Tag Archives: Racism

Fight The Power

Why have I stopped blogging? Because blogging doesn’t pay. Writing books doesn’t really pay either, but it does pay something, and I decided over the last two months to devote all my creative powers toward using writing to make that something into a bigger and more substantial something that would be sufficient to extricate both myself and my family from Korea. Not surprisingly, we’re all still here.

But I was inspired to return briefly to my defunct website to describe an encounter I just had at a restaurant with my two-year-old son as well as a family of Koreans, who sat down across from us and commenced to parrot everything I said in English while simultaneously commenting, in Korean, on what my son and I were doing. I told my son to have some rice in English, and the boy across from us told his father the same thing in the same language, explaining that it meant 밥 먹어라 in Korean. His father went on to say “habbuh some lie-ssuh” about thirty times to the rest of his family, who were all very much amused by his antics. My son then lifted up a fork to eat the rest of his rice. This is strange in Korea, where people only use steel spoons and chopsticks to eat Korean food, forks and knives being reserved for unhealthy and barbarous western cuisine. When I heard the boy across from us say “pokkuh” with surprise and amusement, I looked up at him and his family—for the first time—and discovered that they were all staring at us and smiling.

I couldn’t resist. I berated them, in Korean, for treating us like zoo animals. I know I conjugated my verbs politely, but the emotion inside of me was so strong that I can barely remember what I said. I can remember seeing those amazing smiles of theirs—those “The Foreigner Is Going To Amuse Us” smiles—fade into extremely awkward and stilted “We Don’t Know What To Do” smiles as I said something like, “Is this funny? Is this funny? If you went to America, and spoke Korean, and heard people speaking Korean around you, you would feel bad. For us, we feel bad. It’s not funny.”

Simplistic it is, and I may not have even gotten that much across. Who knows. But it did shut them up. I addressed all of them, as well, looking mother and father and older brother and younger brother straight in the eyes, and they were so surprised they said nothing back. When I finally glanced down to my son, who was still eating white rice with his fork as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening at all, they were still smiling at me like mannequins. It was spectacular. I told my son to finish up, and actually started laughing with him. We paid, thanked the restaurant’s owner as politely as we could, and walked out.

Maybe I would have let it go if they had done the same thing to me before yesterday, when I suspect one of my college students pretended to ddong-chim me for the amusement his friends. I only saw him do so out of the corner of my eye, and I’m not even really sure that’s what he was doing to begin with, but I didn’t yell at him for it—I let it go, actually, when I should have flung him out of the classroom, and because I let it go, the anger seethed inside me, twisting in my gut like a knife for the rest of the day, through the night, and all the way into this afternoon. I regretted my restraint, and I will probably wind up yelling at him in the next class we have together.

But as a result of this restraint and subsequent regret I decided to unleash the fury of my silver Korean tongue, my second soul, at the exact moment I encountered a fresh instance of barbarism that was not only directed toward me, but toward my son. Some readers may think I was less than diplomatic, but seriously, they were talking about us as if we were zoo animals—they were insulting us, right in front of us, as if we didn’t care. I mean, who does that? Who goes to a restaurant—which was otherwise empty, by the way—and starts talking about the people sitting right next to them as if they’re an exhibit in a museum? Who does that, and then smiles pleasantly, as if the people on display don’t care—as if those people enjoy being dehumanized? I shouldn’t have said anything, honestly. What I should have done was pull a Klaus Kinski. I should have picked up my bowl of hot soup and flung it at the boy’s father and said HAVE SOME RICE!

On a related note, last night, a boy came up to me while I was trying without much success to remember the passcode required to get inside a massive apartment building, where one of my students was waiting for me. I was several minutes late and feeling extremely frustrated. He walked up to me, and said, in English, “where are you from?” Without looking at him and also without thinking I said “your mom”. He said, “your home?” And I said, “no, your mom.” He stopped talking to me after that. I then remembered the passcode and got inside.

One more slightly related story. Another blogger has recently related a complaint about Korea’s four-thousand-year history. An older Korean in-law came up to him and said, “did you know Korea has a four-thousand-year history?” or something like that, and it made this blogger feel bad. I found this encounter interesting for numerous reasons, one of those being that a friend from Hampshire engaged in a rather epic battle with a Korean nationalist to remove that exact same [ridiculous] claim from wikipedia’s History of Korea page.

I told my (Korean) wife about this encounter, testing her to see if she would make the bogus claim that Korea is the oldest country on Earth, and she had the presence of mind to say “everyone has a four-thousand-year history”, or something to that effect. And for most of my readers, particularly those reading from beyond the half-peninsula’s shores, that is a truism, but inside Korea it really is possible to encounter people who believe that they could go four thousand years back in time and talk with their ancestors in modern Korean about the scientific wonders of Hangul and the spectacular beauty of 우리 나라 Dokdo over a bowl of spicy kimchi stew.

Now, in four years of dwelling in Korea, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who believe these things. One was a random retired schoolteacher. Another was kind of crazy, and introduced himself to me by declaring that an American soldier had killed his grandmother. A third was my mother-in-law, who said that Korean scenery is the most beautiful in the world (my wife corrected her and said that other places are much more beautiful, but why does there even have to be a contest? Parts of Korea are beautiful, parts of the rest of the world are beautiful, everything is wonderful). That’s it. For the rest of the hundreds or even thousands of people I’ve spoken to, these issues have not come up.

But, on the off-chance that someone does come up to you and decides to pick a fight by saying “my country is older than yours” or “my alphabet is prettier than yours”, I recommend fighting them back. I won’t speculate as to why these people act this way, but I do know that by simply nodding and smiling and saying wow, that’s interesting, they aren’t going to stop. That family I berated, for instance, will probably think twice about discussing other foreigners as if they are zoo animals in the future…although I wouldn’t be surprised if they did the exact same thing again in the exact same place and got yelled at in the exact same way, only to ask themselves, “why are these foreigners such assholes?”

First, the claim that Korea is four thousand or five thousand years old or whatever is based on a text called the Samguk Yusa which was written seven hundred years ago. This text does say that an ancient Korean dynasty was founded a long way back, but in the same breath as saying that its founder, Dangun, came out of the sky, talked to bears and tigers, and invented medicine. Thus!, telling people that Korea is older than [insert country here] because it was founded by Dangun is really no different from saying that Greece was founded by Zeus or that England was founded by a dragonslayer named Beowulf or that Iraq was founded by Gilgamesh. Ancient civilizations were present in all of these places, just as they were present throughout much of the rest of the world—some were hunting deer, others were building pyramids, why is one better than the other?—and there is some historical basis for these myths, but can we really trace a direct link between our world and theirs? Would anyone from that period of history feel comfortable or at home in ours? Would anyone from our period feel comfortable or at home in theirs? Why do we then claim them as our own? Why, also, do we sometimes associate ourselves with sports teams made up of muscular men who want nothing to do with us? And why do I see colors when I rub my eyes?

