What Debate?

Bryan Kay’s article, “South Korea’s Racism Debate,” amuses me mostly because I don’t think there’s really all that much of a debate going on at all. When Miss Jiwaku has tried, with some of her Korean friends and acquaintances, to talk about the issue, she’s had a pretty disappointing success rate: often, she runs into the usual justifications, evasions, or dismissals that any non-Korean can tell you about. She’s lost friends over it. What’s more heartbreaking is that some of those friends wouldn’t even empathize about the crap she’s had to put up with herself — the intersection of sexism and xenophobic racism that turns Korean women who date or marry non-Korean men into acceptable targets for staring, public criticism by strangers, assault, or worse.

A debate won’t be possible until people actually recognize there’s an issue about which disagreement is possible; given how my students react when I recount experiences like this one or this one — almost always with unbelieving shock, as if this kind of thing never happens in Korea anymore — I think it’s gonna be a long, long time till such a debate even begins.

And of course, then people will have to be willing to debate. It’s not that I haven’t any Korean friends: I have a number who are quite free of apparent racism, or who do their best; I have friends whom I can call on that kind of thing, and they get it and understand — and they can call me on crap I say or do, too. They’re a solace, but in the abstract sense: they’re not people I feel I can call for support when I am experiencing racist treatment, not just because I feel they couldn’t do anything anyway, but because I’ve noticed a widespread conflict-avoidant tendency that is most pronounced in the nicest people I’ve met here. I get the sense that maybe conflict-avoidance is the way they managed to get through life in a society where the rules are pretty much in favor of the insensitive or the downright callous. I have trouble imagining any of my Korean friends (not including Miss Jiwaku) standing up to a drunk shouting at me on the subway. I know for a fact that several times when push has come to shove in a professional context, the wagons have circled and left me on the outside, even with those who I like to believe are sympathetic. Sympathy often costs a lot more here than it does where I’m from. So does getting into a real debate.

(And I realize now that, for all my discussing these problems, blogging about racism online has never fixed racism offline. I also realize that one thing I don’t do enough is to write about my friends — Korean or otherwise. Going through old posts and tagging them, I realized I used to write about my friends a lot, but now I don’t do it so much. I shall have to start again.)

Anyway, I have feeling the big changes that would proceed from any “Racism Debate” in Korea won’t be coming before I’m a senior citizen. (And I’m in my late 30s now.) I could be wrong — things sometimes change quickly here — but I think some things change faster than others, and there are a number of debates (the status of women being one) where the line is moving very, very slowly.

5 thoughts on “What Debate?

  1. Good points. And thanks for directing me to that article. That big essay comment by the former soldier was the real time sucker. Though I’m sure much was exaggerated, and he doesn’t sound like the type of person I would hang out with, he couldn’t have made up all those incidents. I have my own incidents, but I also try to avoid trouble as I am a pussy. Still got slapped while walking home by a drunk who said to his friend, “Ah, Migukin!.” I don’t notice the stares, really. Just the usual taunts from school children and drunk men.

    I went to the Seoul town hall meeting with foreigners and the new mayor. One of the subjects brought up is that there are multiculturalism classes for multicultural kids, but the multiculturalism classes would be more appropriate for Korean kids. Like you said, there needs to be awareness that there is a problem before any debate can start.

    I’m still optimistic, and I hope never to lose my optimism. The Seoul Global Centers kick ass. The effort may look like window dressing to some, but the people who work there are amazing and open minded. The subject pops up every now and then in the media, through Hines Ward, Insooni, that EBS bit about the guys asking for directions. There is a something there. I do fear that something big would have to happen to make it a serious issue, like a racially motivated killing. And if/when unification occurs, we’ll see an even more acute form of ingrained racism from North Koreans against foreigners and South Koreans against northerners. Gang violence. Organized crime. Heh, heh… but I’m still optimistic. SK needs to get its house in order sometime soon, or it will take another century to tackle this issue, and the world won’t wait.

  2. Hey man,

    Sorry for the delay: your comment somehow got caught in the spam filter, though I’m not sure why!

