Martin Fackler writes in the New York Times about another facet of Asia's race problem: racism between Asian ethnicities. I previously reposted another NYT article about racism between mainland Asians and Americans of various racial/ethnic groups.
YEONGGWANG, South Korea — Just a few years ago, the number of pregnant women in this city had declined so much that the sparsely equipped two-room maternity ward at Yeonggwang General Hospital was close to shutting down. But these days it is busy again.
More surprising than the fact of this miniature baby-boom is its composition: children of mixed ethnic backgrounds, the offspring of Korean fathers and mothers from China, Vietnam and other parts of Asia. These families have suddenly become so numerous that the nurses say they have had to learn how to say “push” in four languages.
It is a similar story across South Korea, where hundreds of thousands of foreign women have been immigrating in recent years, often in marriages arranged by brokers. They have been making up for a shortage of eligible Korean women, particularly in underdeveloped rural areas like this one in the nation’s southwest.
Now, these unions are bearing large numbers of mixed children, confronting this proudly homogeneous nation with the difficult challenge of smoothly absorbing them.
South Korea is generally more open to ethnic diversity than other Asian nations with relatively small minority populations, like neighboring Japan. Nevertheless, it is far from welcoming to these children, who are widely known here pejoratively as Kosians, a compound of Korean and Asian.
“We bring these children into the world, but sometimes I worry,” said Kwak Ock-ja, 48, head maternity nurse at Yeonggwang General, where a third of the 132 births so far this year have been of children of mixed background, up from almost none a decade ago. “Prejudice against these families is something society must resolve.”
The surge in births of mixed children is the product of the similarly explosive growth here in marriages to foreigners, as a surplus of bachelors and the movement of eligible women to big cities like Seoul have increasingly driven Korean men in rural areas to seek brides in poorer parts of Asia. In addition, a preference for male babies has helped skew the population so there are fewer native-born women to marry. The Ministry of Public Security says the total number of children from what are called multicultural families in South Korea rose to 107,689 in May of this year from 58,007 last December, though the ministry said it might have slightly undercounted last year.
That is only about 1 percent of the approximately 12 million children in South Korea under the age of 19. But if marriages to foreigners continue to increase at their current rate — they accounted for 11 percent of all marriages here last year — more than one in nine children could be of mixed background by 2020, demographic researchers say.
The trend is even more pronounced in rural areas, where most of these marriages take place. Among farming households, 49 percent of all children will be multicultural by 2020, according to the Agricultural Ministry.
This increase is coming as South Korea’s overall birthrate has fallen to about 1.22 children per woman of child-bearing age, one of the world’s lowest rates. While many Koreans say they hope that the rising number of mixed children will help rejuvenate their rapidly graying society, they also say they fear that a failure to assimilate them could create the sort of poor, alienated underclass of ethnic minorities they see in the United States and Europe.
The increase has also begun to prompt a national soul-searching here about what it means to be Korean. While most of these children have Korean fathers and Korean citizenship, their dual ethnicity still gives them an uncertain status in a society where membership was long seen as being based on blood.
“The hard reality of our low birthrate is forcing us to realize that we can’t be homogeneous anymore,” said Park Hwa-seo, a professor of migration studies at Myongji University in Seoul. “It isn’t easy, but there is no turning back but to embrace these more diverse families.”
The increase of mixed-background children is so recent that relatively few have even reached elementary-school age. Still, signs of strain are already appearing.
According to the Education Ministry, the dropout rate of mixed-background children from elementary school is 15.4 percent, 22 times the national average. Part of the problem, social experts say, is the mothers’ lack of Korean-language skills, which prevents them from filling the expected social role of guiding children through the nation’s high-pressure education system.
Compounding the risk is the fact that most of the foreign women marry older farmers or manual laborers. Some 53 percent of mixed families live on earnings at or below the national minimum hourly wage of 4,000 won, or less than $3.50, according to the Welfare Ministry.
However, social experts say the biggest threat to the mixed children is that they will be ostracized in a society that began grappling with ethnic diversity only when labor shortages forced South Korea to accept foreign workers in the 1990s. The risk has been underscored by recent studies showing that the children of mixed marriages are more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse or bullying in school.
“I’m afraid we are already too late in responding,” said Suh Hae-jung, a researcher on gender equality at the government-financed Gyeonggido Family and Women’s Research Institute in Suwon. “On top of getting slighted for their color, their learning is also falling behind.”
Such concerns are quietly felt by Vicky Merano, 29, who came here from the Philippines six years ago to marry a Korean rice farmer 18 years her elder. Their 5-year-old daughter, Kim Da-som, does well in a local kindergarten, and on a recent evening she proudly showed off her ability to read the Korean language’s script and several Chinese characters.
Her father, Kim Hee-jong, beamed with pride and said that his relatives accepted the girl, including his parents, who share their 80-year-old tile-roofed farmhouse. Ms. Merano agreed but said she worried about what might happen as Da-som advanced beyond elementary school.
“Maybe if they don’t see me, they’ll just think my daughter is Korean,” Ms. Merano said.
The South Korean government says it has tried to respond quickly, opening 119 multicultural family support centers across the country in the past three years to offer help in education and vocational training.
The one in Yeonggwang, a small provincial city of 57,000 residents, opened in January. On a recent afternoon, its four small rooms were filled with Chinese, Thai and Filipino women learning to use computers and sewing machines while staff members watched their young children. Teachers also offered Korean-language classes to the mothers and children.
One woman, Edna Dela Cruz, said she preferred raising a family here because South Korea had better schools and a higher standard of living than the Philippines, where she was born. But she also worries about her 6-year-old son, who wants her to speak to him only in Korean so his classmates will not treat him as a pariah.
“Koreans tell me my child will be insulted because of me,” said Ms. Dela Cruz, 33, who married a local farmer.