Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Brief Critical Commentary on Racism in South Korea


 I actually wrote this post several months ago in reaction to a blog post that I read on a Korea-centric blog back then so the things it refers to are likely old hat by now. Still I think it is important and has some interesting points. I delayed releasing it because I had wanted to see if my mind would change on the issues (as they often do) but since they haven't I now present you this piece, originally written back in February.  

And now. . . the post!

Alright! Heavy title no? This is something that has been on my mind for a while now and I finally decided to write something about it after reading this article on Roboseyo - a pretty awesome blog in its own right. The article is about the backlash SNL Korea is receiving for making fun of Korean adoptees who grow up abroad and return to Korea to find their biological parents. Overall I agree with the article, its shitty to make fun of people`s pain, especially a group of people who are likely already marginalized in the country they grew up in. My gripe is not with the article, my gripe is with what many folks are saying in the comments section, the likes of which I've seen cropping up elsewhere on the net.

SNL Korea has repeatedly been a target of criticism for racially insensitive sketches, though I do count myself among its fan-base.
In this post-Gangnam Style, post-Hallyu world, South Korea is understandably getting more and more attention from non-Koreans everyday. More people are learning Korean, more people are going to work and study in South Korea and more blogs and vlogs are popping up all over the internet dealing with Korean-centric material than ever before. On the international stage, South Korea`s coming up (or already has). As more and more North Americans embark on their 10-14 hour plane rides to the Land of the Morning Calm to start jobs, exchange programs or even just vacations, more and more of these same people are exposed to the complicated reality of the country known as South Korea. I've experienced it myself, for every "foreigner" I've met over there who loves Korea I've met another who can`t stand the place, and while I belong in the former camp, I can understand why as one of my fellow exchange students so eloquently put it -- "South Korea is not everyone's cup of tea."

Here's  a screenshot from the the sketch mentioned in the Roboseyo article. The man is supposed to be an adoptee who is portrayed as addressing his biological mother in awkward, horribly accented Korean. Yes, I do find fault with this sketch.  
Maybe it's just me but one sentiment that I've noticed appearing more and more in the last year or so on blogs and message boards dealing with Korea is that Korea and Koreans are "racist and intolerant" or even worse that South Korea is somehow "backwards" or "archaic" because of how issues relating to racism are dealt with over there. Before I continue, let me just make it clear that I will not defend racism. It's bad, it shouldn't happen and plain ignorance is a shitty excuse for such behavior. I'm also not going to deny that racism against non-Koreans does exist in South Korea as I've experienced it first-hand on a number of occasions.  

There are quite a few images of black-face in Korean media that one may google - this one has been floating around for a while now. You know what you can't google? Minstrel shows in South Korea,.Why? Because there were none. 
However, the thing I find irksome about all these folks ragging on South Korea and its populace for their apparent lack of racial sensitivity is that many appear to be North American and rage with the same disdain and vitriol as they would direct at racism within their own country. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Why? Because South Korea is not the United States or Canada. My argument is that before you engage the problem of racism in South Korea, which does exist and is a real problem, there is a social and historical context that must be observed and understood. In other words, contemporary  racism in South Korea cannot be judged under the same light as contemporary racism in North America and the reason is history. Still confused? Let me break it down. I know Canada and the U.S. are two different countries but our histories are similar in many of the respects I shall highlight so for the purpose of this exercise I will group them.                                 

An illustration of Samuel De Champlain greeting the indigenous population of what would one day be called Canada. Everyone was happy and traded tea and furs, and then Canada started existing. . . well I may have skipped some of the details. . .
For North Americans, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, our respective histories are full of racism. It starts with a bunch of Europeans colonizing lands which were already inhabited by indigenous populations that had been living there for millennia. They did this by way of exploiting, killing or institutionalizing said inhabitants which lead to myriad problems in these communities for generations. A few hundred years later the Europeans go off to Africa and come back with a whole bunch of black slaves. These slaves are put to work on farms and are not payed a whole lot if anything at all, they also commodify them by trading them and buying and selling them thereby breaking up families. Oh yes and they don't educate them either except in rare circumstances. And yes slavery happened in Canada too, although it was less prominent and abolished earlier (underground railroad and all that). While that was going on, in both Canada and the United states, a bunch of Chinese workers came over here with the promise of riches and prosperity, and built our railroads for a pittance, many dying in the process. 