    I definitely have my incidents, though I do usually try to avoid them. Occasionally, I confront people when it’s really, really shitty stuff, but unlike some foreigners I’ve met who had connections, I have no magic phone call to make if some drunk or mentally-ill moron starts something physical and I end up having to defend myself or Miss Jiwaku. (And even being avoidant, I can’t recall a year that has gone by without coming >< this close to that kind of confrontation, because there are an abundance of violent morons out on the street, in subway trains, and so on anytime after sundown.) Some of that links to living on Line 1. Some of it links to living in a slum. Some of it is just bigotry. (Shrug.) As for needing multiculturalism classes for Korean kids, not just multiracial ones -- it's a bloody no-brainer, and it just shows you how poorly the people running this government (and society) grasp the problem. What's tragic, of course, is that those same people are quite unwilling to listen to those who come from societies that have made a hash of things and learned from it and had to work twice as hard to fix the mess. (I'm thinking of Residential Schools in Canada and Australia, for starters.) Relying on a crisis point is an iffy thing: I kept warning faculty where I work that we needed a suicide prevention program, we needed to improve counseling services, etc. When nothing happened, I told myself that maybe after a student suicide, they'd "get" it and do something. But there were two attempted suicides (one on campus) and one actual suicide (on campus, in a prominent spot) and... nothing was done, except to hush it up. A racially motivated killing might get attention, but I suspect the same old "mixed-blood person as victim" trope will crop up, and -- as with handicapped people, as with the abandoned elderly, as with any form of marginalization here that gets discussed in the media -- the outpouring of sympathy ends up making actual action unnecessary in the minds of many. (A litmus test being that my students aren't just surprised to hear about some of the shit that happens to me or my friends here -- or, if they happen to be getting on the subway at the same time as me, to experience it -- but rather, they're downright shocked. They seem to think there's no problem whatsoever... unless, that is, they have non-Korean friends and hang out with them in public and thus experience it.) Perhaps, though, a wave of murders of openly racist "pure blooded" Koreans by multicultural Koreans after bad treatment might spark some interest in doing something about the issue, though. But I think nothing big will happen unless the little people start really, really pushing. The Seoul Foreign Center is good, and nice, and helpful. I think, though, there need to be more cases like that one where the Indian man (here in Bucheon) took a racist Korean man to court for calling him dirty on a bus. I think non-Koreans of all colors and backgrounds will need to come together and start demanding respect -- and sympathetic Koreans will likely need to start helping them in ways that actually cost them something. We all know white foreigners are going to be the last to throw in with such a group, being that they're often in-and-out short term, but that said, they're a minority anyway. (If we had our shit together, I think we probably would have sued English Spectrum, in a class action suit, for libel and slander... and also sued the net portal that lets them continue to operate publicly. I mean, they have influenced government policy and increased media racism noticeably in recent years, haven't they? But white foreigners will never really get their shit together here because, like I said, they're too transient. Hell, even my vague plan to leave in a year leaves me feeling like I should just keep my head down and stay out of trouble until I leave... though maybe the pessimism feeds that too.) And honestly, your vision of what lies ahead is not so different from mine, except that I sadly am pessimistic about Koreans waking up to the issues in time: I suspect that people will put off dealing with the issue (procrastination here being endemic to all systems, even the government) and that organized crime will become a haven for those mixed-race people who are young or being born now, if the exclusion and bigotry continues. And then Koreans will do what white people so in places like where you and I are from, asking, "But why do these minorities get caught up in crime so much?" I suspect disaffected multiracial youth will probably also do all kinds of interesting things -- hell, I suspect the indie/arts scene will be a haven for others -- and so on, but I think their suicide rate and school dropout rate and so on will climb and climb, and the victim narrative will just help people put off dealing longer and longer.

  3. I was foolishly hoping that ATEK was going to do something like that–sue people and organizations that libel foreigners and make alliances with other foreign groups. That’s why I backed them in the early days. But ATEK proves one other thing about western foreigners–we have a tendency to throw each other under the bus. We’re our worst enemies. One friend observed that when people start trying to make a difference, or when one rises above the others in any way (by being something other than English teacher), the jealous mob works to pull them back down. Dave’s was very good at that, and I’m noticing 3WM is crystallizing that method. Rather than interact with the Korean society, they go after the smaller fries who are doing just that, whether it was that infamous ATEK or recently the slam of Craftworks–whom we know is active in trying to change the chaebol beer laws.