Second, the claim that Hangul, the Korean script, is scientific. It is not a myth. People do say this. I’ve asked them what they mean when they do, and they immediately say “I have no idea.” I’m not really sure what they mean by scientific—what hypothesis is the written language testing or proving?—but there is a direct link between certain letters of Hangul as well as certain letters of the Roman alphabet, so if Hangul is scientific, the Roman alphabet is scientific too (even if these letters descended from arbitrary Egyptian hieroglyphics). The letter ㅂ looks and sounds like a B; the letter ㅋ looks and sounds like a K; the letter ㄴ is sometimes pronounced as an L; the letter ㅣ is sometimes pronounced as an i; the letter ㅍ looks and sounds like the Greek equivalent π. Other letters resemble one another: ㅌ, ㄷ, and ㄹ are all fairly familiar-looking to Westerners who know nothing about Hangul. So if someone comes up to you and says Hangul is scientific, you can say, hey, great, my alphabet is scientific, too!

A final note. The first paragraph I wrote here implies that I am desperate to leave Korea. And, to tell you the truth, when I find myself walking around the trash-strewn streets of Gyeongju with my son, I can’t help but feel ashamed. I’m like, really, Ian? This is the best you can do? You’re going to raise your son in a place that smells like diarrhea? When your parents raised you around Park Slope and Acadia National Park? Don’t get me wrong. I like Korea. I speak Korean. I’ve married a Korean person. I have a great relationship with her parents. She has a great relationship with mine. My son is half-Korean. I thoroughly enjoy my job at a university in Korea. But when I think of my son walking around these mountains of garbage, bent over multiple-choice exams in a hagwon at twelve in the morning, listening to yet another group of idiots say hello to him in English, I can’t help but consider that a failure. I can’t help but feeling to the depth of my soul that I am capable of more. We’re getting out of here. He’s going to live in a place that treats him like a human being. America has its problems, but jesus christ, as least the kid can go outside. And my insane hope to break free from all of this insanity is to write a book that people actually read. Or to just get a decent job.

I will escape, one day, and you’ll read about it here, when I do. Then these ridiculous stories about zoo animals in restaurants will end forever.

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How To Fight The Hellos

It’s always confused me, this occasional predilection Asia has for greeting non-Asians with an English hello—I was once helloed as faraway as the Balinese countryside, while riding on the back of a speeding motorbike, by a uniformed schoolchild—and though I can’t speak for the tone used in China, Japan, or other countries, my impression is that in Korea the speaker is generally attempting to alienate you from his culture, to establish that you are a member of a different tribe, to amuse his friends, or to sate a Pavlovian reflex implanted within his consciousness by his television or his elders: when you see a person who looks slightly different, you must say hello in English.

While living in Australia my Korean wife complained that people addressed her in Chinese or Japanese—never Korean—and though I know that Asians are subject to all sorts of racism back in America (do you know kung-fu? do you eat a lot of rice? / being passed over for promotion / getting good grades because of your tiger mom / rarely appearing in films that take place outside of ancient China / no, where are you from?), the least you can say is that they can usually walk the streets without being concerned about people regularly greeting them in languages other than English, though now that I think about it I bet that happens all the time.

In Korea I can remember the first time a stranger said hello to me. I was getting off a bus in Busan when a young man did it, and I, not knowing that he was trying to throw an insult my way, said hello back in a friendly tone. I even smiled and waved a little, like a perfect bumpkin used to the country life back in Maine, where people say hello to one another even if they’re strangers just to be nice, but here the man didn’t respond—he just laughed as his girlfriend yelped and hit him with her bag. Then they walked away.

This first hello fit into a general pattern. Young male, always in the company of friends, never alone, says hello, and then laughs snidely regardless of your response. If you are with a Korean, however, they will probably hold back from attacking you.

There are plenty of exceptions. Children sometimes say hello out of genuine curiosity, and will shift into Korean if you speak with them—“Are you a foreigner?” “I’m a human, like you.”—and a man once came up out of nowhere and shook my hand with genuine warmth; young women occasionally get in on the action for reasons beyond my comprehension.

For four years I endured the hellos without any retaliation. They always bothered me. I’m so sensitive that they would ruin my mood for hours. A hello would remind me that I am not welcome here, that I am not a part of this culture, that I am not expected to understand anything the people do here in the slightest, that I can never hope to be fully comfortable in this place.

My Korean wife finally demanded that I fight back. The first phrase she suggested was 한국말로 해라, hangook mal-lo hela, say it in Korean. In the case of laughing packs of high school boys, she said I should say: 임마, 왜 웃어? eem-ma, way u-saw, hey asshole, why are you laughing?, with the caveat that in their company one should probably just let it go, as there have been a number of crimes associated with high school kids beating the shit out of old people for perceived slights. So far as I know, foreigners have escaped their wroth, though I usually have to hold back from tearing off my clothes and charging into their ranks, kicking, screaming, spitting, and biting, whenever I see them prowling around the sidewalkless roads.

Another whining complaint is related to the egregious use of the term waygookin or waygook salam, foreigner, which drives me out of my mind. If you happen to feel the urge to comment on this post to remind me that other people don’t care about this shit, don’t bother, because I’m already way ahead of you—I don’t care. But, on the other hand, if you happen to be bothered by this somewhat inappropriate word used virtually whenever a non-Korean person appears on television or really anywhere at all, my indomitable wife, whose skeleton, Wolverine-like, was cast from liquid titanium (or whatever), has a few suggestions for you: when people start talking about you as if you can’t understand them, using the Korean word for foreigner, simply say: 외국인 왜요? 외국인 좋아요? 외국인 나빠요? Way-gook-een way-yo? Way-gook-een jo-ah-yo? Way-gook-een na-pa-yo? Why foreigners? Foreigners are good? Foreigners are bad? That should shut them up, and hopefully get them to think twice about using the term so shamelessly again.

I do think I discovered the source of the hellos. Although daycare is free, ubiquitous, and seemingly relatively decent in Korea—a friend’s awlineecheep even comes with a video camera he can access on the internet any time, to make sure no one is soiling his son’s virtue—most Korean families still insist on having their older and, usually, uneducated relatives take care of their young children every day. I’ve seen multiple old women shouting, swearing, and beating kids in public here, while a couple of weeks ago I had a remarkable encounter with an elderly halmoni who was walking around with a four-year old in a nearby apartment complex, where I was waiting for a special-session-that-must-not-be-named to start.

This crazy woman pointed at me and shouted, to her grandchild, in Korean: “Foreigner! Foreigner! Look! It’s a foreigner! Foreignerrrrrrr!” “Ajumma,” I said, after looking up, looking down, getting angry, and deciding to fight, “That’s rude. How would you feel if you went to a different country, and people started shouting that you were an Asian?”

Although my Korean is shaky at best, I think I got the point across, as she simply nodded and walked away with a frozen smile that said she utterly despised me—how dare you express the fact that you have a soul?!? I had a similar encounter at a nearby Starbucks, said something more or less the same, and actually got an apology from the inane mother who was mouthing off this bullshit in an attempt to entertain her infant spawn.

A lot of the time people aren’t aware that they’re acting like barbarians, or objectifying you; they do so with the warmest smiles, thinking that you enjoy playing the role of the bumbling idiot who stepped off the airplane five minutes ago—even after living here for four years. An ajumma at a decent restaurant I frequent asked me if it was okay for her daughter to say hello to me in English—asked me in Korean—and I told her that Korean was better. She said something like how that was ridiculous, her daughter (young, terrified, cowering behind her legs) was great at English, and then I tried and failed to add that Korean was more welcoming. I still don’t know exactly how to say that, but I think it may be close to 더 환영것같다. This woman has always been nice to me, but I could have added, if this were not the case, that I am not her daughter’s toy—just as my son is not the toy of the legions of young women who ask to get his picture taken almost whenever we venture outside.