Here's a picture of a group of Chinese workers who worked on the Great Nothern Railway in 1909 - while the Korean peninsula was busy getting annexed by the Japanese Empire.  
After the completion of our railroads, we try to deport them. When this doesn't work we implement a tax that only ethnically East Asian people have to pay to live in North America. This is to stop ethnically Asian peoples from moving to our countries. Some decades later, World War II is on and entire communities of Japanese-Canadians and Americans are forced to live in internment camps because. . . well. . . they're Japanese. The government seizes these peoples assets and in many cases they are not returned even after the war's conclusion. Some of the predominantly white citizenry create "anti-Asian leagues" which attack shops and people in various East Asian communities. Some decades later in the states, there's a civil rights movement because Black-Americans are tired of being treated as second-class citizens in their own country and the leader of said movement is eventually assassinated. I'll stop the history lesson here because if I touched on every major race-related event in North American history this post would be several books long.

Let us not forget the unforgettable March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 led by Martin Luther King himself. A momentous event in the larger civil rights movement which took place all throughout the United States. At this time both Koreas were recovering from a devastating war and South Korea was practically bankrupt. . . remember the Korean War? Yeah. . .

This history is extremely condensed and much has been left out, but what I'm trying to illustrate here is that we North Americans are no strangers to the idea of racism - it permeates our history and leaks into our national psyche. Regardless of our ethnicity, many, if not most of us are pretty sensitive towards it, especially those of us who grew up or are growing up in cities like my hometown of Toronto, New York City, Vancouver or L.A. where myriad ethnic and cultural groups co-exist. We live in countries where it is now by and large more offensive to call someone a racial slur than it is to give them the finger. Now let's look at South Korea's history.

Here is an illustration of Hwannung, the father of the mythological founder of Korea. He marries the bear on the left, after she turns into a human woman of course, and their son decides to head down from the heavens and start populating the Korean peninsula. 
What we know as Korean history is believed to have started more than 4000 years ago. . . on the peninsula that we now know as the Korean peninsula - meaning that the people we now refer to as early Koreans were the indigenous people.There are many theories as to where early Koreans originally migrated from but many people think Mongolia and its surrounding areas are likely candidates. Alternatively you could just believe the creation myth that Koreans are the collective children of the son of the king of heaven and a bear who was transformed into a human woman - your choice. I'll give you the short version based on what I've studied. . . which is a lot. There was a tribe, than bunch of other tribes sprang from that, then a bunch of separate kingdoms emerged, fought each other, one of them took over everything and unified everyone and created a dynasty. After that there was a military revolution, followed by another dynasty, which got taken over by the Mongols (Genghis Khan and all that) it was followed by another dynasty and that was to my knowledge the longest lasting dynasty in East Asia (500+ years) called Joseon. 

Joseon got attacked by France in 1866 because the Joseon government wanted to kick out catholic missionaries. The French forces stole a bunch of artifacts which are still being exchanged today. 
Joseon got attacked and almost invaded a number of times by outsiders like Ming China, Manchuria (the Jurchens), the Tartars and most notably Japan - at one point they were a Chinese tributary state. After staving off two invasion attempts by Hideyoshi Toyotomi's armies (samurai and stuff), one which very nearly succeeded, Joseon lived in relative peace and seclusion (probably cause they were tired of foreigners messing with them) for a long while. . . until the Empire of Japan violently annexed the country in 1910. Korea existed as a Japanese colony for some 30 odd years during which time Korea and Koreans had their culture and language suppressed and were regularly exploited for human and agricultural resources. This went on until Japan was horrifically bombed by the U.S. at the end of World War II and the Japanese were forced to leave. Korea gained independence and a bunch of non-Koreans held a bunch of conferences to decide what to do about Korea, very few of which actually had Korean people present.

A post card from the post WWII Yalta conference in 1945 at which many issues were discussed, one of which was the "Korea problem". The problem was Japan had lost and the allies were wondering what to do with the peninsula. Look at all those Korean people in the picture! Oops, their are none. 
Eventually through very complicated incidents involving many foreign countries, Korea was split ideologically and then they had a civil war in which a bunch of countries, most notably the U.S. (Canada was there too!) took the side of South Korea and fought Russian-armed North Korea and China to a stale-mate and an armistice was signed. South Korea subsequently went through 4 consecutive dictatorships, a financial crisis and finally started to resemble the economically and politically stable country we know today by 1999. 

