Korea is Racist (Part 1)

Ask any expat living in Korea, and they will likely agree: Korea is racist.
 
Stick around long enough and you come to expect it. In fact, racism is so commonplace here that a comedian at an open mic I attended a few weeks ago included the following joke:
 
blah blah blah… “a racist Korean. Sorry that was redundant, I should just say a Korean.”
 
 
I think what strikes westerns (or at least Americans) most when they encounter racism in Korea is not that there is racism here (after all, our country has it’s own MOUNTAIN of problems in that department), but how it presents in this community. People from the U.S. have gotten used to thinking about race and racism in certain specific ways. But, situations, language, and observations that make U.S. residents—especially white ones—tread carefully often go completely unnoticed by Koreans, and as a result, they tend to step all over our not-being-a-racist-jackass sensibilities.
 
 
Within my first few months of living in Korea, I encountered the following woah, WHAT?! situations:
 
  • While out with some friends, a monk (yes, a monk, I thought it was weird, too) approached my group and began chatting with us. After a while, he turned to the black woman among us and said, “You know, Obama.” The President of the United States, we were all thinking, no, not personally. “Yes,” we answered. “Obama—your father?” he tried to joke with my friend. (Needless to say, the attempt was unsuccessful.)
  • The teachers in my office and I were chatting/gossiping about men. They asked whether my boyfriend was handsome. I got out a picture to show them and when they looked at the image of me, a white woman, smiling beside my very handsome boyfriend, one asked if my mother cared that he was black. Another said he looked like Denzel Washington.
  • A older man I was helping with English told me a story that to him was both funny and remarkable about a movie he saw as a teenager with an interracial relationship (between a “negro” man and a white woman—and no, this movie was not set in the South during Civil War reconstruction). He and his friends thought this movie was just fiction, and then they found out that a very famous black person in the United States—Obama—has  a white mother and a black father. His mind was blown. (Though, his explanation of his shock used much more Korean-man-with-a-limited-command-of-the-English-language terms.)

Add to that list, the half dozen anecdotes I heard from my friends about activities in class that resulted in everything from students laughing and calling Louie Armstrong a gorilla to writing “black man” and “white man” down as “opposites,” and I had a pretty disturbing picture right off the bat about attitudes toward race in this country.

 
I should add a disclaimer that not every person believes/behaves/speaks this way. One of the teachers gossiping about my boyfriend remarked only that he was “bald” (he is a soldier who keeps his hair cropped short), my group of students seems unphased by the presence of people of color in the materials I use, and I’ve seen and heard of plenty of perfectly civil interactions between black expats and Koreans.
 
Nor is it fair to say that the racism prevalent among Koreans and often exhibited in the Korean media is going completely ignored or unaddressed. This article in the Korean Times condemns the use of blackface in a popular Korean sketch comedy, calling it out, not as an isolated incident, but as part of a larger, disturbing trend in Korean pop culture. “It’s entirely inappropriate for 21st century television to feature people wearing blackface makeup, but KBS ― Korea’s state-run broadcaster ― must have missed the memo, or indeed the twentieth century,” writes Jung Min-ho in criticism of the show and the station that allowed it to air.
 
Blackface on KBS show "Gag Concert" (Photo credit: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2014/02/201_150883.html)

Blackface on KBS show “Gag Concert” (Photo credit: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2014/02/201_150883.html)

 
Further—and I’m still working to investigate this claim so if you have any insight regarding it, please let me know—I believe much of the institutionalized and systematic presentation of racism that courses through U.S. political, social, economic, and cultural spheres like blood borne disease that we can’t seem to shake is strikingly absent here. I intend to do much more research and publish future posts to substantiate this hypothesis, but from where I’m standing right now, I get the sense that as far as “the system” is concerned, an expat is an expat.
 
 
For those entering Korea from a country that likes it’s racism hidden in the seedy underbellies of our bureaucracies, a place in which citizens of privilege do their best to spread the “ideal” of color-blindness and where “negro” was so effectively rendered a dirty word so long ago that to modern ears it sounds like something that must be quoted from a historical document, comments that blatantly call out a person’s race (whether in a malicious way or not) can feel like a bit of a slap in the face.
 
___
 
I’m writing this piece in installments. I don’t know how long it will ultimately be. This is unquestionably a huge topic, and I don’t believe I can cover everything I’d like to all at once. And to be honest, this is the sort of subject matter that wears me down a bit. However, it’s on my mind A LOT, and I think deserves my attention. It also deserves careful and thoughtful consideration and discussion that will be most easily delivered in small doses over time.
 
