Bonojit Hussain was traveling with his friend Han Ji Sun on a bus on July 10, 2009, in Seoul when a 41-year-old Park Chang Woo hurled racist abuses at him. He called Hussain a “dirty son of a b****” and went on to harass his friend, referring to her as a “Joseon b****” (a derogatory term Imperial Japanese rulers used to refer to Korean women). This incident eventually became the ground zero of one of the pioneering anti-racism movements in South Korea, led by Hussain.
Originally from Guwahati, Assam, Hussain was a researcher at the University of Delhi, working with the homeless people in India and studying the lives of the labor class. In 2007, he decided to move to Seoul and enroll in the “Racism and Hegemony in Asia” program offered by Sungkonghoe University, where he did his thesis on the Korean labor movement. Once his course was finished, the university offered him a job. During his stay in the country, his aim was to do a comparative study on South Korea, India, and another Asian country to find what kind of exchanges have occurred across the nations and their economies. What he didn’t expect was that he would end up sparking the drafting of an anti-racism bill by the National Assembly in 2009.
On July 10, when Hussain and his friend were abused on the bus, he decided to lodge a police complaint. This was not his first encounter with racial abuse in South Korea, but this was the first time he was confident enough to seek help from authorities because his companion was a Korean woman who was also a victim of the same perpetrator.
I have always wanted to go to the police…This time there was a Korean person with me. I was confident I could take it to the police (as she could translate). The incident itself became very serious.
— Bonojit Hussain
Despite this upper hand, the Bucheon Jungbu Police Station was reportedly reluctant to lodge the complaint. According to Han, they made no efforts to separate them from the attacker and refused to believe that Hussain was a professor despite him showing the officers his ID card. The police personnel apparently assumed him to be a poor laborer and even questioned his immigration status in banmal (low honorific language).
I was deeply disappointed and was insulted by Park’s actions and those of the policemen at the Bucheon Jungbu Police Station…But at the same time was very embarrassed when I realized that Korean society still had a strong sense of ethnic nationalism, xenophobia and a patriarchal social system…As of now, I have nothing against Park, since Park is just one of many Koreans who treat foreigners in such a manner. However, I would like to take this chance and let people know that this can actually be a matter for punishment.
—Han Ji Sun
The case was soon picked up by the South Korean media, based on the “sensationalism” it offered, according to Hussain. He felt that registering the complaint, despite all the odds, was necessary to initiate a large-scale discussion. After all, laws get made based on statistical numbers, and unless victims of racism report the crimes, the extent of the issue won’t be reflected in the stats. Even in South Korea, Hussain regularly worked with migrant workers, who, according to him, receive the worst end of this racial discrimination.
South Korea has 1.1 million migrant workers who do the ‘3D’-Dirty, Difficult, and Dangerous-jobs that no Korean would do as this society is highly educated. But, these workers can raise their voice only at the risk of losing their jobs. Most of these workers are in a difficult situation because once they change their jobs, they are declared illegal.
— Bonojit Hussain
Hussain recognized that it was a privilege even to be able to take legal action against his attacker. Still, he felt hopeful that this campaign could eventually create necessary changes to help migrant workers escape their grim realities in the country.
Since there were no anti-discrimination laws to protect foreigners from racism in South Korea, Hussain’s perpetrator Park was charged with contempt. But the incident prompted a National Assembly member to draft an anti-racism bill. The Democratic Party and National Human Rights Commission invited Hussain to speak at the “Consultative Public Hearing” held at the National Assembly to debate the proposed bill.
At the hearing, Hussain addressed his own experience and the ground realities faced by migrant laborers, and how this racism also trickles down into misogyny in South Korean society affecting its own women. He recalled how he received many letters from interracially married Korean women speaking of the wrath they faced for supposedly diluting the purity of South Korean society.
Though Hussain’s speech was met with loud applause, and the indictment of his attacker did set legal precedence for racially motivated abuses against foreigners, South Korea lacks proper anti-racism legislation to this day.