Did you know South Korea was actually bankrupt in 1997? Why is this relevant? It's kind of hard to worry about race relations when A. there aren't many foreigners around because B. there are significantly less job and investment opportunities because C. you're country is being run by the IMF.
So why throw all this complicated and depressing history at you? Because by contrasting the two histories we can see that there is something missing from Korea's that North America's has in abundance, internal racially-charged social upheaval. Historically Korea's notable feuds were almost exclusively with foreign countries, almost all of which were East Asian, and when non-Asian foreigners did eventually show up in a larger capacity they were mostly male soldiers, and lets face it, historically our male soldiers aren't exactly paragons of good behavior abroad. To give you some further perspective - in 1992, while the infamous and racially-charged L.A. riots were taking place in the states, non-east-asian foreigners who were not either soldiers or industrialists were still kind of an oddity, even in Seoul. I had a teaching assistant in high-school who taught English in Seoul in 1995 and she had told me that kids on the subways used to touch her hair because they were apparently curious as to what "foreigner's" hair felt like. Even when I first went to Seoul in 2008 I felt like I got a lot more attention than when I went back in 2012. Do you see what I'm getting at here?

A photograph from the L.A. Riots in 1991, also referred to as The Los Angeles Race Riots. A racially fueled and violent example of social upheaval from America's not-too-distant past. 
Up until recently, Koreans haven't really had to think too much about foreigners as anything other than temporary visitors, and for the most part that is what they are to this day. Most non-ethnically East Asian, non-military foreigners in Korea right now are working as teachers with temporary contracts or are international students for terms which usually last no more than two years or so. Even those who are working there longer often don't carry citizenship because up until very recently there were a number of rather demanding hoops one had to jump through if they wished to become fully-fledged Korean citizens.

Four of the most famous non-Koreans in Korea right now. Right to left, Robert Holley - USA, Sam Hammington - Australia, Sam Otswiri - Ghana, Fabian (no last name?) - France.  
Nowadays though things are starting to change as more foreigners than ever before, myself included, are starting to look to Korea as a possible destination for future employment and a number of foreign nationals have already become permanent fixtures in Korean media. In the last year some foreigners have even been awarded dual citizenships for various reasons, though this is a very recent development. For a long time the idea of non-Koreans living in Korea as citizens was likely hard to imagine for many Koreans and now that its beginning to become a reality it's going to take some getting used to. Even now outside of Korea's major cities foreigners are still a fairly rare sight, period.

This is a sign that was posted in front of a HO Bar (popular pub chain) in Gangnam some time ago which I found on this tumblr page here. While I was studying in Korea I got turned away from a few places as well (though it was very rare). Most of the time it was because some foreigners had behaved badly recently and they weren't admitting any more until further notice. It's shitty and wouldn't fly in North America, but then again, Korea never had a huge civil rights movement in which a large and disgruntled population protested this sort of thing. So as crappy as it is it's kind of understandable. How can we stop this from happening? For now, we can stop acting like assholes in bars :)      
So yes, South Korea has modernized and "visible" foreigners are becoming more common, however I feel that it is unreasonable to expect a country that was practically homogeneous a few decades ago (and still mostly is) and has suffered greatly at the hands of foreign powers for millenia to suddenly update their mentalities to match the changing times. On that note you may be wondering "So what? We just let South Koreans get away with racism cause they are victims who don't know any better?" No, that's not what I'm saying at all, to think so would be condescending and extremely problematic, I'm just saying that it's going to take time. If the internet is any indication we North-Americans seem to expect other countries, nay! Other continents to be magically in sync with our popular culture, politics and mentalities, however this is a very short-sighted view. After-all are we, two of the most multi-cultural nations in the world, not still coming to terms with our own racism and race-politics here in North America? What's our excuse?

Seoul by night.
There are many people who are engaging racism (as well as cultural discrimination) in South Korea constructively, like those adoptee representatives who wrote letters to SNL Korea in the article I mention at the top of this post, and that's good. The more people bring up legitimate criticism towards this sort of behavior, the more Korean media producers will realize that these sorts of things are unacceptable and cannot continue if Korea hopes to attract more foreigners to it's country and culture (assuming that is what they are trying to do -- it seems like they are). However, what isn't useful is people using words like "backwards" or claiming that Korean people are collectively "racist", "intolerant" or "exclusionary" (which ironically is pretty racist). Every country has its rough spots and this sort of behavior just bolsters ignorance, incites internet flame wars and pushes the discourse in a more trivial direction - it doesn't help anyone. If we, and by "we" I mean everyone, Koreans and Non-Koreans alike wish to make South Korea a more open and welcoming place in general, we must first understand where the issues sprout from before we can engage them in an informed and educated manner. As the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza famously said "If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past." 

Just some food for thought.

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