This is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of the book Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea. In it, I discuss my firsthand knowledge of an event that made national headlines in Korea in 2011, and highlighted how some of America’s racial baggage showed itself in Korea’s expat community.
In all this talk of Korea’s problems with isms, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Americans were able to bring some of our own racism over to Korea with us. And I’m not just talking about the over-generalization of Koreans many of us sometimes gave in to while complaining about one aspect of Korea or another. I’m talking about bringing some of our traditional black and white racial baggage.
In a national headline generating incident captured on multiple cellphone cameras and that involved a friend of mine, some Americans’ deeply-ingrained racial thought processes came to the foreground. My friend, a large black man from DC, was riding on a bus with his Korean girlfriend. As some news agencies reported it, an old Korean man, in his 60’s, offered him a seat while speaking in Korean. A problem arose, the news reports say, because the Korean man used the word “niga,” a polite form of the word “you,” as in, “Do you want this seat?” My friend is said to have mistaken this word for the N-word and proceeded to threateningly yell at this man and then hit him several times.[i] There are only three things I’ll say about this specifically. First, many of the times I’ve heard about Westerners encountering truly offensive racism, like people spitting at them or calling them or the person they’re with something demeaning has been while they were out with a Korean as a couple. Second, my friend knew Korean much better than the average expat and way too well to mistake niga and the N-word. Third, regardless of what that man said to my friend or his girlfriend, he should have never hit a man that old.
As the story broke, I tried to get in touch with him, but it was too late. He had already left the country because the backlash and attention was so instant and overwhelming. I cannot argue that in a country with a crime rate as low as Korea’s that this was not a newsworthy event; however, the amount of coverage it received also showed how much Korea wanted to make this an issue. It was the one time while I was there that a black person was caught acting the way many Korean’s think blacks always act, and they eagerly ran with it.
But what surprised me even more were the comments that could be found online following any of the stories in English about it. A few were somewhat sympathetic and tried to explain how much stuff foreigners, blacks and especially foreigners who are dating Koreans have to endure. While the commenters didn’t condone my friend’s actions, they understood that everyone has their breaking point and that this was likely the biggest mistake and worst moment of this guy’s life caught on tape and made into a national news story. Others, however, were more than willing to call him out, but the way in which many of them did it was to only identify him as being black and to talk about how it reflected badly on black people in the country and only black people. Many of these comments were from white Americans. Their willingness to subdivide the foreigner community probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did because in all other situations we really were one community with no color lines: We were foreigners together. We were Westerners together. We were expats together.
That said, one of the first real growth experiences many whites in Korea have is the realization that white is not synonymous with being Western. Something I often noticed with people who first got to Korea was how often they used the word “white” in a way that clearly included me. I remember going to a Thanksgiving dinner once with a group of friends when one said, “I wonder if they know all us white folks are here to celebrate Thanksgiving.” He looked at me and a Hispanic girl with us, realized his mistake and quickly corrected himself by saying, “… I mean, Westerners.”
Still, this whole bus situation left a bad taste in my mouth as I felt many expats had thrown blacks under the bus (no pun intended) by choosing this one time to not include us in the ranks of Westerners. During all the many other times a white Westerner had fucked up in Korea – and there were many in the years I was there – I never saw whites take it on their own shoulders. Nor did anyone excuse me from being associated with any of the white guys who had made headlines with their antics or even the white guy who was also filmed provoking an old Korean man into a fight and hitting him several times. (This story, for some reason, didn’t get nearly as much media attention.)
When it was a white person screwing up, it was always “a foreigner did this,” or, “a Westerner did that.” I was included in both those categorizations. However, in this case, many in the Westerner community had no problem separating him out because of the color of his skin. But that was the way Korea saw it, too: the actions of this black guy should only reflect on blacks. That the actions of an individual should only reflect on that individual is a concept that Korea, and I would say America, are still many years from realizing when it comes to the minority groups among their ranks.
That racism infects all Americans in subtle and not so subtle ways was no secret to me, but being in Korea, overall, caused most Americans and Westerners, as a whole, to bond. The expat community united across any racial, social or class barriers that might have existed back in our own countries. Most Westerners came to realize that the connections of shared culture are easily more meaningful, telling and significant than sharing the same skin pigmentation as someone else. This was seen time and time again as people of different racial backgrounds who were from the same country, region or state would meet and have an instant rapport based on having shared interests and experiences unique to their corner of the world.
In the first three years I was in Korea, I personally found the racism there to be more than tolerable. This was partially because the expat community was, normally, exceptionally inclusive and really provided a kind of safe harbor to help get me through anything else that had happened during the course of a day. Also, the handful of tiny acts of racism I encountered were more than outweighed by nice, friendly Koreans. Yes, people did sometimes get up to move seats when I sat next to them, and I could consistently count on the empty seat next to me on a bus being the last one to be sat in, if it was sat in at all. However, for every time someone changed seats, there were three times when an older Korean invited me to sit with them in the seats reserved for old people on the subway.
Personally, I never had any Koreans, outside of being incredibly drunk, go out of their way to say anything mean to me while I was there. I did have several Korean men, all of whom looked like they might have been around for the Korean War, go out of their way to say hi to me while just walking in the streets. I like to think some black GI from back in the day helped shape the way they saw black people for the better. I like to think I did some of that during my time there. All that said, I still reached my personal breaking point with Korea in the summer of 2011, and decided to leave. And I believe racism was at least a factor in that.
[i] Racial attitudes in South Korea: Cultural Exchange – LA Times. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/11/entertainment/la-ca-culture-korea-20110911