    Man, I’m winding down a random path now.

    I still hope that someday we’d form alliances with other foreign groups and start a Foreigner Anti-defamation League.

  4. Also, to help back up that people need to be aware of an issue before there can be a debate, I was at an event and sitting at the same dinner table as one of the heads of The Fairtrade Foundation and the vice president of Dongwon. The Fairtrade guy was trying to convince the Dongwon guy to get onboard with their movement, that it would help with their sales. The Dongwon guy countered that they had put “dolphin safe” labels on their tuna cans, and it didn’t do anything for sales. But we all know why it didn’t do anything. The dolphin issue was never an issue in Korea. They were hardly aware that the tuna industry was harming dolphins. For all they knew, “dolphin safe” meant that the tuna was safe to feed to dolphins.

  5. Zenkimchi,

    I’m not really aware that Craftworks got slammed lately, and I haven’t heard anything about 3WM (I even had to google the acronym to find out what you were talking about) — it’s part of that generation of expat blogs in Korea that started after I stopped paying attention and focused on other things, I guess. I think it’s really funny that

    I too long for a Foreigner Anti-Defamation League, though something primarily aimed at shutting down hate-groups and raising awareness among Koreans that by the developed world’s standards, a lot of things that are tolerated or normal here are downright shameful and will do Korea no good image-wise as more and more people relate their experiences online. (Something I think mostly because Korean society is so obsessed with its image in the “white,” Western media.)

    You’re right that (white, Western) foreigners have a tendency to throw one another under the bus — and I think it probably ties to something I’ve been thinking about how to write about, the somewhat cancerous growth of dismissive “snark” in our culture of late (and its prevalence among younger expats here). Somewhere in the 90s, we realised (the obvious fact) that being overly earnest can be the mark of a fool; smart people gravitated towards a more nuanced mode of having beliefs and values and things they’re passionate about, but stupid people have tended to simply vouchsafe their egos by exulting in directionlessness, uniformly dismissing everything, and celebrating mediocrity wherever they find it.

    (That is certainly evident in the Craftworks review you mentioned: the guy thinks IPA stands for International Pretentious Asswater? Really? He went “straight to the pilsner”? Really? He longs for the “working man’s beer”? Uh… don’t they have Cass and Hite at every other frigging bar in Korea? I mean, I know brewers who like the beer at Craftworks; I know brewers who don’t. But everyone agrees they’re better than any other domestic beer in Korea, and they’re blazing a trail. Mostly, this guy seems to want a bar where drunk young white men act like monkeys; for my part, I’m kind of glad we have a few pubs where one doesn’t have to see that, having had more than my fill in the last decade here.)

    As for Fair Trade: one of my students wrote a paper a few years ago about how the approach to popularizing Fair Trade in Korea — how the advocates of Fair Trade go about spreading the word — is a major part of the reason so few are interested in it here. At the time, she said there wasn’t a single clear, understandable, engaging, and interesting guide to Fair Trade for the layperson. (Like, a cute and funny video explaining how it works in Korean, for example.) She said there were tons of long-winded, self-righteous webpages, but of the kind nobody actually wants to read. (And she noted that at the major Fair Trade shop in Seoul — wasn’t it 아름다운가게 one interested in Fair Trade was offered a lecture/seminar — I mean, literally, a seminar one had to sign up for — if one wanted to learn more.

    (And another student in the class said the coffee shop there, which used and touted its use of Fair Trade beans, tended to serve badly-brewed coffee; when customers complained, they were told it was Fair Trade, sort of like charity, so they should drink it up and feel good about doing good in the world. Which, you know, is NOT the way to promote things.)

    That’s a tangent, but maybe not so much of one. I think the stories we tell are really crucial to the way public perception evolves for issues like multiculturalism, racism, equality, and so on. There’s a lot of (under-distributed, under-recognized, and under-supported) indie media attention focused on these issues, but a lot of what seems to get mainstream airplay has tended towards the most boring and inertia-laden sort of melodrama possible… the stuff likelier to turn people off and to help keep things exactly as they are. 방가?방가! was a surprising exception… though even with that, I felt it had its flaws though it was a good effort.

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