I’ve been called Seoul’s “begpacker buster” by local and international media, for calling out foreigners who beg on the street and reporting them to the police. I’ve been highly critical of them — especially on Twitter to draw attention to what I believe to be a growing problem in South Korea.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a “begpacker” — a portmanteau of the words “beg” and “backpacker” — refers to a traveller who funds their travels around the world by asking for financial help on the streets. Some play instruments, others sell postcards or photos from their travels. Others put out a hat. They often have a scrap of cardboard with a message along the lines of:
“I’m travelling around the world and love your country, need money to pursue my dream. Please help me”.
I’ve been interviewed numerous times by Korean and international media about this topic. One tweet has been viewed over a million times. But for this, I’ve also been called a racist, a misogynist, and everything in between for exposing the begpackers of Seoul. Here’s my take on begpacking, and why ultimately, I believe it’s wrong.
1. Because travel is a privilege, not a necessity
Travel is a luxury available to only a privileged few. If you cannot afford to travel, don’t do it, let alone ask locals to pay for it. Those of us who can even contemplate going on holiday abroad come from a position of privilege. We don’t live in slums, we don’t eat scraps from bins, we don’t work in sweatshops, unlike the billions who live in poverty or don’t have access to clean drinking water.
In most cases, people do not beg for money because they want to. They beg because they need to. Poverty is not “an experience”, nor is it something that’s “cool”.
I for one know my privilege, flying to Bangladesh four times a year to see family. From the moment I land, my foreign passport makes me part of the elite. But poverty there is very real, and very cruel. Beggars come to your car window without limbs and eyes, desperate for a few pennies. While the situation is improving, I still see children sleeping naked in the gutter whenever I’m there.
To therefore glamourise and romanticise poverty for fun is not just distasteful, it’s quite frankly sickening.
2. Because it’s “white privilege”
Let’s get things straight: “white privilege” in Asia is distinct from “white privilege” in Western countries including the United States. White privilege in Asia is the simple act of a white person, regardless of socio-economic background back home, arriving in Asia and being bestowed unwarranted advantages due to the colour of their skin.
In an ideal world, I wouldn’t bring up skin colour. But the way I see it, begpacking — specifically in Asia and Korea — is all about skin colour.
The fact of the matter is, you will very rarely find a begpacker who isn’t white.
Koreans are quick to judge people by their appearances, and skin colour is part of that. While I’m not saying this is the case for all, it’s not unheard of to hear older people look at a white person and say “Are you American?” To many, white means Western which probably also means American.
Without delving too deep into Korean history and the Korean War, the general narrative is this: communist (North) Koreans invade South (Korea), Americans come to the rescue, South Korea eternally grateful towards the “white saviour”, cherishes everything American and looks up to big brother who helped rebuild the country from ashes.
That’s also one of the reasons you’ll find elderly people waving US flags at rallies and events praising the US. According to them, South Korea as we know it today is what it is because of the US.
The seonjinguk (“developed country”) discourse too is still very real in South Korea, that the country is still a developing nation seeking recognition on the world stage to prove that it is as good and worthy as great Western powers. Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, it’s not uncommon to hear people saying South Korea is still not fully developed.
This inferiority complex is in part true among older Koreans. And so, when they see the mighty white man (regardless of actual nationality) in an inferior position — that of poverty and despair — it is quite simply incomprehensible, and a situation that must be quickly remedied. It breaks the entire narrative of the white saviour and unfortunately, the accepted narrative that South Korea can never be on par with the US.
3. Because it’s deception
Begpackers are all over Seoul these days. Itaewon, Hongdae, Sinsa, Sindorim, Guro, and even other parts of the country. But there’s also a clear reason why they beg in Seoul’s Jongno: because there are many poor people to take advantage of.
The fact is no tourist arrives in Korea and suddenly becomes poor, seeing as they at least had enough money to fly here, and if they knew they’d be skint immediately upon landing, the rational decision would have been to stay home. But the begpackers know locals will fork out some cash to rescue them. It’s emotional bribery.
They also use cutouts from cardboard boxes to maximise the “feel sorry for me” effect, written in clumsy Korean handwriting. Many times, the signs are extremely similar, if not the same, which suggests the existence of an online community which basically gives a 101 on begpacking in Korea.
