“Koreans Only” : Shenanigans in Korea

Life in South Korea is full of funny (and not so funny ) moments and today I thought I’d discuss one:

Shenanigan Scenario #1- “This club/bar is for Koreans Only”

There is nothing like getting dressed up to go out with your friends. Maybe you take 15 minutes or maybe you take three hours but, in the end, the results are the same: you go out with your friends, eat some food, maybe have a drink and laugh until your sides hurt. As a foreigner in Korea, one of the most annoying (and shocking) situations you can encounter is to approach a cool looking club or bar (or even get as far as stepping inside) only to have some Korean club owner or bartender rush towards you to shoo you out of the door as they say “Koreans only!”.

As an American, this sort of situation is appalling. In America, if you choose to deny a person entry to a bar or club because they look “foreign” you are rightfully labeled as racist.When I first arrived in Korea, I didn’t understand why other foreigners kept a running list of bars and clubs that were “waygook” (short form of the Korean word for “foreigner”) friendly. I soon found out one night when trying to enter a new bar that had opened that my foreigner self was not welcomed everywhere. I’ve not only encountered this problem where I live, but when visiting larger cities in Korea. This is not some “country” or “backwoods” Korean issue; there are accounts of this happening in places with large foreigner populations like Seoul. The reasoning behind this sort of discrimination is ALWAYS blamed on some wayward foreigner who “got into a fight or argument” at the bar/club and had to be removed. While I have no idea if there was ever such a problem, this is usually the reasoning a bar or club is supposedly “Korean only”.

So you may ask: Why don’t foreigners in Korea stand up to this sort of prejudice? Well, I have a few thoughts about this:

1. If they do stand up and protest, the penalty and retaliation for this behavior could mean being labeled a trouble maker and losing your job and visa and having to leave the country, most likely without any severance pay.

2.In a way, foreigners DO protest by spreading the word to others about the bar or club’s treatment of foreign people and refusing to patronize those places.

3. Korea is a largely homogeneous society. Korea still has a hard time accepting the existence of mixed race children who are Korean citizens (see the link below for information), let alone the plight of foreigners. If foreigners even chose to complain, who exactly would they complain to? There’s no racism police walking around collected the grievances of foreigners.

The fact also remains that some Koreans may think that spending a night free from foreigners is acceptable and since we are not citizens, they may believe that having the right to turn us away from any bar or club is reasonable.  Foreigners usually shuffle between a few friendly bars or clubs (if there are dance clubs to begin with) and celebrate everything from Super Bowl Sunday to birthday parties to going away parties in those few venues.


So what do you think? Should Korea change its ways and address the issue of discrimination of foreigners? How would you react to this sort of discrimination? What do you think foreigners living in Korea should do?


Mixed Race Children and Families in South Korea:



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