Wednesday, April 04, 2007

'Foreigners' in Korea

Ever feel like a paidhi here?
Apologies to C. J. Cherryh
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday's principle quote -- "Treat them like foreigners, but with respect" -- was actually misquoting the principal, for School 34's principal, in advising teachers how to deal with North Korean students actually said something rather different, as Sonagi reports:
I emailed the writer, Samuel Songhoon Lee, asking for clarification and the original quote in Korean, if possible. Mr. Lee responded promptly. He acknowledged that the quote had caused a stir among both expats and Korean-Americans. He explained that the original article was edited for length, and thus, the quote became distorted. He has given permission for me to post the original quote on blogs:

"애들을 외국인 처럼 대하세요, 그들이 우리들과 다른점을 인정하고 존중해주면서요"

I humbly offer a translation:

"Treat the kids like foreigners. Acknowledge their differences and give them respect."

There are two pages of comments accessible at the end of the article. Mr. Lee posted two long responses on the second page of the comment thread.
The word "but" in the shortened 'quote' would better have been 'and': "Treat them like foreigners, and with respect." The principal, therefore, is guilty of nothing worse than being misquoted.

However, the misquote rang true for many expats living and working here in Korea, for we know that a lot of non-Western foreigners are treated with disrespect, and even Western foreigners sometimes encounter disrespectful treatment (though I've personally experienced very little).

I'm not singling out Korea as unique, for I've lived in Germany, where I noticed the same sort of attitude there toward foreigners. From these two cases -- Germany and Korea -- I infer that ethnically based states generally prefer individuals of their own ethnic group.

However, foreigners of the same ethnicity find themselves both included and excluded -- included for ethnicity, excluded for being different. I've seen this in Germany as well as in Korea. Those foreign Germans and foreign Koreans, respectively, who cannot speak their 'native' tongues, encounter disrespect among the natives. I recall being on a bus in Germany and overhearing a German from Russia speaking with a heavy Russian accent trying to communicate with the driver, who was having great difficulty understanding. In frustration, the Russian German exclaimed, "Ich bin Deutsch!" -- meaning, "I am German!" Some wit from the back called out, "Man hört es!" -- which translates literally as "One hears it!" But the remark was intended in irony and thus meant something like "You don't sound German at all!"

North Korean defectors who've come here to South Korea also encounter disrespect for their differences. Ostensibly, they speak the same language, but with a different accent and a somewhat different vocabulary. So, they're marked as 'different.'

Korean-Americans encounter special problems. They're criticized for not being fluent in Korean (unless they are fluent) but often rejected as teachers of English for not being native speakers of English (even if they speak English as their native language).

One Korean-American woman, Kyung Eun Davidson, who happens to be an adoptee raised by an American Jewish family, has written a letter to the JoongAng Daily (April 3, 2007) stating that she has encountered all sorts of difficulties here in Korea, including -- in her own words -- "racism." In light of the recent Lee Won-bok controversy over antisemitic cartoons in his graphic comicbook on America, I wonder if Davidson means that she has encountered antisemitic prejudices. She doesn't specify, but I'm quoting her letter here in full:
Globalizing means opening minds

I am a Korean adoptee, and have been living in Korea for two years. Among the most shocking things I have encountered during my life in Korea are the racism and discrimination that I have been subjected to here, repeatedly.

Having never experienced even one incident of racism in the United States, it was utterly bewildering and vexing to be confronted with it in my "motherland."

I recently came to a breaking point when I was told by an English language institute that, "unfortunately, they only want a native teacher." This was imparted just two days after I had been told that my resume was more than satisfactory, and that [the institute] really wanted to schedule an interview with me.

This came immediately after I had quit my job, which was in part because I have been told that Koreans regard adoptees as trash because we have no parents.

I have also been told that my biological parents had to have been both stupid and immoral, and that Americans only adopt Korean children because they get welfare [benefits] as a result.

While I cannot judge the veracity of the first assertion, the latter claim is easily refuted by logic. What country would give people money to adopt children from other countries? Financially, it would be an absurdity.

I have discovered that no matter what I do, I am always confronted with the problem that I'm not Korean enough or white enough to be accepted in this country.

I have found this paradoxical situation rather farcical since, by American standards, my minority status only serves to augment my suitability; as a Jew and a Korean, I am statistically in the top echelon of the academic world [in the United States].

American people treat me accordingly, and I have always been treated no differently from a white American.

If Korea is sincere in wanting to join the global community, its people are going to have to curb their racist attitudes and prejudiced perceptions.

The Korean people need to open their eyes and stop holding adoptees to a double standard.