A lot of you are going to say that I’m whining about nothing, but I don’t care. This is a big deal to me. When you say hello in Korean, that’s great, I love it, I’m happy to talk with you, regardless of who you are. When you say hello in English, you make me into an Other, you associate me with things that in reality I am only very loosely associated with, you objectify me, you exclude me, you turn me into a tool of your amusement, and in all likelihood you really need to shut the hell up.

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That Is Mannerless Speaking

While standing in line at the new Starbucks in town—why did I even go there? the green tea latte was $6!—and listening to Hanggai in my earbuds, I heard a woman behind me shouting, in Korean, “It’s a foreigner! It’s a foreigner!” I turned around and looked at this woman, who was shouting for the benefit of her toddler, then standing far beneath us. Rolling my eyes, I turned back to the front of the line, but the shouts of “It’s a foreigner!” continued unabated, and I thought, yes, this is it, finally, the moment I strike back, after almost four years of listening to people talk about me as if I can’t understand them, the end is here, this is the turn of the tide.

The earbuds come out.

“That’s really impolite,” I say in English, turning and facing the woman again. Then, after a moment of searching for the words in Korean, my eyes shifting back and forth, I utter them: “그것 예절 없는 말이요,” adding: “외국인 이해 할 수 있어요.” Foreigners can understand. The woman smiles and nods.

The earbuds go back in.

I return to standing in line, and the woman stops shouting that I’m a foreigner.

I’ve never commented on the manners of a complete stranger to that stranger’s face. You’ve got to be pretty goddamn barbaric to drive me to do so: and before someone comes in here whining about how this is a different culture which I should respect, remember that Koreans complain constantly about being racially singled out in America and, particularly, Australia. They know all about racism. It’s wrong to talk like this in my culture and it’s wrong to talk like this in their culture, but people do it anyway in both cultures.

The Korean grammar isn’t perfect, but my wife told me later that I probably got my point across.

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The Pattern Of Chabyul!

The Site Of The Foul Crime!

Chabyul…or discrimination.

Item. We were climbing the king’s burial mound, his tumulus, his rounded grass hill. I will not say who we were: only that I was with one other foreign father and two toddlers, one of whom was my own, one of whom was his. I knew it was wrong to climb the hill. Even disrespectful. No better than walking over someone’s grave or fooling around in a cemetery back home. But if I were to take a silly picture of myself in an American graveyard, making a stupid face, would that be considered a serious crime? Would people walk up to me and tell me to stop?

The other toddler climbed up the tomb, which may have belonged to a certain mister King Jinpyeong, and we let him go. He was enjoying the view. My toddler followed him, but the climb was far too steep, so I helped him up—all the way to the top, the boy in my arms giggling the whole way. I had never done this before, but I had always wondered what it was like at the top of the king’s tombs, which litter Gyeongju in the dozens or perhaps even the hundreds. The view was nice. I snapped a few worthless pictures, saw that Koreans were coming toward us from a nearby road, and decided that we had to get the hell out of there immediately. We couldn’t have been up there for more than a minute.

The fact that getting to the top of these pleasant grassy knolls was considered disrespectful always deterred me from attempting to desecrate them, but I had seen other Koreans climb up before, and at the heart of the city the problem is so vexing that there are actually guards working around the tombs whose only job is to prevent people from climbing them.

But we were out in the country, and there were no guards, so three random Koreans who were also visiting the tomb took it upon themselves to act as policemen for their culture.

They walked up to the hill after I had already started coming down, and shouted: Ola gam yun an day yo! Ola gam yun an day yo! Please don’t go up! Please don’t go up!

Even though I was already on my way down with my son, the other toddler following us.

It took less than a minute to get back to the ground, and two of the Koreans decided to stop and walk away. But one boy kept yelling at us. He was about twelve. As big as a boy can be before his voice breaks. There was nothing wrong with his tone, and even his conjugations were polite, but he was shouting Please don’t go up! Please don’t go up! continuously, almost without taking a breath, even after two of us had already gone down. The last person remaining was a two year-old boy, and he was also clearly following the Korean’s orders.

I was thinking of telling him to shut up and go away. My Korean wife later said that she would have done so on our behalf—goo man hay ga! But the trouble with speaking with these sorts of people in Korean is that they are liable to want to continue the conversation, while not speaking to them at all or engaging them in English will probably get them to leave quickly.

The other foreigner present, the other toddler father, took this latter option and asked the Korean youth in English why was he shouting at his son? And the boy gave some muddled reply in Korean about the Han-nara, or Korean nation, and the father interrupted him and asked him how old he was. The boy stated his age. That’s right, the father said, you’re younger than me, so stop it and go away—or something. I don’t remember exactly what he said. The point is this: had the foreign father been a Korean father, this other boy never would have questioned him, and probably never would have yelled at his son, but since he was a foreigner the rules of Korean etiquette did not apply.

After that the father walked away, and the youth joined up with his sister and his own father. Crazily enough, I could have sworn that I had seen them climbing the tomb minutes before we ourselves did—they had gone up maybe ten feet or so, only a third of the way, taken a picture, come down, and then we had gone up while they had walked around the tomb (it was fairly large), found us all the way at the top, and realized that only Koreans are allowed to desecrate Korean culture.

Now the youth was talking with his father and his sister about something rapidly and annoyingly. I couldn’t catch a word, but at this point I was mostly staring at the grass, hoping that they would just go away. The Korean father had his arms crossed and looked like he was ready to tear our throats out. He was rigid. He was still. I’m not sure I saw him blink. Finally, after several minutes of listening to his son blabber about the holiness of the Korean nation, he looked at the foreign dad and said, in English, NO CLIMB!

Now there are some Koreans who habitually assume that all foreigners in this country arrived here yesterday and know absolutely nothing about the land they are currently bestriding. Even after living here for three years people still compliment me on my chopstick use, though every foreigner I’ve seen always uses chopsticks in a manner that is nothing less than proficient. People act like they are going to have an orgasm, a heart attack, and a baby, all at the same time, if I speak Korean to them. If I write my name in Korean their jaws drop. If I write it in Chinese—which I can!—they look at me as though I have just turned water into wine before their eyes.

Many don’t do this at all, and it’s possible to have all kinds of pleasant interactions with the locals, but there is a pattern of discrimination that I deal with by venting about it here on my blog.

This Korean father assumed that since we were foreigners we did not know anything about his country or his culture. But, in fact, unbeknownst to him, he was in the company of two fellows who have taken an unusual and inordinate interest in the history of Korea. I would be willing to bet my nice new apartment that the foreign father knew far more about Korea than these Koreans. He is a treasure trove of historical information. He has been studying this place full time for almost two years, I believe, at a nearby university. Later in the day he explained that there had been several temples, long since destroyed, built on a nearby hill, which had been considered sacred a thousand years ago, and he was able to tell me their names and their purposes. He suspected that the tomb we were visiting did not actually contain the corpse of the king it was named after. When I asked him where Gyeongju’s ancient port was, he disagreed with the assessment of a local Korean historian and declared that it must have been Pohang, since the nearby Mapo Beach is not shaped like a natural harbor. When I asked him if he knew anything about Persian merchants getting stuck here in medieval Korea, he referred me to a strange statue at Gwoenung’s Tomb, which may indeed depict a foreigner. Ask him any question about this place and he has an answer ready for you.

