Today was one of those frustrating days. In one of my classes, I was leading an exercise in which students were creating “interesting characters” for the plays that they’re going to write and perform. Well, what do you… several times, people said things that, well, I can’t say they were simply racist, but they were quite obviously offensive, and all I could think was, “What are you THINKING?”
For example, I did a funny exercise when we we talking about this idea of a disease outbreak. (For those with whom I attended Clarion West… yes, I totally did rip off Ian’s Happy Flu example.) Anyway, I asked, “Where would be a reasonable place for this disease to break out? We need lots of tourists, and maybe some jungle for the disease to come from… new diseases often come when people move into wild places where nobody’s lived before.”
“China!” one of the students blurts out, and you could just tell she was thinking, Because it’s very dirty there. (How do I know? For one thing, this particular student talked about how dirty China and Chinese people are, in private, when visiting me in my office. So yeah, I know that this was at least part of what she was thinking.)
As I glanced around the room, all the Chinese exchange students were silent and looked on with these, “Huh?” expressions, as if to ask, Where is there a hot place in China that nobody’s ever lived before? I mean, maybe if she was more knowledgeable about China, and said something about the use of human excrement in fertilization, which, at least some people, link to disease outbreaks. But this wasn’t like that. And I was thinking to myself, Did you forget that there are Chinese people in this room? Or do you just not care?
“How about a country none of us come from?” I suggested, and a student, having promptly forgotten the criteria of jungle or otherwise unoccupied locale, says, “America!”
“Okay, so, where in America?” I say, hoping for, you know, swamp in the south or something.
“New York!”she says, with glee. Oh yeah, imagine New York collapsing. Oh, exciting.
“Um… how about in a more countryside area…” and I start to suggest unoccupied swamp.
“Oh, how about Hawai’i?” one of the Chinese students says. Well, I think, It’s hot, and an island, and there’s jungle and lots of tourists. And at least nobody reflexively suggested Japan… “Okay, let’s say Hawai’i.”
We went through with the exercise, and then, started another.
Students were to generate characters for a play. We were using the prisoner archetype — someone trapped by his or her own bad decisions or past actions, or by society, into a situation, whether a literal prison or a metaphorical one (like a bad marriage or a role that he or she is forced to play in public).
One of the groups got into an argument over the sex of a character. They’d agreed on a profession — nurse — and the male student in the group was insisting that male nurses do not exist. I asked him whether he’d worked in a hospital before, and noted that male nurses do exist, all over the world. “I know,” he said, “But it’s not common.” To which everyone (including me) agreed that characters that are unusual are interesting. The guy was still resentful of the idea when, fifteen minutes later, the women explained that the character was the one male nurse living in the hospital dorm, surrounded by female nurses. Yes, indeed, unusual characters are more interesting, if the male in the group doesn’t try to pull rank and declare that this unusualness is not allowed. I’m glad one of the women in his group was older than him.
And as long as they’re not raving stereotypes, I wish I’d added. Because the next group, I don’t know what they were thinking. When we were sharing what each group had come up with, it was all I could do not to just cut them off and tell them that racist stereotypes are not appropriate. Let’s see: a “low quality” foreign English teacher in Korea — “Because it’s a big issue in the news now!” — who has only a ninth grade education, is excessively and uncontrollably violent, and a drunk or maybe drug addict, is a bad teacher, is on the lam and hiding in Korea, and, oh yes, he rapes a Korean girl.
Because, you know, those low-quality white people are sexual predators. They made him as antagonistic as possible, and when I asked them, “So what is his problem?” they offered these beauties: “The Ministry of Education reforms the hakwon system and low-quality foreigners are no longer allowed in Korea,” and, “How about… another bad foreigner comes to Korea?” and “Maybe his passport expires?” and finally, “Maybe someone comes from his hometown to Korea, and knows all about this guy’s background back in the home country.”
“And he’s American. right?” I asked, and the student explaining all this said, “Of course!”
I was deeply put off, but grappling with everything that was offensive about that character would have taken longer than we had in class, so I just engaged them to see if they could find some way of making him suffer in a way that would provoke sympathy, or whether they could have a peripheral foreigner character that was, you know, not a racist caricature.
They couldn’t, or at least, they didn’t.
And finally, after class, I had a talk with a student who had, on his exam, explained why blackface minstrelsy is considered offensive. (His essay had explained that black anger at white people is expressed through blackface in harsh, but understandable ways, just like the Rodney King riots in LA. It took me about 15 minutes to jog his memory about the discussion in class, in which it’d been clearly demonstrated how blackface performance is considered offensive today because it relies on, and often emobodies, all kinds of racist stereotypes about African-Americans.)
People say things are changing, and I suppose they are, compared to ten years ago, but in a society where a student can make monkey gestures and say “Oooga-booga” because she’s roleplaying an African person, and nobody in the class except the white teacher seems to see anything wrong with it, I think there’s a long, long way to go. After all, these examples above, they’re not just one or two people in the class… I’d say about half the class said (or contributed to the formulation of) something that was basically xenophobic or sexist during the course of a one-hour class. And yeah, those women did stand up to the guy and his insistence that no male nurses exist… but nobody seemed perturbed in the slightest about any of the rest of it.
Maybe it’s time for another talk about representation, like the one I did last year in my Media Englisy class, when everyone went all hissyfitty over the depiction of Jin in Lost. Representation: Jin, the male nurse, and the “low quality American English teacher”. Hmm. I’ll think about it.
UPDATE: And I just found an essay in the pile that starts with, “I’m not a patriot or a nationalist. I don’t hate Japan… but…” And then regurgitated Dokdo shrillness. Including, you know, lots of generalization about Japanese, like, “Japanese all say Dokdo is Japan” and “Japanese don’t know about Korean Comfort Women and are learning wrong history”. (Who cares about Chinese, Filipina, and Dutch comfort women, right?) The bit about distortion of history might be right, but I’m seeing a lot of distortion about the present in Korean media and, apparently, in the academic sphere too. (And it seems to me from what I’ve read that what blew the whole thing open in the 60s and 70s, when nobody in Korea was even willing to talk about the Comfort Women, and also what finally forced the Japanese government to admit the truth about military recruitment, was — in both cases — the work of some humanist and decent-mindedJapanese journalists and researchers like Senda Kako at Mainichi Shimbun and Yoshimi Yoshiaki at Chuo University, respectively. Am I wrong? That’s the impression I got from the beginning of the George Hicks book on the subject. But it’s not conducive to, you know, demonizin’ them evil Japaneses, right?)
Sigh. At least the next paper in the pile was about how the Screen Quota is stupid and ought to be reduced.
UPDATE: Argh. And the one after that was an argument about how bad it is to be exposed to American films and how the screen quota must be maintained until Korean cinema is “developed”. No definition of what “developed” means, of course.