Either treat us fairly, as fellow Koreans, or treat us with the esteem granted to "native," i.e. white, Americans.
The most interesting part for me is that Davidson states that she has "never experienced even one incident of racism in the United States." I found that surprising, for racism certainly exists in America, even against Asian-Americans, so I can only conclude that she has been rather fortunate.

Anyway, if Ms. Davidson happens to see this blog entry, I'd be very interested in hearing what she means by the "racism" that she has been subjected to here in Korea, for it must be an extremely complex sort of racism fraught with profound ambiguities and ambivalences.

Finally, and only tangentially related, I report that in my class Monday on British and American Culture, I made reference to "Monty Python's satires of British traditions." Blank looks. Helpfully, I added, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail?" Blank looks. So, I tried "The Life of Bryan?" Blank looks.

Stymied, frustrated, and thinking of the Foreigner Universe, I exclaimed, "I feel like I'm talking to people from a different planet!" My students all laughed, and I added, feeling my age, "Well, the past is another country."

I suppose that the past is also another universe...

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20 Comments:

At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Richardson said...

"...and even Western foreigners sometimes encounter disrespectful treatment (though I've personally experienced very little)."

I didn’t get that a lot, but the times I did it usually made an even greater impression on me as it was often out of the blue. Some rude and/or disrespectful comment about Americans, for no apparent reason (i.e., no conversation or interaction going on). Strange.

Oddly enough, the closest I ever came to physical confrontation was when I was nearly runoff the sidewalk by someone who purposely went out of their way to get in my way – and it was a kyopo (on Yonsei campus). After he ran into me, he said “excuse you,” and then I knew who I was dealing with.

 
At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Sonagi said...

"From these two cases -- Germany and Korea -- I infer that ethnically based states generally prefer individuals of their own ethnic group."

It would be more correct to say that all human beings are hard-wired to prefer individuals of their own ethnic group. In both hemispheres of our brains are a collection of neurons called the amygdalae (singular: amygdala), a fancy name for "threat sensors." Our amygdalae fire more actively when we encounter 1) unfamiliar faces; 2) angry/fearful looks/tone of voices; and 3) people of other races. There is no such thing as colorblind. Our brains are wired to notice racial differences.

Obviously, "familiar" outweighs "different race," which explains why people of different races can work and play together and marry and raise a family together. Since familiarity is so important, it stands to reason that people who live in multiracial communities will react less to seeing a face of a different race than people who live in homogenous communities.

RE: Mr. Lee's original Korean quote

I believe Mr. Lee provided the quote either from his notes or to the best of his recollection. I don't believe he deliberately tried to spin it. I do believe there is an unintentional disrespect of sorts - condescension might be a better word - that many foreigners experience. I call it "stupid foreigner treatment." A perfect example is the fact that Mr. Lee, in his response providing the quote written in Korean, offered to spell out the pronunciation if I couldn't read it. Well, if my Korean is good enough to check a translation, I can darn well read Hangeul, the scientific alphabet! Ironically, the only illiterate Korean speakers I've ever met were overseas ethnic Koreans enrolled in Korean language programs in Korea.

BTW, Jeffery, I suspect one reason why you've experienced very little disrespectful treatment is that you are a middle-aged male (if you don't mind me calling you that :) Ajoshis sometimes don't treat either Korean or foreign women very nicely, using banmal to inject disrespect into every sentence. Rather like the SNL skit where Eddie Murphy puts on whiteface and discovers how white people talk amongst themselves, I'd like "put on a dick" for a day and see how different Korea feels.

 
At 11:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Richardson, I've not encountered any hostility from Korean-Americans, but I don't encounter many, just a few in class.

People tend to leave me alone, perhaps because I look a bit like a Neanderthal.

Also, I wear a skullcap that makes me look Muslim, so people aren't sure what they're encountering.

"What the hell? A Neanderthal Muslim?" they probably ask themselves -- and steer clear.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, it may be 'hard-wired' in our brains, but those of us who grew up in multiethnic states like the USA may be more accustomed to differences, whereas individuals in ethnically based states might not know how to deal with 'the other.'

I think that my personal sense of familiarity with Koreans comes partly from the fact that my grandmother was a quarter Cherokee and looked quite Indian. Since she raised me and since she looked vaguely 'Asian,' then I perhaps feel some familial connection to Asians.

(By the way, you must be a genius, knowing not only languages but also scientific things. I'm impressed.)

As for my accumulated years ... well, I'm not middle aged, or so I maintain, for I've decided to skip that period and go directly from youth to old age...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Cynthia said...

"However, foreigners of the same ethnicity find themselves both included and excluded -- included for ethnicity, excluded for being different."

