THE BLOG

Sweden Riots, Immigration, Inequality and Race

28/05/2013 17:42 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." - Martin Luther King Jr.

The recent riots in Sweden have sparked a bit of news.

As a person who has been a resident foreigner in two countries, I've learned a few things about when I hear the word 'immigrants' in the news. When people in politics use the term immigration they are not talking about naturalization or long lines for residence visas, they are talking about race and inequality, all nicely baked into a politically hot topic.

A Korean Times article recently discussed the growing issues in Korea regarding race discrimination and lack of multicultural education in schools. Korea has an increasing population of immigrants and children from mixed ethnic and racial backgrounds. The reaction to this new population is severely polarized. Moreover, the Korean government will probably be rejecting a bill that would put a legal boundary on racial discrimination: "Although an anti-discrimination bill was presented in the National Assembly in March, it is unlikely to be passed due to opposition from right-wing lawmakers."

Here in Korea, I'm a waygookin (외국인). Waygookin essentially means "foreigner" and it applies to anyone who is not Korean. We waygookins have adopted this term into our own expat vernacular and shortened it to "waygook." In fact, there's even a site, waygook.org, which is a forum for foreigners.

The term itself doesn't bother me, but the reactions associated with it do. There's pointing, laughing, and staring. After a few months, it's easy to become paranoid, frustrated, and agitated. Also, you start noticing things you didn't notice initially: An employee waiting outside a restaurant to make sure you pay, or being denied service altogether, for no apparent reason. Being a target of every pointing finger feels like Chinese water torture some days. Just little drops of ignorant behavior. No wonder some people go crazy and start burning cars. Not that I condone violence, but I'm starting to understand where it's coming from.

That's not to say there are some perks of being a waygook. Many locals are quite generous and kind. Little precious moments sometimes make up for the bad days. Yet, we know that this extreme polarized public opinion directly impacts government policy.

Back to Sweden. I was told I "looked" Swedish (whatever that means), yet the minute I opened my mouth, everything changed. Once I spoke, I was identified as an American. All the negative implications that many Europeans attribute to the U.S. would sometimes directly affect how I was treated. I think a lot of Swedes would like to believe the immigrant population is treated with open arms, but that's simply not true. Besides, like Korea, this isn't only about equal rights to jobs and money; it's about equal treatment in the day-to-day.

Back in America, I recently heard an American friend of mine say something that struck me completely speechless. I honestly don't even want to type what she said on my blog. I'll simply put that she stated some pretty strong statements about those who were not of her kind.

At the time, I could not believe that someone I knew from home would share some of the same thinking as those who stare and point at me every day. At this point all I can lamely conclude is that inequality and racism is the one thing all nations seem to share in common. So why the burning cars? While violence is a problem, I'm more concerned as to why people are so shocked that there is violence.