Some resort to selling Korean taegukgi flags, a clever ruse to win over the emotions of patriotic older people who suddenly feel tender when seeing a foreigner selling their beloved flag. They also usually pretend to be deaf, and use sign language to get by, again, adding to the innocence factor. But then, once the deal is done, they are on their phones again vocally chatting to their friends.
Others “busk” by playing the guitar. But if they are providing delightful sounds to entertain passersby, then surely the cardboard piece with the “I love your country, please help my travels” is unnecessary?
Often, there’s no way of knowing if they are actually broke. There’s no way of knowing where they come from. There’s no way of knowing where the money is going. And there’s no way of knowing how long they will be in Korea.
But continuous observations make me realise this is clearly elaborate organised crime: I’ve seen people who say they are only in the country for a few days months later. I’ve seen people who say they will leave in a week only to find them again half a year or even one year later. I’ve seen groups of 4–5 people arrive, distribute placards among themselves, and then communicate with each other via their smartphones in case one gets caught.
Some give their Instagram IDs on their piece of cardboard. Their pages are often filled with pictures of boozing around Asia, women, luxury hotels etc. One in Hongdae had the audacity to write a small message in Russian saying “money for vodka”, clearly taking the mickey out of people donating money and not understanding how much he’s ridiculing locals.
The other day, I reported another bunch to the police. When confronted, they claimed they were purely playing music for the sake of playing music, were not begging, and had no idea what the Korean text on their piece of cardboard said.
The fact that they are now coming to Korea in large numbers means that begpacking is a common way of making quick, easy cash.
4. Because it’s an insult to people who are actually poor
The issue I have with begpackers in Seoul, especially those in my district of Jongno, is that they are begging in front of Seoul’s poorest. Take “Natasha” for instance: she made some cash by taking advantage of poor people who had no idea what to think or how to deal with the situation.
She claimed to be travelling the world and in need of some money. In the space of five minutes, she earned over 15,000 won. That’s roughly double the national minimum wage. When I asked people why they were donating money, the older folks told me it clearly wasn’t a scam, that they felt they needed to help her.
That’s the thing: begpackers are not targeting you. They are targeting the most vulnerable, poorest sections of society.
5. Because it’s an insult to foreign workers and visitors
To work in Korea as a foreigner requires a heavy load of paperwork. Those that do make secure employment have to pay taxes like everyone else. Many workers put in long hours in factories with low pay and under questionable conditions. Landing in Korea without the necessary paperwork and making quick cash basically amounts to telling every legal worker they are fools.
Meanwhile, it’s also an insult to people from countries that do not have reciprocal visa-exemption agreements. For many people, visiting Korea requires a visa. To obtain this visa, they are required to present all sorts of paperwork, and sometimes up to three months worth of bank statements to prove they have the funds to come to Korea and won’t engage in illegal economic activities.
This is not the case though for nationals of many countries — including Western nations and Russia — where the act of landing in South Korea grants you the right to remain in the country for several months, no questions asked.
In short, begpacking takes the piss out of the millions of people for countries often poorer than South Korea who need to be financially acceptable to dare step foot into the country.
6. Because it’s illegal
It’s against the law in Korea earn money on a travel visa. According to South Korea’s Immigration Act, Article 20 (“Activities other than Status of Sojourn”):
“If a foreigner sojourning in the Republic of Korea intends to perform activities corresponding to a different status of sojourn, in addition to those activities corresponding to his or her original status of sojourn, he or she shall obtain prior permission for activities, other than his or her original status of sojourn, from the Minister of Justice”.
(Article 11 also mentions the Ministry of Justice may prohibit “A person deemed highly likely to commit any act detrimental to the economic or social order or the good morals” which I personally believe to be the case).
Those who violate the above articles are subject to deportation, according to Article 46 of the same act.
7. Because there’s zero crackdown
I’ve reported begpackers countless times to the police. Their response is often lukewarm. “What should we do?” or “Shall I ask her/him to move elsewhere?” has been the typical response I’d get. And when they do come to crackdown, the begpackers often pretend they cannot speak English. So they let them go.
Meanwhile, people continue to donate cash. And so, for the various reasons I’ve pointed above, I’ve decided to expose the hypocrisy online, notably on Twitter. Some of my photos and footage have gone viral, others have made the news. I hope authorities will start paying attention and that prospective begpackers will realise that if they really are truly broke, they should go find a job instead of flying overseas to beg.