Educating a changing Korea: Interview with ‘Even The Rivers’ Director

Until very recently South Korea was a very homogeneous society with little ethnic diversity which prided itself on a single ethnic identity. Recently this has begun to change very rapidly and the number of immigrants living in Korea has more than doubled in the past ten years to 1.5 million.

Rapid urbanisation has led to huge numbers of people moving out of rural areas and as a result there has been a huge multi-ethnic baby boom in rural areas as more Korean men are marrying South East Asian women. By 2020 it is estimated that half of all children in rural Korea will come from a multi-ethnic household with 1.6 million people altogether coming from a mixed heritage background.

But with these fast changes in demographics come a lot of challenges to the children of multi-ethnic families as they face a lot of difficulties in the classroom. In a country within one of the highest high school graduation rates in the world, it’s estimated that in Seoul 72% of multi-ethnic children have dropped out of high school.

In order to understand more of the issue and to find out more about what is happening in Korea to help and support multi-ethnic children, we recently spoke to Cindy Lou Howe, the director of the documentary ‘Even The Rivers’ which is currently in production. The documentary explores how schools in Korea are attempting to adapt to the needs of a more and more diverse classroom.

In the interview, we discuss multiculturalism, ethnic identity, Little Psy and Hallyu’s potential to influence Korean attitudes towards race and identity as well as much more.

Hi and thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us. Would you be able to briefly introduce yourself and your film to our audience?


Director Cindy Lou Howe

My name is Cindy Lou Howe and I primarily describe myself as an educator. I was born in Seoul to a Korean mother and African-American father.

My own mixed heritage is why I focused my masters research on the lack of educational equity for multiracial youth around the world. Part of my research concerned Korea, and naturally, I’ve always been curious about my birth country. So, in 2008, I returned to South Korea for the first time to work as an international school teacher.

During my four years in Korea, I started an English Program for multi-ethnic youth with the Pearl S. Buck Foundation and eventually became Vice President of the MACK Foundation, where I expanded their educational outreach to multicultural families.

All of these experiences led to the creation of EVEN THE RIVERS, a documentary film that examines how South Korea’s schools are educating an increasingly multicultural classroom!

Was there anything in particular that inspired you to start making this documentary?

Well, my academic research was taking me to various conferences and it became obvious that people were very interested in this topic of multiethnic and multiracial children in Korea. However, I felt that sharing stats and figures alone wasn’t the most effective way to provide a vivid picture of multicultural youth experiences today. So, I decided to team up with a team of high school students with the goal of recording the unheard voices – on-the-ground social activists, school leaders and multicultural youth – all of whom could share their perspective on education in South Korea to a larger audience.

It’s estimated that by 2020 in South Korea half of all children in rural areas will come from multi-ethnic families. What are the reasons for this massive change in demographic?

To put it simply, it’s hard for rural Korean farmers to find Korean wives. Due to economic growth and urbanization, there has been a “wife shortage” in Korea’s rural areas. As a result, and thanks in part to government support, there’s a booming market for foreign brides. In fact, since the 1990s, the rate of intermarriage has increased ten-fold. As you mentioned, about half of marriages in these rural areas now involve a non-Korean wife, and that’s why Korea is experiencing a multi-ethnic baby boom.

Your film looks specifically at education for children from multi-ethnic families. What problems do they face specifically when it comes to education?

I think many people know that South Korea has a reputation for having a great education system. In fact, about 97 percent of 25-34 year-olds in South Korea have earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. That’s pretty remarkable. However, in 2012, one study found that just 16 percent of immigrant children were attending high school. Another study found that approximately 40 percent of multi-ethnic high school students were dropping out, due almost exclusively to bullying, discrimination and social outcasting.

The Korean government has announced plans to set up schools specifically for these children to try to improve their level of education. Do you think this is the right approach?

In a word, No. In the beginning, when there were no safe places for multicultural children to learn, grassroots schools were set up to provide a basic education for these children. However, I don’t think that creating a formal system of segregated schools will remedy the drop out rates. It’s my feeling that the government should be responsible for making all schools safe places for all children.


Specifically, if you look at the government sponsored schools, they are too-often focused on superficial aspects of diversity, the so-called “dining, dress, dance” of other cultures. These schools also tend to focus on assimilation, which places the burden on the child and their family, instead of on wider society. There’s also a focus on Korean language and culture classes for multi-ethnic youth. However, many of the youth we interviewed for the film are completely fluent in Korean, and grew up in the culture, so remedial language classes or proving they know the varieties of kimchi aren’t the answer!

Although EVEN THE RIVERS focuses on Korea’s schools, the film also examines broader South Korean society and explores a fundamental question – if Korea’s proud people are prepared to redefine what it means to be Korean. Ultimately, South Korea’s schools, and larger society, must address attitudes surrounding diversity and discrimination.

Do multi-ethnic families and especially children face any other cultural difficulties outside of the classroom?

