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Jessica Lee tackles racism vs Filipinos in South Korea

Image credit: Screenshot of Jessica Lee YouTube video
Image credit: Screenshot of Jessica Lee YouTube video

In her latest video, YouTube vlogger Jessica Lee, a Korean who grew up in the Philippines and recently moved back to South Korea, discusses the discrimination that Filipinos have experienced in her country.

A full-blooded Korean who has lived in the Philippines for nine years and fell in love with her second home, Jessica is also known by her birth name Lee Seul. She was a pre-debut member of the K-pop girl group HIGHTEEN and was featured in their pre-debut single “Grow Up” as a vocalist. To tackle the thorny issue of racism, Jessica interviewed two of her Filipino friends living in South Korea: Caryl, who is a PhD student, and Chris, a data analyst, English teacher, and part-time actor.

“First of all, I really admire you guys because I know how tough it is to be a foreigner in a foreign country, you know? Korea is generally a tough country to live in even for Koreans, I think,” Jessica says in the video after introducing Caryl and Chris.

Tales of discrimination

As a YouTube vlogger, Jessica has gained a loyal following for her videos about the Philippines and everything Filipino in South Korea, including where you can eat Filipino food and buy Filipino snacks. It’s admirable that she is using her channel to put the spotlight on issues that affect the Filipino community in South Korea.

Jessica first asks them: “Have you ever encountered a racist Korean?”

“Actually, yes, because of the coronavirus as well. I don’t know if it was really kind of racist, but we were in the subway, and I was with my friend, she’s Iraqi. So this ajumma (middle-aged woman), she was sitting beside us. And then she really transferred her seat in front of us and she kept looking at us. That was last year during the surge of the coronavirus and like all foreigners are experiencing a lot of racist activities from Koreans. That’s the only time I experienced it,” Caryl says.

“Well I vividly remember Sept. 28 of Two Thousand and Seventeen. That was a day when I first experienced racism here in Korea. I came from Seoul and I was inside the maeul bus or a village bus, and inside the maeul bus, since it was the last trip, there was this woman standing. I thought that she was just staring at the two boys in front of me,” Chis says.

How to avoid becoming racists

“But in a snap of a finger, something hit my face, broke my eyeglasses. When I tried to pick up my eyeglasses, it was already broken. And the old lady or the ajumma was shouting at me and she was like saying that, according to her, foreigners are not welcome in that bus, it was not a foreigners’ bus. And she was like, ‘Naeryoe (Get out of the bus)!” What really made me upset was the fact that no one was there willing to help me as a foreigner,” he says.

As they discuss this sensitive topic, the three of them share their insights on the roots of racism. They point out that racism is everywhere, and that it may be innate in the sense that we instinctively react to something that is new, or someone who is different from us. It also comes from the community and societal standards that have been ingrained in different countries, Carly notes.

But the point is that it is up to us as individuals whether we will react positively or negatively when we encounter something foreign to us. Chris says the way we can combat our own racism, which we may even be unaware of, is to embrace other cultures and the individuality of people, instead of pre-judging them.

Why Jessica Lee loves the Philippines

“I think also exposure to diversity since you’re very young is also one good way. In my case, like, you know, there is that stereotype in Korea like, oh, the Philippines, they look down to the Filipinos and stuff like that. I had nothing like that because I went there when I was so young. Everyone was just so beautiful. It came out in a nice way. They spoke English, which was something that I couldn’t speak, so it’s like, wow. Everything is wow,” Jessica says.

The three of them also discuss how Koreans underrate the Filipino English accent.

“I really love the accent, but for some people it’s not. And I’ve also experienced that in Korea. So do you guys also experience that here when you guys speak in English to other Koreans,” Jessica asks.

Chris said that when he was applying as an English trainer, one Korean told him: “Why would I go into your class when you’re not a native speaker?”

And how did Chris respond?

Let’s embrace diversity

“Well, let’s just look at it this way. I am a Filipino but I was able to learn English and this is how I speak English. Just imagine, you’re a Korean, English will become your second language, how is it? Coming from someone who just speaks only English, what do you think would be the difference? And now he’s one of my students,” he says, adding that his student is doing well and was apologetic after a couple of months.

“My Korean professors thought that English is really my first language. So I’m not saying that I’m really good at English, but I can say that a lot of Koreans really appreciate the way I talk,” Carly says.

“In the Philippines, we have a lot of languages, and those languages and even dialects have different accents. So at some point, it kinda affects the way they talk in English. But yeah, I agree with Kuya Chris as long as you understand, and the person you wanted to talk to understands what you’re saying, it’s OK, it’s fine,” she says.

At the end of the day, it’s about going beyond superficial things like nationality, skin color, and accents, and being willing to really listen to others and accept them as individuals.

Different from us, yes. But who says being different has to be bad?