Assuming that he knew nothing about this place due to the color of his skin, as the Korean father did, was highly insulting.

After saying NO CLIMB!, the family of indomitable cultural guardians left us alone.

Item. I’ve started using this app called Kakaotalkstory, very popular here in the Daehan Mingook, which people mostly use to share pictures. I want to use it to practice Korean, but within minutes of beginning my wife’s friends were commenting on my photographs only to correct what were minor spelling mistakes or incredibly obvious typos. This came as a total surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. One example for readers of Korean: my finger had slipped and I had written 쟁미 없다 instead of the proper 재미 없다, and before I saw it I was caught and outed by one of my wife’s friends. It was discouraging. After only a few minutes I didn’t really want to interact with them anymore.

Then, a day or so later, came the coup de grâce: a woman corrected my grammar, and I was sure she was wrong. I asked my wife to check. She confirmed my suspicions, and after I grilled her she admitted that, yes, Koreans sometimes make spelling or grammar mistakes online, and, no, they don’t usually correct each other when they do, because that’s annoying and impolite.

Other interactions on Kassuh, as it’s abbreviated, have been more positive, but they’re not as interesting to write about.

Item. At my university I’m required to spend an hour in this conversation area, sitting at a table to “do freetalking” with students. Normally this is one of the more pleasant engagements at my place of work, but every couple of months the same crazy old man—claiming that he was a student here twenty years ago—wanders inside and monopolizes the table despite being almost totally unable to speak English at a conversational level. Here’s one of the things he said to me after I revealed that I was an American:

“An American killed my grandmother.”

Now what would you say if you were an American and you were in my situation? Would you apologize? Inwardly, mentally, I refused to. I am an individual. I am not my country. I am not responsible for crimes I myself did not commit. Germans and Russians and all kinds of people killed my ancestors and made their lives miserable, but I don’t hold it against the German or the Russian people, because I’m willing to be that everyone who was personally involved in these crimes has been dead for decades. In my life I’ve met Germans and Russians and I’ve never mentioned this unpleasant history to them because I don’t consider it to be important. But this crazy guy did. He told me about it as soon as he learned my nationality—and later I learned he had done the same thing to a different American he had met at the same place several months before!

I didn’t apologize, but I was as polite as could be. I didn’t ask, for instance, something like, well, was your grandmother trying to kill that American? What were the circumstances surrounding her death exactly? I suspect that this man even liked me. He later tried to change the subject to a Korean documentary he had seen concerning the well-known fact that the first Americans came from Europe across Greenland, using the words “great land”, a direct translation fo the Korean 대륙, for continent. I tried to remain civil because you become an ambassador for your country the moment you venture outside its borders—and even as I was wheeling and dealing with him, inwardly all I could think to myself was: I will not apologize. I know that’s exactly what you want, but you’re not going to get it from me.

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Racist Bastards!

In the university library there’s this reasonably okay travel book, Korea: A Walk Through The Land Of Miracles, by Simon Winchester, in which the author walks around the country encountering Korean things and Korean people during the 1980s, which is rather interesting for several reasons, as it seems the entire country was encircled by a barbed-wire fence at the time (to keep North Korean spies from nocturnal amphibious landings), and Koreans themselves had to work incredibly hard if they wanted to obtain a passport, while their relationship to gigantic conglomerates like Hyundai sounds a lot like the typical North Korean’s relationship to the state: in exchange for your life, the company will provide everything you need, even your shoes! I don’t have the book with me now but I may post an excerpt.

The book is fairly light—enjoyably light, but far too light for me—and the perspective of the author is definitely critical, in that he views the antics of Jeju honeymooners (for example) as being totally ridiculous: many of the newlyweds arrive at their hotels without having ever spoken to one another, as they are the products of matchmaking rather than something as silly as love, and it’s up to the hotel owners to get them to bone each other before their honeymoon ends after two or three days. They resort to dousing their guests in alcohol and force them to sing songs from their childhood, which apparently gets the job done most of the time.

There’s a lot of crazy stuff here, and it seems like a useful text for the small number of us who can’t read Korean but who likewise have an interest in learning about the history of the country, as told through eyes that are not going to focus entirely on the glorious taste of kimchi, the perfect beauty of the four seasons, the scientific mastery of the Hangul alphabet, the wonders of the Seoul Olympics, or the actions of elites. Still, the book has been savaged on its amazon page, seemingly for the same reasons that I was savaged after I posted a lengthy article on asiapundits a few weeks ago: I am critical of a country, therefore I am a generalizing racist. I’m working really hard on pumping out an ebook on Korea at the moment, and wondering if I should throw in a sentence to pre-empt the numerous readers who are going to accuse me of looking down on Korea as a whole as a result of saying that, as a Westerner, I for one, find Confucianism to be fairly arbitrary. Actually I was really unhappy when I first came to this country for a lot of good reasons. I lived near Deokcheon in Busan, worked in a pretty bad public school, and was getting over the fact that the world outside of college is a lot harsher than the world inside. I was not unhappy because I hated the Korean race—I mean, I married a Korean and my son is half-Korean! Still, I now know that a lot of people are going to say I’m an asshole or a weakling, and they’re not going to listen if I try to convince them otherwise.

A friend recommended a different book to me, this one written in English by a Korean American, Still Life With Rice, about the extraordinary life of her grandmother. What’s interesting is that if the (very excellent) first page had been written by a white man instead of a Korean woman, that man would have been accused by someone, somewhere, of demeaning the Korean race or women in general. What’s up with this? Why do I have to belong to a tribe in order to talk about it critically? Isn’t that so simplistic? I suppose I suffer from the same problem when people who are not Jews start talking about Jews, because it just seems like their knowledge is always so incomplete (to say the least), and yet if a fellow Jew were to tell me, like, what’s up with all the Orthodox Jews in Borough Park?, I would be like, hell if I know. But if a non-Jewish person were to say this, I would immediately freak out and accuse that person of Nazism.

Perhaps it comes back, as so many things do, to The Selfish Gene. Dawkins argues that the genes in your body want to preserve themselves: if you encounter another body that seems to possess a lot of those genes (belonging to a sibling, a relative, or perhaps someone who just looks and acts a lot like you), you are more likely to act in a fashion that seems altruistic (sacrificing yourself for that person’s preservation) than if you encounter someone with whom you seemingly have nothing in common. These actions seem altruistic, but really they are selfish, because the genes in question just want to preserve themselves, and don’t give a damn about anything else. If we have the same gene, and I die to save your life, the gene we share still survives. An act of altruism would involve sacrificing myself for someone or something with whom I have nothing in common—a fairly rare event. People will die to save other people, but they will very rarely die to save animals or plants, and this is probably because they share fewer genes.

Somehow this comes back to the tribe. If I share a tribe’s genes, I have a right to criticize it, perhaps because in so doing I can further the chances of the tribe’s survival. Outsiders should only be interested in the propagation of their own genes and their own tribes, so it’s obvious that if they criticize me or my tribe, they’re doing so out of motives that are not as pure as my own—when Winchester makes fun of all those numerous things in Korea that are so effortlessly easy to make fun of, he is really trying to destroy the Korean race. The same, apparently, goes for any non-Jew who has ever even thought up an opinion on the Jewish people.

