A growing number of storekeepers in popular shopping districts favor Chinese students as part-time staff because they can speak Mandarin. With an increasing number of Chinese tourists here, convenience stores, restaurants and cosmetics shops favor young Chinese part-timers over their Korean rivals because they can talk to many Chinese customers.
Last year there were 67,066 Chinese students at Korean universities, more than double the number in 2007 and accounting for three to five percent at major universities in Seoul.
Cosmetics stores in shopping areas near universities are especially keen to recruit Chinese part-timers. The owner of one cosmetics store near Ewha Womans University said, "There are a lot of Chinese students and tourists who come to Ewha Womans University, so you need to have Mandarin-speaking staff if you want to do business here." She already employs three Chinese students.
Many restaurants have replaced Korean staff with Chinese workers. Chinese students also love convenience stores for their boxed lunches, snacks and flavored milk, and tend to go to those with Mandarin-speaking staff.
One owner of a convenience store near Sungkyunkwan University said, "Chinese students account for about 70 percent of our revenues so I replaced all of my nine part-time workers with Chinese ones. I felt bad for the Korean part-timers, but I’d lose Chinese customers if they can't speak Mandarin."
Another convenience store owner admits, "Part-time workers get minimum wage, so for the same price I can hire people who can speak Mandarin."
But Korean students are increasingly desperate. "It's really hard to find jobs these days, and now I have to compete with Chinese people even for minimum-wage jobs," said student Lee Ji-hye (25).
The trend has led to some complaints of reverse discrimination from Korean customers because the Chinese part-timers are less fluent in Korean. One 26-year-old university student went to a restaurant in Anam-dong in northeastern Seoul recently. "I saw food I didn't order on my bill and asked them to change it, but the waiter couldn't understand what I was saying," he said. "Eventually the owner came to help, but it was an unpleasant experience."
And a graduate school student at Ewha Womans University said, "Chinese staff at a cosmetics store only care about Chinese tourists who buy huge quantities of products, which made me feel ostracized. It feels like being in another country."