I live in San Diego, CA. My American husband, is ethnically Mexican and is VERY often treated with disrespect by Mexicans here because he doesn't speak Spanish. We quit buying food from two Mexican food places because it happened repeatedly. It really upsets him, because I can go in by myself and they treat me fine. He doesn't like being treated like a foreigner by foreigners in his own country, especially since he is always respectful to others, regardless of where they are from.

 
At 6:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cynthia, I'm sorry to hear that.

While I'm all for people being multilingual -- as with my children, who I insisted learn Korean regardless of whether we'd ever live, not to mention stay, in Korea -- but people should realize that if someone of their own ethnicity doesn't know the language, there's usually a good reason.

Moreover, my impression is that very many Mexicans are more Native American than Spanish, so why aren't they speaking the languages of their native tribes?

Why not?

For the same reason that I don't speak Cherokee -- I never had the opportunity to learn.

This isn't a rant, by the way, though it might inadvertently sound like one.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:12 PM, Anonymous Sonagi said...

Jeffery wrote:

"it may be 'hard-wired' in our brains, but those of us who grew up in multiethnic states like the USA may be more accustomed to differences, whereas individuals in ethnically based states might not know how to deal with 'the other.'

I agreed with you to an extent at the end of my comments:

"Since familiarity is so important, it stands to reason that people who live in multiracial communities will react less to seeing a face of a different race than people who live in homogenous communities."

Note the use of the word "communities." America is a multiracial society, but the races are not evenly distributed throughout the country.

RE: the Jewish Korean-American's lack of experience with racism.

This does not surprise me that much. Anti-semitism is much less pervasive among the younger generations. When I first picked up a "Truly Tasteless Jokes" book as a teenager in the early 80s, I thought the JAP section was about Japanese people. I did not hear the term "Jewish American Princess" for the first time until I was in college, and then, it was in the context of talking about stereotypes.

My elementary school students are Mexican, Salvadoran, and Puerto Rican. Some of them are undocumented residents. A few times we have had discussions about tolerance. It is evident from talking with them that they have never perceived being mistreated; they have no idea that somebody might not like them because of who they are.

We live in a small town of 25,000 people in Virginia. I really feel, coming back after so many years, that there has been a lot of progress "on the ground" in terms of developing tolerance and respect for differences. There is a lot more social mixing and mixed race friendship groups among our district's student body than what I recall from my college days.

This tolerance extends to differently abled people, too. Nearly every US public school classroom includes autistic, physically disabled, and emotionally disabled children; American school children learn to respect humanity in all its diverse forms. Racism still exists, of course, but I really believe that most Americans are able to get along with each other and embrace our differences.

 
At 9:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, that's fascinating about the ability that young people have of getting along despite differences.

I had recently read a Washington Post article, "What's Wrong With This Picture: Race Isn't a Factor When My Generation Chooses Friends," by Justin Britt-Gibson, who argues that his generation, people in their twenties, can get along with all races.

You might be interested in reading it . . . if you can ignore the annoying popups.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:29 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

I'd be very interested in hearing what she means by the "racism" that she has been subjected to here in Korea"

Just a guess--It sounds like she is talking about discrimination because she isn't white [enough?] when she applied for the English language job. She returns to this again at the end: "I'm not Korean enough or white enough to be accepted in this country."

I added my own "enough?" because I have funny ideas about race--that it's just a social construct. Great article in the Post (and your post), by the way. I have to agree. In my classroom, I stopped trying to guess race. At one point I was baffled by trying to recommend students who would be eligible for a hispanic-targeted scholarship, so I just posted the qualifications on the door and told my students to see me if they thought the criteria applied to them.

 
At 3:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessica, you're probably right about the racism point being made by Ms. Davidson.

As for race being a "social construct," I might agree or disagree, depending on what you mean. The borders between races look arbitrary to me, for the races seem to shade into each other at the margins, so the line that we draw might be a socially constructed one.

But there do seem to be genetic patterns and markers even of ethnicity, or so I'm guessing without expertise, for genetic mapping has made possible for people to determine if they're Celtic, Slavic, or whatever.

But even on the genetic level, there is mixing, so once again, the borders are arbitrary constructions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:08 AM, Anonymous Cynthia said...

Jeffery,

Don't be sorry for my husband, haha. We just decided to deal with it by not giving business to those who can't be respectful. It is their loss, not ours.

I agree with you about the language thing. I bet they have never even considered they too, are not speaking their native language.

My husband is part Native American too (Juaneno Band of Mission Indians from San Juan Capistrano). His great-grandmother spoke the native tongue and Spanish, but I think she was the last generation to speak the tribal language. I think the Indians here in California were forced to learn Spanish, and then their children where forced to learn English, or at least their grandchildren were. My mother-in-law went to a segregated school and they would be punished for speaking Spanish. This seemed very harsh to her at the time (and it was), especially since all the students were Spanish speaking, but she did learn to be fluent in English.