This makes me think that racism may be engrained in our genes. Perhaps, so long as people aren’t killing each other, assaulting each other, or being complete assholes based on race, all of us should just, as my mother says, take a chill pill, because everyone’s a little racist, and to act otherwise is kind of unrealistic. I didn’t go apeshit the last time someone said I was acting Jewish—a non-Jew did actually say this to me several months ago—but his motives did not appear to be negative, so perhaps I shouldn’t have viewed them as such.

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Genetic Explanation For Racism; Historical Explanation For Nationalism

“Conceivably, racial prejudice could be interpreted as an irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance.”

—Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

According to this book, living creatures behave altruistically toward one another because their genes want to survive. If another person is fairly similar in appearance to me, or if another person is related to me by blood, there’s a fairly good chance that that person is carrying a lot of the same genes as I am, and that if I risk my life to save that other person, my genes will survive, even if I do not. Altruistic behavior isn’t altruistic at all, but rather selfish, if you look at things from the perspective of the individual genes. There may indeed be a gene somewhere in most (or even all) of humanity’s genetic makeup that basically says, if you run into a person who looks different from you, you should be cautious at the least and mean or even violent at the most.

This revelation doesn’t explain everything, because it’s possible for a person to ignore or counteract his or her genetics, and obviously only a very small number of the people I have encountered in my life were blatantly racist. While my wife and my friends and I all poke fun at each other in racist ways (since I spend almost all of my time with people who are not white (not just Koreans!)), we don’t discriminate and we try not to judge. Everybody’s at least a little racist, as the family lawyer explained to a jury many years ago—the mind generates abstractions, the brain generalizes—and the trick is just to be conscious of that fact and to do your best to suppress it.

On one of my favorite blogs, Ask A Korean, the author has written several times that he believes that although America has a long way to go, it is still the least racist nation on Earth, because a lot of Americans encounter all kinds of different races all the time, and race is a constant subject of discussion among many people. Although this may not be so true of the younger generation, older or more conservative Koreans view race and nationality as the same thing—the idea of a nation like America or India consisting of numerous different kinds of ethnicities is illogical to them—and as I think many foreigners living in Korea can attest, Koreans tend to be fairly nationalistic.

For example, I have never met a Korean who said that the Liancourt Islands Dispute is an open question, and I actually got in trouble with the parents of one of my students after I prodded her to think for herself on this issue. Back in Busan the subways were empty (except for one notable man, whom I should have photographed, who had covered himself in Korean flags) and the entire city was cheering when the Korean soccer team was battling the Japanese. On the wikipedia talk page for The History of Korea article one of my friends is currently engaged in an argument with a nationalist who insists on placing the ridiculous line, “Korea is one of the oldest countries on Earth”, right at the top of page—never mind defining what a country is (as the idea of a country was probably not a central concern for whoever inhabited this place four thousand years ago), never mind the fact that he is basing this assertion on a collection of Korean myths and fables called the Samguk Yusa, which was written about seven centuries ago. Anecdotes are not proof, nor is consensus, but—regardless.

Although I don’t have the book with me, in B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race, mention is made, I believe, of a somewhat famous Korean nationalist historian named Shin Chae-ho, whom according to Myers’, copied several of his most important ideas from the Japanese—that the Koreans are one people (like the Japanese), and that Mt. Baekdu is important, like Mt. Fuji. Even today, in glancing through the wikipedia page on Nihonjinron (“Discussions On Japanese People”), it’s incredible to see some of the exact same bullshit I’ve spent three years listening to in Korea—both nations appear to be remarkably unique in that they have four seasons, and the Japanese race is so ethnically pure that there are actual tangible physical differences between the Japanese and everyone else. In the article there’s some crap about how the Japanese language uniquely conditions the human brain, and in the case of my own wife we had several fights about how she had to take a shower after she gave birth to our son. Korean women typically don’t shower for a week or so after they give birth because, according to my wife, they believe that the water will break their bones, as their bodies are physically weaker (more innocent) than bodies belonging to other races. My wife did take a shower on her own without any prodding from me a few hours after she gave birth, but a month or so later she became quite furious, and fought with me several times, after I got her to wade into the ocean at Haeundae Beach—up to her ankles, in the middle of the summer. No Korean woman, she said, would ever do that; for months it seemed like every time she sneezed my wife would blame this incident for her discomfort, even though in reality the water didn’t hurt her at all.

Getting back to Shin Chae-ho, I found what looks like a fairly decent if fairly jargon-y paper on this guy after a bit of googling, one which reveals that he is not at all as foolish as I thought. Although he may be the founder of Korean nationalism—the idea of Korea probably existing only among Korean elites before Japanese colonization—it seems that he was (logically) desperate to prevent his country and his people, who are definitely culturally and linguistically distinct from the Japanese (although genetically the two peoples are almost indistinguishable), from being swallowed up and enslaved by them. Fostering hitherto nonexistent national unity may have been the only way, in his mind, to save Korea from becoming a permanent part of Japan; according to my wife he was so distraught when Japan annexed Korea that he refused to wash his face while bowing down, which reminded me of a story about Robert Guiscard, whom (I believe) had to abandon his invasion of Byzantium to put down a rebellion of some sort back in Italy or Sicily, and vowed that he would not shave his beard until he returned to the all-important project of acquiring for himself the Roman diadem.

Although many of Shin Chae-ho’s ideas seem to come straight from the mouth of Japanese fascism, not all of them are ridiculous. He argued that peace in East Asia is only maintained when Korea is strong enough to prevent Japan and China from fighting with each other, and warned the world about the dangers of Japanese Imperialism a good long while before that imperialism was affecting anyone except the Koreans—

“The many great powers of the world have permitted Japan to annex Korea, believing the loud words by which the Japanese gave themselves a self-indulgent license and failing to attain a proper handle on the situation. Japan has already crossed the sea and claimed Korea. At this point, who can stop them from just as easily crossing Duman and Yalu Rivers to swallow whole the territories of northern and southern Manchuria? Who will be able to block them from expanding their designs northward to include Mongolia and southward to occupy Shandong, thereby taking the world by surprise? Now that they already have Korea and Manchuria, how can we be sure that they will not covet China and Siberia? Who can stop them from seeking to recreate in the present the rule of might once held by Genghis Khan, and from letting their footsteps span miles and miles upon end?”

There was some poll taken awhile back, maybe by the Korean Times, where Koreans ranked the nations most dangerous to South Korea in the following order:

1) Japan
2) The United States
3) China
4) North Korea

I might have mixed up the order, but I do remember that Japan was on the top and North Korea was on the bottom—a pronouncement which I think most outside observers would find completely ridiculous, and a direct consequence of the race-based nationalism promulgated by Korean intellectuals like Shin Chae-ho who were writing under the influence of Japanese fascism around the turn of the last century. The North Koreans belong to the same race as the South Koreans, so obviously North Korea is not so dangerous as Japan—which desperately wants Dokdo. Interestingly, although North and South Korea are still technically at war, the North supports the South’s claim to these islands; race-based nationalism cuts both ways. Ask A Korean wrote that Korean nationalism may look ridiculous to Americans—but Americans never lost their own country to a foreign power, and cannot understand the pain and regret associated with that loss.

