Expats give a lot to whatever society they live in; they do so economically, socially, and culturally. They shop, pay taxes and make donations. They create and perform art, entertainment and business. They support each other, share information, explore, worship, celebrate, and by and large practice good health, social behavior, family life and multiculturalism principles. In sum, they generally enrich the societies they inhabit.
The population of foreigners living in South Korea has been growing since the 1990’s with the advent of free trade zones and English language policies. It is thus inevitably making an increasingly significant impact on Korea. Out of a total population of 50.6 million people in South Korea as of 2015 (www.tradingeconomics.com), Wikipedia says there were just over two million foreign immigrants among them as of August, 2016, 1.8 million or 3.4 percent of whom were foreign workers, which is up from 1.6 million foreign workers in 2015, according to United Press International (UPI; April 8, 2015). U.P.I. further states that there were 491,000 contracted migrant workers and around 150,000 marriage migrants in 2013 (ibid.). International students comprise the third largest occupational sector among them. Chinese migrants make up the largest national sector therein (42% in 2011), Vietnamese the second largest, and Filipinos the third (Korea Times, Dec. 16, 2011). Foreign teachers like me numbered about 22,000 in 2010, according to Wikipedia, the vast majority of them being English teachers from eight source countries, although Canadian and U.S. citizens dominate, with roughly 6,000 each. Canadians residing in South Korea totalled 27,363 in 2015, says Wikipedia. They would largely be ethnic Koreans holding Canadian passports, international students, English educators, a few professionals in other sectors, and business persons. All in all, South Korea is consequently evolving as a multicultural society in which foreigners are agents of cultural exchange and change to home and visiting countries, despite Korea’s stubborn national identity as a homogeneous society.
Foreign workers and residents participate in shaping the communities they inhabit. The ways in which expats contribute is just as diverse as their origins and roles. First, they contribute economically. They pay Korean immigration fees, for one thing. As they gain a livelihood in Korea, they pay domestic taxes and bank fees, consume goods and services, whatever portion of their Korean income they send back home. In fact, Canadian teachers pay taxes right away while teachers from other countries do not pay in the first two years of employment in Korea. Furthermore, foreigners sometimes invest, start businesses (restaurants and such services as web and education), take out loans, and rent or buy property. To add, educators from other lands contribute to educating and training the future employees and entrepreneurs of Korea. Local economies may depend a lot on the economic activity of foreigners, especially with regards to tourism. Indeed, most foreigners are eager to engage in regional travel and many invite friends and family to visit. The economic activity generated by foreigners in South Korea is substantial.
Second, it is rare that an expat does not show concern for the needy. One makes donations, organizes and attends fundraising events, and volunteers assisting orphans, shelters, conservation, and relief efforts. Some foreigners even engage in advocacy for human rights, environmental protection and conservation, peace, and health and fitness. There are many expressions of social concern.
Also, international students and educators participate in processing, presenting and sharing knowledge, discussing ideas and current events, and preparing individuals to succeed at gainful employment, invention, good global citizenship, and leadership. They directly enhance and build the foundations of the host and home societies, and generally act for the improvement of societies everywhere for the benefit of all.
Furthermore, it is misleading to suggest that foreigners detract from or drain the host society. Rather, they give a lot. First, it must be pointed out that they are invited and they are invited because their labour and knowledge, participation and services are needed. Moreover, they do not depend entirely on the host state and employers to support them; rather, they help each other to ensure most among them gain an appreciation for the local context and are equipped to not only survive, but thrive and produce for the benefit of local and home communities. For example, they set up support systems. They gather information and used items to share, they find helpful contacts, make allies, and counsel one another. To be sure, generous and compassionate church organizations and public employees are often life-savers, but migrants helping migrants by constructing web resources, holding seminars and social events, exchanging tips, making Facebook groups and pamphlets, leading sports competitions and games, and such really make life abroad livable. Also, foreigners in Korea are a welcome resource for Koreans interested in language learning and traveling, working, or studying abroad. They give a lot to the society where they reside and work.
Lastly, foreigners enrich local culture in a thousand ways. First and foremost, they learn the local traditions, history, political life, names and even the language, and then pass on that knowledge. Also, they try local food and go to festivals, exhibitions and shows. In turn, they teach Koreans their mother tongue and culture in an exchange for mutual benefit. More than that, foreigners help to build local cuture by creating and performing art. Here in Busan, South Korea, for instance, foreign working residents have organized comedy, theatre, spoken word, and music shows, lead fitness activities, and set up displays of their own paintings and photography, always with the assistance and participation of Koreans. Foreigners are even recruited as fashion models, singers, designers, and actors for commercial productions. Foreigners learn and reproduce the local culture and their own, and serve to develop culture in a positive way.
Certainly, the impact of national and international policy and commerce may have large-scale and somewhat damaging consequences to all. Citizens of the world must regard it with skepticism and social concern. English education, for example, must be critically examined.
The individual may arrive to a distant shore by virtue of such policy and commercial ties, but is not the initiator. The foreigner accepting an invitation to work, study or do business abroad, however, cannot help but be a factor for local and global development. If one accepts the premise that culture is changing all the time anyway, as it has mostly because of evolving phases of migration and trade, then one will be less prone to fear about change. Cultural adjustment and change is not easy for any of us, but it is a natural phenomenon. Cultural exchange is positive, for the most part, and that is different from cultural domination, which is oppressive.
By Barbara Waldern
Assistant Professor English at the Busan University of Foreign Studies in Busan, South Korea,
And a citizen of Canada from British Columbia with a Masters in Anthropology from Simon Fraser University (2003)