The number of foreign residents in Korea is increasing at a fast pace, approaching almost 2 million last year, according to Statistics Korea. Experts forecast the number will reach about 3 million in four years.
As the country gains more attention abroad, once-closed Korean society is becoming more accepting of other cultures, with one example being thriving ethnic dining places.
However, relationships between Koreans and foreigners appear to be developing at a much slower pace.
Members of the project performance team Hangeul make “finger heart” gestures at a park in the Seocho district of Seoul on Nov. 16. From left: Christian Burgos, Saori Fujimoto and Terris Brown. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
To bring people closer together, a group of foreigners have teamed up. From busking to national events, the project performance team Hangeul performs Korean songs in different languages and uses traditional Korean instruments.
The name of the group is an abbreviation of the Korean name directly translated into English as “global artists promoting Korean culture.” It also refers to the Korean writing system, Hangeul.
The team consists of 11 foreign musicians and TV personalities here. They are: team leader Christian Burgos from Mexico; Terris Brown from United States; Saori Fujimoto from Japan; Tam Cevzet from Turkey; Anya Floris from the US; Erica Mura from Italy; Cameron Word from the US; Maria Burgos from Chile; Satomi Shimada from Japan; Zeno and Hillze Slamet from South Africa.
After a year of performances, following its launch in October last year, Hangeul was named honorary ambassador for the Seoul Immigration Office on Oct. 17.
The team’s members hopes to become cultural diplomats who raise understanding of Korean culture among foreigners, explained the team leader Burgos, Brown and Fujimoto, in an interview with The Korea Herald on Nov. 16.
At the same time, they want to lower the barriers between Koreans and foreigners.
“Empathy is key, I think,” Burgos, 25, said in Korean. “Just by bringing out the similarities in my home country and Korea, minds can open up. And it is what we, the Hanguel team, are good at because we understand both cultures.”
As aspiring cultural diplomats, the Hangeul team members all speak Korean fluently.
“We are sincere in that we truly love the Korean culture. With our talents, and sincere minds, we believe our efforts can link Korean society with foreigners in and outside the country,” said Fujimoto, 29.
All three of them come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. But their interest in Korea sprouted from the same roots: Korean music and TV shows.
“I did not know much about South Korea until I was in the university where I met Korean friends. I got to watch a historical drama, ‘Dong Yi,’ (2010) and I just could not stop,” Brown said.
He had been going back and forth between the US and Korea from 2009, before moving here in 2014.
“I ended up here after learning about the country slowly and working at a Korean language education company,” he said.
As for Burgos, “Quiz to Change the World,” a Korean entertainment show, was the starting point.
“There is nothing like that show in Mexico, and I was quickly smitten with the culture. The subtitles and signs that often appear in Korean variety shows helped me learn Korean faster,” he said. He came to stay in Korea in December 2014.
Korean food also caught the attention of the three. Like Brown, Fujimoto visited Korea several times before coming to stay in February this year. She said she loved almost everything about Korea, from music and drama series to food and the people.
The intriguing aspects of Korea came from the differences -- for instance, the sense of humor, speaking manners and music were sometimes “shockingly different” from what they were used to -- but that was what brought them here.
The first time Brown encountered pansori, a Korean form of musical storytelling, left an indelible mark in his memory, he said.
“I am an American. I can hear American pop-songs and rock ballads whatever country I go to. But the traditional genre music of Korea is different, and I wish more people could have the chance to listen to these songs,” he said.
The team aims to promote Korea and create a bond between Korean nationals and foreign expats with performances. Burgos and other members can play various musical instruments including haegeum, a traditional Korean string instrument. Brown is a singer, while Fujimoto creates a performance by translating the lyrics of songs into Korean sign language.
They also have careers as TV personalities in Korea. Burgos is a regular panelist on the “Non-Summit 2” a talk show in which Korean-speaking foreigners from around the world discuss various topics.
All of the Hangeul team members were also honorary ambassadors and torchbearers for PyeongChang Olympics and the Paralympic Winter Games.
Respect for each other
Deciding to leave one’s home country to live elsewhere is never easy and involves many challenges.
Brown wishes that Korean society could be more open to differences, as he has heard racially discriminatory remarks by Koreans about his dark skin color.
“We appreciate the opportunities Korea gives. For some of us, Korea has become a second home,” Brown said. “These people make a lot of effort to adapt to this new country. But some people come alone, and they do not have anyone to call when emergencies occur.”
“All I want from Korean society is a little bit of understanding, to take differences as something more positive.”
Fujimoto hopes that issues between Korea and Japan will be resolved soon.
“Hallyu is booming in Japan. As neighboring countries, Korea and Japan share a painful history. Political and historical disputes should be resolved by accepting the facts and apologizing, I think,” Fujimoto said.
The two countries should move on for future developments, and not hinder cultural exchanges occurring in the civic areas, she added.
As an honorary ambassador for the Seoul Immigration Office, the team wants to raise awareness that the immigration office is where expats can get advice on living in Korea.
“The immigration office is not the friendliest place for foreigners, but without it, they would not be able to live in Korea in the first place,” Burgos said, adding that the team wants to support Korean officials in improving policies for expats here.
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org)