Sunday, April 17, 2005

the good, the bad, and the ugly


Min-sung's mother has come through for me, asking me to proof a 20-page paper by late tomorrow (arg). Although this is, in a sense, really bad timing because I'm once again on the cusp of moving, the cash is much-needed.


I had a chance to chat with the Korea University Station calligrapher, Mr. Kim, and I even bought one of his works for W10,000, which seems to be the standard price for large calligraphic pieces. He gave me an extra brush painting of his for free, then he handed me his card and told me to give him a call sometime. If I find time to squeeze in some calligraphy lessons with him, that'll be fantastic, but I didn't study his card long enough to see where he's based. If he's way across town from Smoo, lessons might not be possible.

Speaking of Things I'd Like to Learn, I noticed that Smoo's School of Music is right next to the building where I'll be teaching. Maybe I can persuade someone to teach me piano for a small fee. My mother made me take piano lessons when I was six; ever the stubborn bastard, I refused to learn anything and the lessons stopped. I regret that now, and would very much like to learn. Since Korea's been cranking out classical musicians for the past couple decades, and since I'm sitting on an informational gold mine here at Smoo, I might as well strike while the iron is pink, wet, and turgid.


Bad and ugly, all wrapped up in one person-- a girl in her early twenties on the Line 6 subway, sitting with her boyfriend. Why? Because when a group of Africans (not African Americans) got on the subway and sat next to her, she made a face and put her hand to her nose while looking pleadingly at her boyfriend. Racist bitch. Kept her hand over her nose the entire time, too.

We're not going to get anywhere in a discussion of racism if we can't also address the problem of blind cultural relativism. I'll acknowledge straight up that America, like any country in the world, has a problem with racism. My mother reminded me of this a couple months ago: when people on the phone hear her accent, they automatically assume she's FOB (fresh off da boat) and can't understand English. But you can speak full-speed English to my mother and, unless you're lacing your language with subtle puns, obscure references, or overly specialized terminology, she'll catch what you're saying immediately, because she's been an American citizen for about forty years.

But the relativists want to claim that all racism problems are equal, and leave it at that. That's a bullshit attitude to take. It solves nothing. In my opinion, both overt and covert racism are far and away more prevalent in Korea than in the States, whether we're talking about hiring policies, interracial romance, conduct in public spaces, or any other aspect of society. This isn't to say that "Koreans are racist," per se; obviously, exceptions abound. My own extended family here has accepted me as one of them, more or less, and they encourage me to go out with Koreans. No miscegenation fears there. I'd wager that tens of thousands of Korean Koreans don't fit the racist profile.

But racism like what I saw today is rampant in Korean society, and to see it so often in Seoul, the most cosmopolitan locale in South Korea, is routinely discouraging. I can barely imagine what it's like being black in the States; it's even harder to imagine what it's like to be black and in Korea. I'm sure it's not all gloom and doom, but it sure as hell can't be a picnic.

[What I love: the black American soldier who speaks fluent Korean and ambushes the racist whisperers around him.]

As a half-Korean, I've experienced racism here that I never experienced in the States. Back home in the DC-Metro area, I've experienced ethnic confusion-- some people see my half-Korean face and think I'm a Spanish speaker. While in France, however, almost everyone assumed I was some form of asiatique. In Korea, very, very few of my bruvvaz see the Korean in me. They somehow miss the brown hair, the brown eyes, the lack of hairy forearms, and see only White Guy.

That's changing, though: the situation's improved since the 90s, perhaps because more half-Koreans are in the Korean news these days, and because white/Korean relationships are slightly less stigmatized than they were years ago (don't write in: I'm aware that plenty of white folks experience difficulties in this area; I'm merely speaking generally).

But while the racial situation in Korea is lamentable, it provides an opportunity for those of us who knew no racism in the States to understand what it feels like to be an ethnic/racial minority. I'm not saying racism is therefore therapeutic for its victims-- God, no. I am saying that you have to make lemonade when life gives you those lemons. Find the lesson in the moment. Every moment contains one if you have ears to hear.

As I've told friends in the States, my mid-90s experience in Korea made me much more sympathetic to what blacks of all different ethnicities go through in the US. I understand, to a small extent, why so many of them go through their day with a certain guardedness, or resentment, or outright anger. How would you feel if you knew that the people around you were reacting negatively to your presence, all day, every day, year after year, with no end in sight to that attitude?

It's easy for non-minorities to say, "Suck it up and achieve!" The fact is that many minorities do just that, rising above their lowly situation, and it takes special strength and a very positive attitude. Although I'm sympathetic to the American conservative argument that people should be judged according to merit and not according to skin color, the fact is that people do judge each other according to race. Racism is real, and it has practical effects, some of which are beyond a single person's control. Sucking it up or pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps-- these aren't always enough. Although I'm not a supporter of affirmative action, I am very much a supporter of aggressive consciousness-raising about racism's pervasive influence in society, and am sympathetic to the rationale behind affirmative action. Ultimately, the best solution is relentless education with the goal of extirpating the racism meme. It's a project that will take generations, but it's one we can't abandon.

Americans come from everywhere. The peoples who come to our shores bring their Old Country attitudes with them. American racism is, if anything, a reflection of those Old Country prejudices, which we quickly discover are similar in nature, no matter where our ancestors hail from. The major difference between us and many other countries is that the enforced pluralism of our society ensures that racism is always one of the top five hot topics in our public discourse. Korea, as far as I can tell, still has a long way to go when it comes to discussing race openly and compassionately.

Given how "minor" the minorities are in Korea, perhaps most ethnic Koreans feel there's little need for a discussion right now. That's too bad. Racism affects everybody, and it's not pretty to watch it in action as I did tonight.


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