My father-in-law told my husband and his siblings (when they were young) they were American and would only speak English. I think it was a good thing, considering the time period he grew up, however, he does regret not being able to speak Spanish.

My daughter is married to a Mexican national (soon to be an American citizen), but he is fluent in both Spanish and English. I had hoped they would speak both languages to my granddaughter from the time she was born, but I think they were afraid of confusing her, so they didn't do it.

Well, enough rambling from me for now.

 
At 6:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Cynthia, for the further details. You're right about the loss being not your husband's but the stores'.

As for children getting confused by languages, that doesn't seem to happen, not in any significant sense. My kids are doing pretty well.

But I suppose that we ought to ask the experts...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Cynthia said...

Children don't get confused, from what the experts report, haha. That is why I suggested it to my daughter. One article I read said that one parent should speak in one language and the other in the other language and the child will automatically know which language to use with who. Very interesting stuff, actually.

 
At 3:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, that's how my wife and I were handling it, but since we're living in Korea anyway, my wife also now speaks a lot of English with them in the flat.

Outside the home, they get almost constant Korean -- aside from Sundays in church.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Sonagi said...

Well, there are kids whose language development can be delayed if not given a consistent language environment. Right now I am teaching a feral child of sorts with no real native language. His parents speak Mestizo, an indigenous language, between themselves and speak Spanish to the boy, who is now enrolled in a US public school.

Because he has no real native language, he struggles with simple abstract language like pronouns. His monolingual Spanish peers pick up new words much more easily. When I found out about his language background, I quit using Spanish as a teaching tool and now speak English exclusively when he is in a group.

An interesting little aside: another of my Mexican students has an Indian mother. The girl informed me that Mexican Indians in the community have their own exclusive meeting places where non-indigenous Mexicans are not allowed. Looking at the faces of my Mexican students, nearly all have Indian ancestors, but I suppose that many Mexicans consider themselves just Mexicans and have no linguistic ties to their native roots. The Salvadoran and the Puerto Rican kids all look European. A Costa Rican colleague explained to me that the native population of Central America was mostly wiped out by diseases brought by the Spanish.

 
At 10:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

When I studied at Baylor, many of my friends were Mexican-American. I thought that they looked Indian and actually got to know them because on the first day, while standing in line, I introduced myself to a fellow freshman who looked Indian to me, so I asked him if he were. He said no, that he was Mexican. I then told him that I was part Indian, and we became friends -- especially when we discovered that we were both working in the same cafeteria to supplement out grants and loans.

Interestingly, most of the Mexicans that I met working in the cafeteria system at Baylor claimed to be 'Spanish' and wouldn't admit to being part Indian. They seemed to think that being Indian was a shameful thing.

That always puzzled me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:01 AM, Blogger kyung eun said...

The difference between racism in Korea versus America, which I have yet to experience in the latter, was that if I had been told in America that I was not white enough for a job, I could have sued the company for everything they were worth. I wouldn't have been treated with less respect than my white co-workers, when everyone admitted that I did a much better job. I wouldn't have been told by my Korean co-workers that I was garbage, that my birth parents had to have been stupid and immoral, or that Americans only adopt Koreans because they get welfare money--who else would want Korean garbage? Considering the fact that Eastern Asians in America, get the highest test scores in the nation, why should I be treated as less able than the white man? Nobody makes that mistake in America. Additionally, since I did always test in the 99th percentile nation-wide, was in the gifted programs because I'm eligible for MENSA, and did an amazing job at my work, I should have been treated with the respect that the white boys got. Even if we are subjected to racism in America, we can sue. If people aren't lucky enough to have an attorney as a father, as I do, then they can call up the ACLU. However, I was raised with a sense of what is legal and what isn't. I also know that I was lucky to not have experienced racism in my life--in all honesty, being a pretty Asian girl in America is one of the best things to be, of course that is merely my own opinion.

Kyung Eun Davidson

 
At 2:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kyung Eun Davidson, Thank you for your comment. I had forgotten about this post.

I'm sorry to hear of all the difficulties that you encountered, and they certainly derive from prejudice, but are they racism?

What I mean is this: Do Koreans consider you a different race?

Now, I can see that being discriminated against by one's own race on racial grounds could consititute a special sort of racism, and perhaps that's the sort that you've encountered.

I've never thought about this before -- I mean the distinction between racism from another race and racism from one's own race.

I guess that I thinking out loud here, so I may sound a bit incoherent.

Thanks again for your comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ugh.
get over your miserable sad self.

 
At 3:54 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, your advice is seven years too late.

Jeffery Hodges

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