Racism and nationalism may have simply started in the human gene pool, although the problem seems to have gotten worse starting about five hundred years ago, when the European powers needed some kind of an excuse to justify their enslavement and subjugation of virtually everyone else on Earth—people, who most obviously, looked fairly different from them. Before that era, when Europeans were mostly fighting among themselves, people justified their conflicts based on religion, or birthright—even though in all cases it is obvious that everyone just wanted to take everyone else’s land. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were conscious of racial differences, but I don’t think they cared about them nearly as much as modern people seem to; Romans in the days of the Republic always wanted other people’s stuff, but were very tricky in the way that they always prodded the other powers into attacking them first, so that they could always claim that the act of conquering all of Europe was one of self-defense.

Regardless, both racism and nationalism, now, serve no purpose, and need to be abandoned for the betterment of the gene pool—and the species!

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Militarization

Near Bo-gyeong Temple (or 보경사, Bogyeongsa).

Yesterday just before a bunch of us Koreans—I felt included in the group—were going to start hiking up a gorgeous mountain, I ran into a bathroom to take a piss. Urinals always make me nervous even though I use them several times a day, and when I do I always take the urinal that’s up against the wall, distant from the sink, and then twist myself around and lean forward so as to conceal my nethers from prying eyes, even though I think I’ve only ever encountered one random bathroom-goer, in all my long years, who appeared to be curious about the shape, form, and general appearance of my Sejong Daewang.

So I pissed my bladder dry and walked out, but as I was returning to the group a random young Korean man who was on his way to the bathroom accosted me. “Oh, hello!” he cried out, his eyes widening, as if mine was the first white face he had ever seen with his own eyes—I answered him with the barest politeness although I should have completely ignored him—“Whel al yoo flom?”—“America,” I gruffly automatically replied, without looking at him and while also quickening my pace—“Oh lee-yo-lee? Why al yoo een Ko-lee-ah?”—“Uh huh”—and he asked something else—“Uh huh”—and by that time I was twenty feet distant, and he and his stupid friend were laughing snidely over the encounter.

For the next hour I burned, I seethed, from that laughter, and even though I shouldn’t have let it get to me, and even though my Korean wife, A., said they were just laughing to save face after getting blown off, I obsessed over of all the horrible things I could have said to him—in Korean, no less, as I had just tried to translate an English poem to some Korean friends on the drive over, and my linguistic abilities are not quite so pathetic as the typical white American. “Whel al yoo flom?” “I just got back from your mother’s —-, and boy was it delicious!” “Why al yoo een Ko-lee-ah?” “To seduce, corrupt, and impregnate your mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, and wives, of course!”

What else can one do about the small population of snide young men who enjoy reminding foreigners, through their idiotic greetings, that they really are not welcome here? Last weekend I was walking back from getting some work done at the university, and unfortunately there was some kind of high school group playing games on the track, which meant that a group of idle high school boys was walking around while begging, pleading, with their eyes for someone to beat the the living daylights out of them. I tensed my body, steeled myself for the encounter—if I’ve got a couple of seconds I’ll even try to think up something mean I can say to them in Korean, if they do indeed accost me—and they did. “Hey man!” one of them shouted as they passed me, holding up his hand in a greeting, his eyes wide with condescending friendliness. I glared at them but didn’t answer.

A couple of his friends laughed in that same snide way—look at how stupid these foreigners are—and that’s when I finally decided, after enduring three years of this shit, that I had had enough. I turned around as they walked away, extended my upper jaw out over my chin, and shouted out—“Aeego chay-meet-da!”, Oh god it’s funny!, mocking their laughter.

The waterfall at 보경사 with Hanja, always a sign of class.

Them’s fighting words, as one of my less likeable high school teachers used to say. A few of them laughed nervously, and that was the end of it—but although violence is wrong, I would have loved to attack all of them, right then and there. They would have totally fucked me up (about eight seventeen year-old males versus one pasty twentysomething), and they might even have killed me (some high schoolers recently did away with a college student up in Seoul after some kind of argument over a video game), but oh man, I would have loved every second of it, because anything is better than just taking their abuse and walking away. It really does require a saint to deal with this kind of shit—Gandhi deserves that epithet, Mahatma, no question about it, because it is so much harder to just let it go.

But it felt good to lash out at them; I was trembling with a ridiculous sense of triumph the whole way home.

Koreans have also complained to me about roving bands of high school boys, and other young men, but I think most foreigners just ignore them and try to put up with their bullshit. After all, their lives are completely miserable in every imaginable way, and they really have nothing to look forward to except endless misery. Imagine this life: an impossible test which will determine the entirety of your future at the end of high school, followed by two years of getting screamed at in the military, followed by working like a slave in a soulless conglomerate (if you’re lucky), followed by getting married to a woman you don’t even really like as a result of endless social pressure, followed by having children you never have the time to see, followed by retiring and not knowing what to do with yourself because you were never given the chance to develop any kind of an interest in the world, followed by never even wanting to see your children because they hate you and blame you for all of their problems. These kids have a lot of reasons to be angry, and I’m actually surprised that they don’t explode more often. Foreigners provide an outlet, because (but for one notable exception) they don’t fight back—even though I think they should. If us waygs freaked out more often, maybe fewer of these assholes would bother us.

Once in Deokcheon, which ranks up there as one of the least-desirable neighborhoods in the country, I was walking around with some foreign friends, one of whom was a rotund black woman. All of a sudden a Korean high school boy ran up to us and pointed and laughed at her while his friends looked on with approval—I can still see him cackling with glee, crouching down halfway like a gremlin—and though my friends just ignored him I was enraged, because that was seriously not cool.

My wife A. has informed me that Koreans have an equivalent to “You should be ashamed of yourself” or “You shame your family, your ancestors, etc.”—“Stop painting your parent’s faces with shit.” (부모님 얼굴에 똥칠 하지마라) I’ll be using this line in the future; there’s also an equivalent to “Mind your own business” or “Fuck off”, which is useful when random old people start ordering you around as if they own you, something which has happened, I’m sure, to every single outsider who has stayed in Korea for more than a few days. One of the monks at my university has been trying to get a foreign professor to edit yet another stupid paper on how the world will be saved if everyone just becomes a monk—he’s been pestering her constantly, asking her when she’s free, calling her—and she’s refused repeatedly, but he might not get the message unless she tells him to get a life. It doesn’t help that he’s kind of a bigwig. A cleaning ajumma also yelled at me while I was taking a piss in the bathroom, although I’m not exactly sure why, and actually as a result of that encounter I learned this useful Korean sentence—fuck off, 너나 찰하세요.—mind your own business, literally “Or only you do well?”, (even though this is conjugated politely, A. tells me it’s fairly mean).

(this post becomes too long at this point—the rest is only for those readers who are interested in the extended cut!)

The Cave Of Several Skulls!

