Alex Blaze

Thoughts on Race from Korea

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 17, 2011 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: America, France, Japan, Korea, private, public, race, south korea, travel, usa, vacation

Korea.jpgI decided that I shouldn't go to sleep tonight since I had to be up at 5 am for my flight back home and I was still out at midnight, so here are a few quick words about one aspect of this trip to Korea.

I've been around the block now a few times, traveled to a lot of different countries on almost every continent, and the basic truth that everyone's the same - that countries and peoples that seem to have conflicting interests really don't (it's just the political elite that have conflicting interests and the people, who don't benefit from any international conflict, ever, are propagandized into supporting or otherwise silenced); that people basically want the same things (or at least that diversity in natures is more common within populations than between); and that our differences are mostly formal - was really sent home in the few weeks that I've been here.

What did strike me was the experience of being a visible racial minority in a way that's never happened to me before. South Korea has a population of around 49 million, with the largest immigrant minority being the 440,000 Chinese population, half of which are ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship. Every now and then I ran into other ethnicities, often Americans and Australians here teaching English or stationed here with the military.

Almost without question, everyone here would be read in the United States as Asian.

Which isn't a problem for me. An American of Japanese descent I visited in Japan asked me if people were staring at me, and for the most part, my answer was no. Later I visited a smaller town in Korea (I've been in Seoul otherwise, a cosmopolitan metropolis where kids have seen it all) where children stared at me. Sometimes kids shout "Hello" and I smile in an attempt to encourage bad behavior. I don't live here, so it's just charming.

In the United States I consider myself Latino if people ask, since that's pretty much a separate race even if I don't think it is and it's what people are asking about when they ask, which is rare. I generally get read as white or Latino.

In France I get read as Spanish if I don't say anything, American if I do. Ethnicity and race there are extensions of nationality, and while some people I've talked to have a problem with me identifying as American and nothing else (real Americans are whiter according to some French people), but people for the most part don't care and I get spoken to in French even before I've had a chance to speak.

In other countries I'm either obviously a tourist or assumed to be part of the local population, but I don't feel like I stand out this much. I got shouted at in Arabic in Morocco; in Turkey, no one looked; and I never thought about this anywhere else.

Here I'm white and, therefore, English-speaking. I complain about the way Americans roll every person, regardless of race or national origin, from south of the Rio Grande into "Hispanic," and I guess the same thing is going on here.

I also have to wonder about how people assume I speak English. A week ago I was visiting a palace and the ticket woman spoke to me in Korean because the window was low. I bent over so she could see my face and she laughed and repeated herself in English. That's pretty much been the three weeks here. I also wonder how people who aren't read as Korean but who don't speak English feel about that.

And what about the opposite? Imagine white kids in the US shouting "Konichiwa" at every Asian person they see in the streets, no matter their ethnicity. It wouldn't be seen as charming.

I feel conspicuous, I feel like I stand out more than I'm comfortable with. People at businesses get nervous that they'll have to speak English. I know I can't get away with anything because I stick out like a sore thumb, and white people I run into stare at me a lot more than Koreans. It's an experience I'm glad I was able to have for a little while even, and now an experience I can smugly say that everyone who hasn't had should have.

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Amanda587 | June 17, 2011 2:27 PM

Well, Korea (both North and South) are extremely homogeneous ethnically. The concept of minorities, of non-Koreans living there, is sorta a new thing (other than military personnel, of course).

I used to encounter the "Hello" thing in China all the time, so it's funny to see it happens in Korea as well.

But it's interesting to experience being a minority. I was already kind of used to it because I grew up around Native Americans, but it was easy to ignore because I was still part of the community, whereas in China I stuck out, especially when I was in the boonies.

Amanda587 | June 17, 2011 4:31 PM

Well, Korea (both North and South) are extremely homogeneous ethnically. The concept of minorities, of non-Koreans living there, is sorta a new thing (other than military personnel, of course).

I've lived in Korea for the last year, and I'm a 6'1 white blonde guy. I understand exactly what you're talking about, and for me, it's not something you ever really get used to. How long are you going to be in Korea?