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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 14 November, 2019

Opinion: Soju think the Irish are all drunks?

News of an Irish teacher being discriminated against in South Korea has annoyed a lot of people – but it shouldn’t put you off this beautiful and welcoming country.

Clare Hartwieg

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 Korea.

I was surprised, however, that the employer knew about our reputation for indulging in a few too many. Korean people are for 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 slight 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’. More likely, you thought: ‘This employer thinks we drink more than the Koreans?!’

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 in 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 team building activity. 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.

Overt discrimination

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 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 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 heteronormative and good-looking 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 explicitly 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 the discrimination is 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’.

Korea doesn’t hate us!

I’m one of many Irish people who have been welcomed here with kindness, generosity and a healthy dose of curiosity.

I love the creative and funny students at the all 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 you to all of those places quickly and cheaply. There are problems, yes, but overall it’s a brilliant place to live.

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 to South Korea you will find lovely people who are interested in our culture, evidenced most recently at the Seoul Ceilidh, hosted by the Irish Association of Korea.

If you’re thinking about 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!

Clare Hartwieg is a freelance journalist and an English teacher in South Korea. She writes about her experiences at The Busan Ultimatum. You can follow her on Twitter @ClareHartwieg.

Irish girl rejected for job in South Korea due to “alcoholism nature of your kind”

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Clare Hartwieg

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