So, anyway, back to yesterday’s hike. That hello put me in a bad mood for the better part of an hour. I didn’t want to hang out with the Koreans anymore and I didn’t want to live in this country anymore, either. We just sank a ton of money into flying back to America this summer, and my parents suggested that we look for jobs during our visit, and in the midst of my anger I thought it wasn’t a bad idea at all, because sometimes I really seriously am totally sick of being a racial minority. I’ve been gravitating toward African American literature lately because although their situation is and was far worse than mine, there are still some parallels, and I’m interested in seeing how these people (Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Ellison, specifically) deal with this shit—in addition to laughing at the unending antics of Tea Partiers who are surrounded by white people all day, every day, for their entire lives, while simultaneously complaining about increasing racism and discrimination. They don’t know, they can’t possibly know, anything about it; and I think it’s impossible to understand it unless you have felt it directed at you for such a long time that you begin to want to lash out at people you encounter on a daily basis. I’ve just gotten a tiny little taste of being objectified, of being a white person rather than a human being, and believe me, it totally fucking sucks, every single fucking time.

The constant little things, too, get to me. I had been looking forward to this outing because my wife’s friends are nice and the entire journey was an opportunity for me to practice my Korean and for them to practice their English. Everybody wins. But my conversational attempts fell on flat ears. I wanted to impress them, so I randomly tried translating a poem (kind of a faux pas, to suddenly burst out in a few lines of Longfellow), and talked about a few other weird subjects that were not exactly related to what Koreans apparently usually talk about (family, friends, and Kang Ho-dong), and all I got in return was a few nods and then silence. It reminded me of my high school days, when my own oddness was still fairly untempered, and many of the people I spoke with would look at me as if I didn’t belong on this planet.

Once the hike got going they spoke to each other but they didn’t speak with me. And, admittedly, I still have quite a long way to go with Korean, so speaking with me can be kind of a challenge. I can usually get the general idea of what my wife is saying while the words of others require a great deal more effort. I lack confidence, in conversing with them; my wife is also fairly used to the strange rookie forms I use, and so she can understand my Korean when other Koreans can’t. All of us usually use her to translate when she’s around—but when she’s not around, it seems as though they get what I’m saying (or that they do an incredible job of pretending to get what I say).

But as my wife said, Koreans look at me as a white person, and because of that they don’t know what to say to me, because white people are so obviously different. I don’t fit into the paradigm. I even got hit with a “this food is spicy” and “you are so good with chopsticks” despite living here for three years—this was a well-intentioned reminder that I am no different from someone passing through the airport in Incheon. Part of me wants to be treated as a fellow Korean, but I likewise recoil from entering that system of medieval hierarchies, where I am supposed to automatically agree to every idiotic thing old people say—a Buddhist nun told me, two or three weeks back, that if I drink too much cold water I’ll get sick; this was on a very hot day while I was wearing a suit; she seemed somewhat surprised when I told her, no, I think I’ll be okay, thanks for your advice, and then downed the cold water in question, gleefully, right in front of her, while a Korean would have accepted her advice and waited until she left to continue drinking—and where I have to waste my life in the military for two years and then drain whatever remains of my soul into the bowels of a vast, indestructible chaebol; I would also have to treat my wife like a servant, rather than an equal. I can’t just pick and choose what I like (as I find many liberal religious people do, in ignoring the Dalai Lama when he says that contraception is evil, or the passages in the Bible dealing with slavery); I have to either take the entire culture, if I want Koreans to treat me as one of their own, or leave it, and suffer through who knows how many more snide random hellos. But it’s also impossible to take the entire culture, to be accepted, because I don’t look like them, and that’s really all that matters.

The emphasis on appearances here is staggering. On Kakaotalk Story, a Korean equivalent of facebook, twitter, and free instant messaging, all wrapped in a single package for your cellphone, Koreans are constantly taking and posting and commenting on pictures of themselves, and nothing else. Contrast that with facebook, or at least my facebook wall, where everyone is doing their best to look as intelligent and artistic as possible—posting interesting news stories, pretty photographs, or polemics on why Israel or Palestine is evil. Then look at the difference in homes from these two cultures. Every single Korean home I have visited, without exception, is covered with airbrushed studio pictures of the family. A Buddhist family might have some Buddhist artwork up and about; a Christian family might have a Bible lying around—my wife’s family is a severe exception, to use Mitt Romney’s terminology, as they have a number of exquisite paintings of dragons, bearded monks, and Chinese characters, which would fetch a few thousand dollars if they were to be auctioned off in America. A typical American home is different. An American family will make some attempt to show off its style. There will definitely be pictures of the family on the fridge, but their faces won’t dominate every single open space, as they do in Korea. Paintings, fancy photographs, cool posters, intelligent-looking books and DVDs and CDs—all of this stuff is vital in a household belonging to people who have been to college. They want to show off their brains, and not their faces; hundreds of people on that hike I mentioned were taking photographs of themselves and their groups in front of the scenery, but they rarely if ever seemed to notice the scenery by itself.

Several times I’ve run into this strange expression Korean parents use if they think a child is cute. They’ll say he or she looks like a doll (인형, in-hyung). There’s a similar expression in English, something like, oh aren’t you a doll, but I feel like it’s so ridiculous you could only use it sarcastically, since dolls are actually kind of terrifying, in their robotic, inhuman perfection. Several people have complimented me by saying that I look like a mannequin, and others frequently post messages on my wife’s Kakaotalk “wall”, or whatever the hell they call it, saying that photographs of me look like they come from a shopping catalogue. They appear to believe that I look good, even if many of them also appear to believe that I don’t belong here—after all, few Koreans would ever tell a grown Korean man that his chopstick use is excellent. Just a couple of days ago a crazy ajumma, a complete stranger, called me a pretty boy, a handsome guy, after staring at me with loving awe for ten or fifteen seconds. I appreciate the thought, but I find all of these expressions bizarre, and did not encounter them, not once, in America, while they sometimes come up every day in Korea, because here your appearance is absolutely all that matters. The same shit happened for two years when I found myself pretending to teach English in a Korean public school, while the students pretended to learn, and the administration pretended to approve. So long as we all acted out these shallow roles, which were completely absent of any depth, content, or value, everyone was happy. At least on the outside.

All of this relates back to The North, where all the insanity in the South is amped up about as far as it will go, because there seems to be far less foreign influence there to dilute it. The people appear to have no self-awareness of any kind; maybe because no one is able to contradict a superior, or tell him, like, hey, fatass, howabout you go easy on the pastrami? The tours to the country focusing on grand socialist promenades are notorious, and were commented on with amusement by foreign reporters visiting to check out the rocket launch because everything was so obviously fake. There was one news story I can’t find about a tour bus full of reporters that took a wrong turn and suddenly wound up in one of the thousand wretched hovels that litter the North Korean landscape, and while the driver and the keepers were embarrassed about allowing this slight glimpse of the truth, this breaking of the image, this loss of face, the reporter who described this event said that although the town was a dump it wasn’t really anything special in the annals of poverty and human degradation. Nonetheless, heads might roll from that mistake, because for once there was absolutely no way for the North Koreans involved to market their nation as a worker’s paradise—to airbrush the family photographs.

Image is all that matters, and the dichotomy is bizarre—you look good, Ian, but you can never be one of us—but for whatever reason the Korean taste in images differs markedly from the taste of the West, in that Westerners, for once, appear to be slightly more clever and discerning than their Korean counterparts. The ridiculous ads on Korean websites for facial (and now tit-tial) surgery might help dupe Korean women into turning themselves into silicon mannequins, but I think they would horrify and disgust most Western women, who prefer to depress and objectify themselves by watching commercials and looking at magazines with impossibly beautiful models and celebrities.

