So I guess Koreans don’t talk about racism much—not nearly so much as Americans do, anyway, since people back home seem to spout off those three nasty syllables with every other confounded clause they manage to squeeze out of their pathetically malnourished cerebrums. “Oh hiya Bill, how ya doin’, that’s good, well ya know, I’m not a racist, so I’m feelin’ purty durn good right about now”—“Now you come to that thur intersection two lights down, then you bear north, and just keepin goin’, keep goin’, ’cause you’re goin’ ta wanta turn back but don’t stop, just keep goin’, right on past that thur ACORN building on yer right, and doncha know they’re a buncha Mohammed-worshippin’ white-folk hatin’ racists, don’t know nothin’ ’bout our old time religion”, etc., etc.
Digressions aside, I’ve packed together a nice fat wad of anecdotes for your breakfast this morning, dripping with syrup and pathos and every manner of quotable quotidian racism. This isn’t the storm-in-a-teacup variety you hear bandied about on the dewy green campuses of liberal arts educational institutions, but really, truly, deeply, the real deal, the exploding volcano that nobody notices.
The first instance is this: shulashulashulah. I’m sure nearly every foreign teacher in Korea has heard this sound; children utter it when you speak too much English to them, it is essentially the Korean equivalent of ching-chang-chong, what English sounds like to Koreans who do not speak English, and while a number of Koreans have insisted that it is not a racist expression, I strongly suspect the contrary. Squid, after all, don’t know they’re swimming in water until they get themselves plucked up out of the sea by the wrinkly bare hands of a ravening ajumma; most Koreans might change their minds about shulashulashulah if they heard an American shout “ching-chang-chong!” at them when speaking Korean in America. The kids in two of my classes said shulashulah to me yesterday when they grew bored listening to one of my long-winded diatribes on the pretty solid if convoluted logic behind the Ptolemaic view of the universe and the nature of the planetary epicycles; I then had to ask, and insist, and beg, that they never speak shulashulashulah ever again. Since they are probably getting these words from their parents and grandparents, and since elders are always, always, always right, even if they are your elders by only a millisecond, I doubt my efforts will make much of a difference.
I’m getting more serious than I’ve ever been about studying the Korean language—I’m going to crack this nut if it kills me, and speak this venerable tongue like a second Sejong—and I spent about four hours studying at a language school yesterday. I was forced to listen to two unbearable things: conversations in English, about English, by Americans who know nothing about English (again, the squid-out-of-water hypothesis), and vehemently awful pop music from god knows where. A good study environment. But my Korean tutor was excellent and I think I made a lot of progress. Anyway, I was forced to overhear a discussion of the word thug—the gloriously nice white guy by my side defined it correctly but had no idea where it came from (there’s a whole library of books about those Kali devotees and the self-serving justifications of British imperialism)—and his Korean friend decided to provide an example for the American’s gratification. “Oh, like black people”, he said, and what’s worse is that the American—the white American—agreed! Or he didn’t notice or he didn’t bat an eyelash, and started talking about Tupac’s thug life, though thankfully he did not say that Tupac was still alive or flying a spaceship with Elvis Presley. I should have said something like, hey, that’s not really appropriate, but instead the seeds of a rather lengthy blog post were sown.
The world would be a better place if every single person were forced to spend a month completely surrounded by people whom they consider to be very different from themselves. Homophobes should hang around gays and nothing but gays, Republicans with Mexican Immigrants, Democrats with Tea Partiers, and Koreans, yes, with a nice family of African Americans. Because, let’s face it, the hatred of black skin here is—to use a Attenboroughian phrase—“really quite extraordinary”, despite the fact that I think most of the really vehement racists have never actually seen a black person with their own eyes.
