures you can be an American national, for example, and it can be separate from your ethnicity. But in Korea when you force someone to choose one over the other they have to deal with what culture they want to be.”

M.A.C.K. is trying to pin down how many mixed-race Koreans there are in the country, and Yang believes that the proportion must have grown significantly since the last available figures in 2005 marked them as forming 1 percent of the population.

The organization’s -MIX- group brings together a membership of around 150 Koreans of mixed heritage living here to network and share experiences.

Yang also wants to work with the government and schools to teach kids how to become more accepting and to avoid attitudes that could make their mixed-race classmates feel discriminated against.

In some ways, the education culture is already changing. Seoul’s Global School of Sarang (love), the country’s first school for multicultural kids, will open in Guro in March next year, with 80 percent of its intake set to be non-Korean kids.

But while M.A.C.K. supports an Amerasian Christian Academy in Gyeonggi province and will soon fund a similar school in Busan, Yang stresses that “separate but equal is not going to work for this situation.”

“We hope that in future we won’t need them any more,” he said.

“We don’t believe that a separate school system is necessary. We would love to integrate students but in Korean schools there is not really much support and it seems that people don’t know how to overcome this difficulty.

“It will take time but I am confident that we are eventually going to meet this challenge.”

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By Kirsty Taylor