By Francis Markus in Seoul
As you walk the corridors of a community centre run by the Republic of Korea National Red Cross, competing sounds drift towards you from behind the various classroom doors.
From one room comes cheery music out of a portable stereo, with teacher and children singing along; from another comes the teacher’s question in English: “What is the fruit which is red and has black dots? Then a response: “Strawberry!”
At first sight it might look like a perfectly ordinary scene from the nation's capital, where thousands of children are diligently taking English classes to improve their prospects in an era of growing internationalisation. And in a sense it is perfectly ordinary.
But there is also something special about it, because the teachers and some of the children are all part of the country’s growing multicultural population.
Two of the teachers are from the Philippines and one from Malaysia, and several of the students are children of mixed marriages between South Korean men and women from other Asian countries.
In this country - which was once seen as among the world’s most ethnically and culturally homogeneous - over the last five years or so, the term 'multicultural' or damunhwa, in Korean, has become something of a buzzword.
There are estimated to be around 400,000 families made up of mixed Korean and foreign partners and their children.
As the country's economy has surged ahead of many of its neighbours to join the ranks of developed nations, its social realities have become increasingly complex. Urbanisation and gender imbalance seem to have made it difficult for large numbers of mostly rural men to find wives at home. Seeking spouses from China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other Asian countries has become increasingly prevelent.
And the country has adapted in order to make the new arrivals feel more able to function in this society. “This country has changed enormously,” says Joanna Lee Sow Keng, the teacher from Malaysia. She’s unusual among the foreign women in that she first arrived in South Korea in the late 1980’s, but then spent 16 years outside the country as her husband worked on overseas postings.
“When I first came, it was really really tough; there was nothing in place to help us, but since I returned two years ago, I find it fantastic with all the damunhwa centres and activities and I have made so many friends.”
Although that’s not to say prejudice is a thing of the past. “My daughter told me that sometimes she did face discrimination from the other children at school,” says fellow teacher Marie-Anne Madrid, from the Philippines.
Since the 1970’s the Republic of Korea National Red Cross has been known mainly for its work running the country's blood service and - with its counterpart in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea - jointly organising reunions for hundreds of elderly Koreans who have not seen their families since the peninsula was split in half by the 1950-1953 Korean War.
But now it’s a very different organisation. Internationally it has been extending support to countries from those hit by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, to Haiti and the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile at home, reflecting the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' strategic aim of promoting social inclusion and culture of peace, the National Society has begun working extensively with those coming into the country. ”The support for migrant communities has become one of National Red Cross's main domestic operations, primarily because the migrant issue has evolved into one that required more humanitarian attention,,” says Eunhee Cho, head of International Department.
The English lessons for families – including, but not restricted to multicultural ones – who can’t afford the expense of private tuition for their children, are supported by Republic of Korea National Red Cross and the country’s airport operator.
They are just one of a whole range of activities, including psychosocial support and lessons in Korean language and culture, which the National Society provides to the multicultural community, reaching around 15,000 families over the past three years.
But is this genuine multi-culturalism, or is it more of a one-way street, with emphasis on inculcating the Korean way rather than sharing the culture of both partners in the families?
Youngjoo Kim, who heads the Republic of Korea National Red Cross department responsible for the programme, argues that a two-sided approach is already in evidence with the fact that the programme has also supported visits to the foreign partners’ home countries, by several hundred families. “This is a good opportunity for the husbands and children to be exposed to the other culture.”
“We realise we need to evolve further, because we are still in the early stages of our programme, which only started two years ago. “ But she is confident that society's work to support the growing multi-cultural community is headed in the right direction.