Yes, they do. The xenophobia and discrimination that exists in wider Korean society also enters the classroom. In fact, one study found that in 2012, over 41 percent of multicultural families experienced prejudice. That figure was actually up about five percent from just three years earlier. In 2010, the National Human Rights Commission conducted a survey that found several disturbing results. 42 percent of multi-ethnic youth were taunted by their classmates because of their accents, 37 percent said their peers looked down on them due to their mother countries, 25 percent said they were insulted for their appearance, 21% were actually told to leave Korea, and 15 percent were physically assaulted by their peers. These numbers suggest there’s a real urgency in addressing school bullying and general attitudes.

Many Koreans’ idea of national identity seems to be closely tied to ethnic identity. Do you think this is the case? If so, is it a problem and how do you think this mind-set can be changed?

even-the-rivers-film-screencap2This is definitely the case. Most historians agree that Korean ethnic nationalism or danil minjok (단일민족), in Korean, is a modern response to decades of Japanese colonization. This “pure blood” or “one people” concept probably reached its zenith in the 60s. However, I was shocked to see that school textbooks still taught children this “theory” as recently as a decade ago. Fortunately, as South Korea’s economy has become truly global, you increasingly see politicians, academic leaders and policy advisors urging the public to shift away from this nationalistic identity. Furthermore, the nation’s low birth rate and rising number of multi-ethnic youth suggest that a multicultural Korea is inevitable. My hope is that the film can play a small part in encouraging Koreans to accept a more inclusive definition of what it means to be Korean.

Child star Hwang Min Woo (also known as ‘Little PSY’) recently faced a lot of online attacks for having a Vietnamese mother. Do you think this is a symbol of a wider issue in Korea?

Hwang Min Woo

Hwang Min Woo

As I mentioned earlier, multiculturalism or diversity won’t be effective if it’s mostly superficial. Multi-ethnic Koreans as models, entertainers or celebrities are people first. What I mean is that they deserve to be fully accepted and included in Korean society, not just as exotic sources of entertainment. While what happened to Hwang Min Woo was very real, I think we have to remember that there will always be Internet trolls vying for attention, and I was heartened that the public’s rejection of some of the racist attacks suggests that they don’t reflect a larger societal sentiment.

As Hallyu spreads across the globe, do you think Korea is facing more scrutiny in its attitudes to multiculturalism from the rest of the world? Do you think this could have a positive impact?

I do, and there’s something very exciting about the way “soft power” can influence fundamental change. While Korea has been very successful at exporting K-pop, arguably a manufactured component of Korean culture, my hope is that the government will invest more in promoting values and policies, particularly as it relates to multiculturalism. If Korea is constantly saying, “Embrace our culture!” or “Visit our country!”, it’s only natural that many people will do so – some as tourists, but others as immigrants. As Korea widens its cultural influence and reach, I think it’s inevitable that it will have to incorporate aspects of other cultures and evolve.

Do you think it’s important that media like K-pop and Korean dramas start to reflect their diverse audience and Korea’s increasingly diverse population more? Could this have a positive impact on views of multi-ethnic families in Korea?

Well, there have already been several movies and dramas that have touched on multiculturalism. Articles on this topic appear almost daily in South Korean media, so there’s definitely interest. I think the important thing is that these portrayals avoid stereotyping. That way, they can have a positive influence on shifting perceptions about multiculturalism in Korea.

EvenTheRivers_Poster1And finally, what are your plans for this documentary and does it have a release date yet? When can we expect to see it?

Thank you for asking! I estimate that we have about 80% of the footage to complete the film. Ideally, we will return to Korea to tape a few more interviews, conduct follow-ups and tie up any loose ends. To make this possible, our plan is to launch a Kickstarter fundraising campaign this fall. If all goes well, we are hoping for a spring 2014 release!

On that note, to keep tabs on the film’s progress or to get involved or schedule a screening, please check out our website, or “like” us on Facebook. I would love to hear from you!
Finally, thanks to Beyond Hallyu for the opportunity to spread awareness of this important issue facing South Korea!

Thanks again to Cindy Lou for taking the time to talk to us. You can find out all the film’s latest developments through their website, Facebook  and Twitter pages and let us know what you think in the comments!

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  • therebel

    A very informative article and great website. These are issues that Korean film and drama fans never get to see or hear about. A discordant dose of reality.

  • LadyGin

    Excellent interview. While I can understand the nationalistic ideals and pride due to Korea’s history, that’s simply not the way of the world anymore. The world is totally connected. People need to stop looking at the surface and start looking at the heart and mind. That goes for here in the U.S.A too. They are just as guilty. Mixed races and cultures make for beautiful people inside and out, and many that are do not carry on that puffed up attitude that infects a singular race. It’s a shame they have to feel so torn and discriminated against all the time.

  • a guy from montreal

    Good article but impossible to check the informations because no sources are given … “(