Two nights ago while returning from a gruelingly satisfying Korean lesson I got on the subway and sat down next to a young man on his cell phone. I heard him befoul the subway air with one word—waygookin, foreign person—and thence came quite close to forcing him to swallow his own lower jaw. There are essentially six nationalities that exist in the Korean consciousness: Japanese person, Chinese person, Dirty person (from Southeast Asia), Indian person, African person, and foreigner person (from anywhere else (but usually a white person from America)). Two Turkish friends are daily called Indians and asked if their headscarves are too hot, I heard that an Irish guy bought a shirt that says in Korean that he is not an American, and the desperation of Southeast Asian or Philippine Women knows bounds that are really unfathomable to this writer, as they are apparently selling themselves to rather unattractive old Korean men in droves to escape the poverty that infests their homes like a rampant disease. I believe Vietnamese virgin brides go for about twenty or thirty thousand dollars a pop, and that only the ugliest old men diligently save up their hard-earned pay for a permanent supply of that precious poon—naturally they would prefer one of the thousand pure-blooded long-legged Korean girls they spend every day gawking at like escaped prison convicts, though you’ve gotta be a pretty girly boy to snatch one up—still, I may have gotten the price wrong. They say they come here to live the Korean dream—which is to say, they come here to slave away their whole lives for a pittance and a chance to watch TV, to obey unquestionably the arbitrary dictates of their elders, and in general to be treated like cattle by various Koreans who believe nationality and race and bloodline to be synonymous—with their own lineage superior, pure, and magically unsullied by the droves of invaders who have been conquering and re-conquering Korea for thousands of years.
It is amusing to me that the most racist people everywhere are all racist in the same way—each thinks his race is superior, and most seem to have some sort of persecution complex. You never see a racist guy who says, “yeah, I’m an Uzbek, but those Kazakhs, man, that’s where it’s at, I would kill to be a Kazakh. I mean have you even seen the size of their elbows?”
Last week I got the chance to witness an instance of that fabled anti-Japanese sentiment that one so often hears about but rarely actually sees. My co-teacher put on this video for the class, and the first three classes were as amused as anyone else would be by the overwhelming cuteness of these Japanese kids—who, except for the Japanese writing on their shirts, are absolutely indistinguishable from Korean children—but the last class booed the video, inspired to racism by the actions of a single student, who stood up and shouted something I didn’t understand while waving both his thumbs at the floor right after the video ended. I should have said or done something but I didn’t. There was also a much more minor instance about a year ago when the student from hell, a fat, cruel, exceedingly ugly hedgehog sort of character, began joking with his friends about how the Japanese call kimchi kim-uh-chi—which naturally had me thinking that if he had any idea how truly awful he sounded when he opened his mouth, whether to wound our ears with Korean or his butchered English, he would keep his mouth shut until Judgment Day, and even long after that! Again, this is the squid-out-of-water thing.
My girlfriend’s friends once called her a Mongol to make fun of her, and despite conquering the world (which includes Korea), Mongols evidently don’t rank so high in the hierarchy of Asian races. She works in a hospital, and has discussed race with some interesting terminally-ill patients, who apparently believe that Barack Obama is actually white—if only the Tea Partiers knew!—and that being only a little black is okay, but all black is no good. I have heard people say, in New York, that Asians are terrible at parking their own cars. It’s something in the DNA! Something in the blood, surely! The good people of Togo, meanwhile, are notorious for their amusingly feminine appreciation of French ballet (or at least that’s what their neighbors the Beninians swear to be true). This dictionary entry on Race from Merriam-Webster says it all:
Although ideas of race are centuries old, it was not until the 19th century that attempts to systematize racial divisions were made. Ideas of supposed racial superiority and social Darwinism reached their culmination in Nazi ideology of the 1930s and gave pseudoscientific justification to policies and attitudes of discrimination, exploitation, slavery, and extermination. Theories of race asserting a link between racial type and intelligence are now discredited. Scientifically it is accepted as obvious that there are subdivisions of the human species, but it is also clear that genetic variation between individuals of the same race can be as great as that between members of different races.
The family lawyer once told a judge that everyone’s at least a little racist, and it’s true, everyone is—similarly, those anti-racist de-programming workshops I heard about at Hampshire College would probably have sent me into the arms of the Klan if I had been forced to attend them, but a civilized society, or a society that aims to be civil, must remember that in the eyes of god we are not Americans, not Koreans, but simply human beings.