Just like many other Irish people living in Korea, I woke up yesterday morning to a barrage of social media notifications from folks back home. It turned out that an Irish woman named Katie Mulrennan applied for a teaching position in Korea and was denied ‘due to the alcoholism nature of your kind’.
I wasn’t at all surprised that an individual encountered discrimination while searching for teaching work in South Korea, as it’s rife here.
I was surprised, however, that the employer knew about our reputation for indulging in a few too many. Korean people are far more likely to think I’m from Iceland, or tell me how much they love ‘Once’, than to mention drink.
Pot, Kettle, Black
Many online commenters reacted to this story with quips like ‘At least my dinner isn’t at the end of a leash’. First, I almost choked on my breakfast from laughing. Then I realised that reacting against this sleight on the Irish with the most obvious Korean stereotype is very telling. If you’ve ever lived in South Korea, your reaction probably wasn’t ‘Yeah, well, they eat dogs and that’s more messed up than our drinking problems’. It’s far more likely that you thought ‘This employer thinks our drinking problems are worse than South Korea’s?!’
People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. South Korea’s metaphorical glass house would be green, as it would be made entirely from recycled Soju bottles. Soju is a Korean liqueur that usually has an alcohol content of around 20%. It’s cheap (the equivalent of a little over €1 for a 360ml bottle), and it flows 24/7.
In terms of hard liquor consumption, South Korea is number one in the world. Reminders of drink are everywhere. Impossibly beautiful, barely dressed women wink at you from Soju advertisements in just about every public place. On week nights, men in business attire sit in barbecue restaurants eating pork and shouting ‘One Shot!’ as empty Soju bottles pile up around them. Those without the wherewithal to make it home pass out in the street, as documented on websites like Black Out Korea. The pavements are punctuated with puddles of puke, usually containing the red speckles of Kimchee, a fermented cabbage that Koreans eat with almost every meal.
In South Korea, drinking isn’t just something you do with your friends on the weekend – drinking with colleagues after work is seen as an important way to relax and bond with colleagues. People are, in fact, more likely to feel ostracised at work if they don’t drink.
Due in no small part to the popularity of hangover prevention drinks, Koreans always seem to make it to work the next day. It is the definition of a work hard, play hard culture.
In Korea, there are many reasons why an employer might reject you – you could be too ugly, too fat, too short, too black, too gay, too transgender, too man, too woman, too disabled, too young, too old… I could go on forever. Katie Mulrennan knows she wasn’t given a chance because the employer believes she’s likely to be an alcoholic because she’s Irish. It’s there in black and white on the email. Usually, though, discrimination is at least a little more covert and a person only has a suspicion about why they weren’t chosen.
Requiters and employers in Korea frequently state a preference for people of a certain nationality and gender, without garnering more than a few raised eyebrows. It’s very common to see advertisements for private academies, known as Hagwons, containing the line ‘North American female preferred’.
In addition, it’s standard to be asked to supply a passport photograph with your job application form, as well as your height, weight and a multitude of other personal details. If you don’t fit the ideal of a hetero-normative, conventionally attractive person, or you’re the wrong gender or race, you might not even get an interview. But you can’t call it discrimination because the advertisement didn’t tell you not to apply. The employer can simply say you didn’t have the right experience or qualifications (factors that can sometimes seem incidental in Korean recruitment processes).
When a group is so clearly excluded, as Katie Mulrennan was, it is rarer and therefore more newsworthy. However, her rejection took place in a private correspondence which the recruiter probably never imagined would be seen by so many. Sometimes groups are excluded right there in a publicly listed job advertisement. Just yesterday, The Korea Observer and many other outlets reported that a Christian University posted a job advertisement with the line ‘drinking, smoking and homosexuality are not allowed’.
To understand all of this, it’s important to note that while Korea’s economic development was rapid, certain attitudes still lag about 30 years behind other developed counties. This is compounded by the fact that Korea is still an extremely homogenous country, so some people can be a little insensitive about foreigners. ‘I want a beautiful American one like they have in the movies’ is an obvious case-in-point. There are plenty of good people working very hard to provoke positive social change both for foreigners and Koreans, but change is slow.
South Korea doesn’t hate us!
I’m just one of many Irish people who have been welcomed here with kindness, generosity and a healthy dose of curiosity.
I really love Korea. I love the creative and funny students at the girls’ middle school where I teach. I love the weird and wonderful food. I love Saturday nights at the ‘Noraebang’, private karaoke rooms which are pretty much a national past-time here. I love when little children say ‘Hello’ to me on the street, and how they’re delighted with themselves when I say ‘Hello’ back. I love the chaotic neon lights of Busan, and I love leaving the city to relax on a sandy beach, or at a Buddhist temple in the mountains. I love the public transport system that brings me to all of those places quickly and cheaply. There are problems, yes, but overall it’s a brilliant place to live and teach English.
If you do some research, you will find that South Korea has excellent music that goes far beyond manufactured K-Pop bands, and a wealth of wonderful books, films and art. And if you come here you will find lovely people who are interested in our culture, evidenced at the recent Seoul Ceilidh hosted by the Irish Association of Korea.
If you’re thinking coming to South Korea, whether for a holiday or to work, don’t let this incident change your mind. Honestly, you’ll have the best craic here!