My country’s history of race relations is not the same as Korea’s historical and cultural experiences of race. It would be easy to point a finger at some of the country’s more unsettling incidents, write the whole place off as “racist,” and call it a day. But to see real change, we need to seek real understanding of the conditions we hope to improve or eliminate. We cannot look at Korean racism through western eyes and judge it with our western knowledge of how the world works. Nor should we judge too harshly that which we’re still quite a long way from perfecting ourselves.
 
So instead of judging and instead of giving Korea a pass because it’s Korea, I’d like to spend at least a few posts looking closely at racist issues and incidents and see if by examining them and learning more about the country as a whole, I can foster the sort of understanding that might lead to real change.
 
 
If you’re in Korea, your input is especially welcome as I explore this issue. Feel free to comment or send me an email! (jclarkwriter@gmail.com)
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The Foreigner at the Table

Something tells me I'm not putting this together right... (Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by yourinmyhair)

Something tells me I’m not putting this together right…
(Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by yourinmyhair)

Sometimes, it takes stepping outside your language culture to understand the parts of it that you take for granted. So often, we think about language learning as merely a process of picking up a manageable set of grammatical rules and filling in the blanks with vocabulary. It requires tons of memorization and practice, but get those things down and you’ll be chattering away in Farsi or Mandarin or whatever language you’ve decided to dedicate your brain space to in no time.

The thing is, communication just isn’t as simple as all that. For one thing, literal translation is inadequate to interpret what a speaker intended to convey. Why is it that in English a person is a number of years old, but in Spanish, he or she has a number of years? What about face-saving expressions like “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” uttered by a person who is decidedly not sorry?

Then, there are the rules about how a conversation is conducted. Speakers take turns. There are appropriate moments to interrupt and for clarification or to add your opinion and there are inappropriate ones. There are relevant questions and observations and irrelevant ones. You can probably remember a time when somebody with limited social awareness derailed a conversation you were engaged in over and over and over again by making inquiries and comments that did not fit.

Imagine that the person who skipped socializing day at school is you. How does the group feel about talking to you? Now, imagine that you suck at conversation because most of it is happening in a language you don’t really understand.

Congratulations. You are me.

Every day, I sit at the lunch table among Korean teachers, and they speak Korean. Of course, they speak Korean; this is Korea—this is their everyday life, and even those who do speak some English are not going to constantly choose the language that limits their expression and makes them uncomfortable over the one that they live their lives in, whether there is a speaker of that language sitting across from them or not. I know I didn’t when the seats were reversed.

I never chose to have a conversation with my colleagues in Spanish when I worked for The Literacy Center even though I have limited ability in the language, even though some of them speak it fluently, even though we were often in conversations with native Spanish speakers. Had one of those Spanish speakers chimed in with something to say, I would have listened and tried to understand, and tried to engage them in conversation a little. Then, I would have gone back to the conversation I was having in English before that person spoke up.

In the two years that I worked for The Literacy Center, this never happened. In two years, I didn’t notice that this never happened.

Doesn't anyone want to talk to me? (Photo Credit: Copyright All rights reserved by lugzgirl)

Doesn’t anyone want to talk to me?
(Photo Credit: Copyright All rights reserved by lugzgirl)

Cut back to me, now, the foreigner at the lunch table. There is a conversation happening around me in Korean. I catch a word here and there, a name, the word for “this.” Sometimes I know they are talking about the new school some teachers will be moving to in March. Sometimes I know nothing. I am silent. I would like to talk to the science teacher about where she will be teaching next year, to discuss whether she is happy about the move or not, to find out if her school is larger or smaller than ours, to find out what she thought of the teachers she met when she visited it.

I cannot have this conversation. The only thing I’ve heard to clue me in to the discussion is the word “Dongbaek,” spoken with rising intonation and her affirmative “mmm” plus slight head nod. I cannot have this conversation, and it’s not just because I don’t speak Korean and can barely tell where one sentence ends and the next begins. I can speak to this group in English, and most of them can answer me in English.

But I don’t want to speak just to hear my voice. I am not a child figuring out how this conversing stuff works. I know how to have a conversation. I want to contribute meaningfully to this one. If I ask something that’s already been asked or that is related to “Dongbaek” but not what they are talking about, I am the social failure. I am the penny on the tracks that derails the train that was taking everyone else where they wanted to go. I am the noise they are humoring until they can get back to what they are talking about.

Nope. I’m not going to be that person. Not today. Today, I will be silent until someone invites me into the conversation. Today I will wait until I know it is my turn to speak. It happens less often now that the novelty of my presence has worn off.

I am the foreigner at the table. I am silent. I am waiting.

 

This article and others about language and literacy can be found on ThinkLiteracyBlog.wordpress.com.