Related to this is the accepted truth and fact that for whatever reason, Koreans North and South really don’t know how to advertise themselves—which is one reason why absolutely no one in the West knows a god damn thing about this country, and why I also think it’s been viewed as a sort of path of exchange between far more interesting cultures in China and Japan for decades in the Western academic world. Local advertisers know how to make women feel miserable, and men inferior, but as for interesting foreigners in this place—look at our kimchi! look at our huge cities! look at all the stuff you can find in China or Japan! isn’t it clean! isn’t it sparkling! The promenades and parades in North Korea are no different. Perhaps it’s naive of me, but I really do believe they put those parades on because they want Westerners to think that North Korea is paradise. The shows are not just for the benefit of the local enslaved populace; why else would they be broadcast to the outside world?

Before I came here I was totally unaware that companies like Samsung, Daewoo, LG, Hyundai, Kia, and god knows what else, were even Korean, and while I have lately been vexed as to why those friends I mentioned on my facebook wall who seem to lose their shit on a daily basis over antics in the Middle East or Tibet don’t seem to give a flying fuck about the twenty million people who are imprisoned in the world’s largest concentration camp, North Korea, I think the Koreans themselves are to blame: Tibetans, Palestinians, and supporters of Israel’s nastier side are much better at getting the message to the outside world, and each group is made up of all kinds of different people, while I’ve never even heard of a foreign organization established to free North Korea, though I suppose such organizations must exist. The fact that I haven’t heard of them (while Free Tibet, the Anti-Defamation League and even Students For Justice in Palestine are household or almost household names) and the fact that the American media never refers to North Korea as what it is—a concentration camp state, the answer to the question of what would happen if the Nazis somehow transformed themselves into Asians and then took over a small part of Northeastern Asia for six decades?—just goes to show that they are being as fecklessly run as the agency in charge of putting out tourism ads as well as the office in charge of public education—run by people who believe that although I look good, I don’t belong here.

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Scattered Racist Anecdotes

Today in class while straining to get a group of four very unenthusiastic students to make suggestions in English, I projected a google image search for ugly people on the wall, and immediately all of them perked up.

I was not thinking when I asked them to comment on a particularly unfortunate-looking individual who happened to be black. One of the students told him that he “should change his skin color.” And I should have castigated him. But I tried to move on as quickly as possible because I’m still pretty nervous at that place. After all, let’s be honest, people, I’m not qualified to tie my own shoes, let alone teach English to college students.

In elementary school I segregated pictures of human beings whenever I had to use them in my lessons because I knew that someone would say something shamefully disgustingly racist if there were any non-Asian or non-Caucasian people involved. Things once got so out of control after a class watched a bunch of cute Japanese kids dance around on TV that my co-teacher and I were ready to abandon the classroom, hand in our resignations, and head for the hills. Watching the dance was not my idea. Segregating the pictures was cowardly. But trying to explain racism to a child who does not speak your language in a culture that is not really aware of the existence of the concept is, honestly, difficult.

And on at least one occasion, when I said that it was wrong to jump around around and make hooting sounds in imitation of Native Americans, or to say that a person was ugly because of her skin color, I can’t remember exactly, they actually asked me why. Racism is public and private policy here, still leftover from decades of fascism, ignorance, and homogeneity—and every foreigner here surely has reams of relevant anecdotes to back me up when I say that.

At our first face-to-face meeting an employer told me that he thought I looked Indian in one of my photographs and that he was very relieved to find that I was so white. I should have explained to him that a comment like that was inappropriate and then said goodbye to him. But not all of us can be Martin Luther King, Jr., all the time—just look at all the horrible generalizations I’ve made in this post alone.

Perhaps America and Korea are equally racist, only Americans are much better at covering their racism up, using code-words, offering excuses, denying their actions even to themselves. Here the racists are shameless because everyone is Korean and it’s probably pretty rare for someone to experience racism. The people here always complain about what the Japanese did to them, but empathy is a little hard to come across in a place that is so hierarchical, where it is acceptable and normal, for instance, for old people to talk down to young people, and for no one to care, even when a person who sells vegetables on the street addresses a computer scientist as though he is an infant. From an American’s perspective this is uncomfortable and demeaning for every party involved.

I suspect most of the folks here do not see any connection between the comfort women, the attempt at cultural genocide, dancing around while hooting, and telling a black person to change his skin color. And actually the guy looked pretty normal to me, I have no idea why he was even there—he was just wearing some stupid glasses.

I also don’t know so much about racism in America because I’m white, but here in Korea I’m part of the minority—a very small, privileged minority—and that does give me a better chance to see the world from the perspective of someone who does not belong to the ruling caste.

So, someone does something totally, blatantly racist, you tell him so, and then he asks you—why is that wrong? Why is it wrong to be racist? What do you say? How can you explain racism to someone who knows nothing about it? No one in America would ever say, why is racism wrong? They would simply deny that they had ever been racist to begin with…

But that situation presented itself to me, once, in a Korean public school classroom, and I had to think fast, and keep things simple. It was the moment one of the very white and very wealthy anti-racists at Hampshire College dreams of but never experiences.

What I wrote here was pretty good, I wish I had said that thing about the comfort women, but actually I told my students that in America everyone would think they are Chinese, and that that’s wrong, and ignorant, and doesn’t that make you feel bad? You’re not Chinese. You’re Korean! Don’t you hate being falsely judged based on your physical characteristics…? They agreed. But I doubt it did any good.

I once accidentally said the very lengthy and awkward Korean word for “racist”, in-jong-cha-byol-joo-wee-cha, which I could only remember because my wife and I have spent several hours of our lives shouting it back and forth at each other—I once said it to one of my friends after a Korean woman changed seats on the subway because she obviously didn’t want to sit next to a pair of foreigners. Whereupon she shot us a dirty look. I had struck gold. But, strangely, she made no attempt to deny my accusation, even though it was evident that I had at least some comprehension of her language.

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Korean Orientalism

So interesting! Korea gets its information on the Middle East from American sources, but Koreans generally aren’t quite so discerning as their American counterparts—ha!—and as a result, people who technically belong to the Orient are more Orientalist than people from the West!

Edward Said, an established Arab-born scholar, criticized in his book “Orientalism” the subtle and persistent Euro-centric prejudice against the Orient, particularly against the Arabo-Islamic peoples and their cultures. The irony is that the prejudice portrayed in “Orientalism” does not only exist in the West, but we Koreans, who are a part of the greater Asiatic world, also hold a degree of prejudice and misperception with regard to the Middle East. This phenomenon may be the result of Western influence on Korean values, as Koreans may have unwittingly taken in the Western perception of the Middle East.”

More Here—Korean Orientalism, by Kadir Ayhan.

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In-jong-cha-byeol-choo-owee-ja! (인종 차별 주의자!)

In English we throw this word around like a baseball, we toss it back and forth for fun in the backyard, and sometimes shoot it through our neighbors’ windows. But to reveal the translation I must first don my respectable Glenn Beck spectacles, my respectable Glenn Beckian girth, and declare, with all due reverence, before an unnecessary blackboard, that this word is racist!

Racist! In-jong-cha-byeol-choo-owee-ja! 인종 차별 주의자!

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