Confronting Racism


Since “race” isn’t real I will take the liberty of defining it and “racism” in order to best suit my needs. For the purposes of this essay, let “race” mean a category of people defined by ethnocultural, linguistic, and geographic similarities. Let “racism” mean the classification of these groups of people within a hierarchy of peoples, wherein those groups are typified by certain traits or characteristics which are then applied to all individuals within that group, and moreover that the rank of a given group with the hierarchy implies what sort of value that group has. Therefore, some groups are better than others. All of this, as well as the subscription to and promotion of this thought system, I call “racism”.

I readily admit that I have harbored racist sentiments in the past. In fact I still do, though such sentiments hold significantly less power because I recognize them now for what they are, and actively work to eradicate them. This isn’t always easy to do, I’ve discovered.

South Koreans are one group of people against whom I have been biased. My experience with native South Koreans is limited; mostly I have known the children of Korean immigrants, who to my mind are virtually indistinguishable from “typical” Americans. That is to say, they are typical Americans, and therefore aren’t “Korean” in my imagination. “Korean” has remained foreign, Other, something I don’t understand. What does it mean to be Korean? What is Korean culture? Who are Koreans?

My few experiences with “off the boat” (is that considered derogatory? I’ve never thought so, but is it? Though I suppose today “off the plane” would be more accurate…) Koreans has been distancing at best, and negative at worst. Michigan State University has recently a huge influx of South Korean students, so one would think I would have many Korean friends and know a lot about Korea and Korean culture.

I didn’t have a single friend from South Korea. Actually, I didn’t know a single person from South Korea, that I can recall, save for acquaintances in passing. Probably because of that I didn’t (and didn’t bother to) learn anything about Korea.

What I learned about South Koreans at MSU was from observation. It had long been noticed and discussed that the Korean students would flood certain establishments around East Lansing at certain times, often in groups of ten people or more. At first I felt ambivalent, at times positive, about this: they were just meeting up with their friends for coffee and chit chat, and what could be bad about that? After I time I began to be annoyed by the crowds of Koreans who would take up all the tables and chairs at my favourite coffee shop. It seemed like they had no regard for anyone else, as if the rest of the patrons were invisible. They wouldn’t even ask me before borrowing a chair off my table, though sometimes I would have to ask for it back because I was saving it for someone. It occurred to me that maybe they were shy about speaking English with me, for I only ever heard them talking in Korean. Ultimately that didn’t make sense, though, since they were attending school at an all-English language university. Their English must have been perfect. What’s more, when they left the coffee shop, they would never rearrange the tables and chairs as they’d found them, and often they wouldn’t throw away their trash. They would also throw their cigarette butts all over the ground on our patio, which really baffled me. This behavior was only matched by the drunks who would stumble in at 4 a.m. (and in fact the drunks were often apologetic). Ironically I ended up working at that very same coffee shop, to be endlessly frustrated by the waves of Koreans who would come in, order together (often the very same drink as all their other friends), clump all the tables together, be exceedingly loud, and then leave. I would be left to hurriedly pick up the mess before more patrons showed up. Needless to say, this wore on my sympathies. My conclusion about the Korean students was that they didn’t respect their surroundings or other people.

I once asked, very carefully, a friend of mine who is Korean American about this phenomenon. I “didn’t want to sound racist” (how that expression so amuses and irritates me now, since it didn’t sound racist, it was racist), but I had to know: why did would Korean students rarely show up individually to a place (coffee shops and bubble tea places, most noticeably), but would often show up in groups? And why did they always go to the same places?

“Most of them when they get here, they don’t know their way around, they aren’t confident about going out on their own and speaking English– they want to stick with what’s familiar,” he explained to me. “So when their friend who has been here a year already takes them to a certain coffee shop, they will keep going back to that place again and again. They will probably take their friends there, too, when they come here to study from Korea.” This even seemed to account for why they often ordered identical drinks.

This made a lot of sense to me, though I still disdained their apparent lack of adventurousness.

Then I went to Cambodia.

In our Kampong Cham village, my fellow volunteers and I would buy coffee from the exact same place at the exact same time every day. We would take up every table in the small seller’s shop, grouping them all together and using up every chair so we could sit around and have loud, boisterous conversations purely in English. When we left, we didn’t clean up after ourselves.

Thinking about this now, I am…at a loss for words, I suppose. No, I’m just deeply embarrassed. My Korean American friend’s reasoning had seem to come round full circle, and it seemed absolutely true. I suddenly felt a lot more empathy for all the foreign students, not just the ones from Korea, who traveled to America to study. It was a scales-falling-off-one’s-eyes kind of experience. [Note: this isn’t to say that my behavior and therefore the behavior of the Korean students back home wasn’t entirely rude and self-centered– most definitely I still think it is. Welcome to culturocentricism.]

After living here for a year and a half, I more or less “do as the Romans do”. Since I’m on my own with no “fellow Americans” for company save for a rare visit from a village Volunteer, I have lost a lot of my training village habits. I’m no longer restricted to a certain area or establishment, I no longer have a routine that is dictated by a desire for a sense of normalcy. Things are more flexible, and now that the culture shock has worn off a good deal, I have a lot more freedom. I can try out many different coffee shops if I want to, and then I can go back to the ones I like the best. I can experiment with venders at the market to see who will rip me off the least, and don’t feel obligated to keep returning to the same one– or too scared to try something different. Through trial and error, I also have a better sense of what is rude, what is polite, what is expected of me, and what people assume that I expect of them. It helps to have a sense of humor about all this (which I cannot say I have every day, especially not during hot season).

Although, my experience here doesn’t shed much light on another encounter I had with a Korean back home, which was quite different and on a more personal level. For a while I was tutoring a Korean man in his fifties, but after several lessons it became apparent that he wanted more than a tutor. Unsure what to do about it, I continued to teach him, but the situation only became more and more uncomfortable. Finally I stopped teaching him and told him he’d have to find a different tutor, though I didn’t confront him about his inappropriate behavior. In the back of my mind, I thought that maybe “in Korea it would be appropriate.” So I let it go at that.

Recently I gave English lessons to a Korean missionary who lives not far from me. He already speaks decent English, but he says he wants to study in order to “speak like an American”. And my “old complaints” started to resurface– same old acquaintance, but in new clothes.

At first I shrugged off his racist and sexist remarks (about Cambodians and about me), because this was a strictly teacher-student relationship. It wasn’t supposed to matter to me what his bigoted mindset was. After teaching several lessons, it was evident that he was very lonely and probably wanted a friend. I never felt at any point that we had much in common, but I invited him to lunch one day with an American and some Khmer friends. I wasn’t paying very close attention to the exchange of dialogue, but evidently he insulted my Khmer friends by making a show of his wealth and then comparing that with their relatively not wealthy state. This was just one in a long line of offensive behaviors, unfortunately. “You should grow your hair out. Korean men find short hair unattractive,” he said to me quite plainly one day. Apart from his dazzlingly enlightened opinions on women (“Women who choose to wait until they are older to have children are selfish. Women who choose not to have children are also selfish.” “A woman should not travel alone; it is not safe.” etc.), he often expounded upon his views of Khmer people and Cambodian society, in general. “Cambodians think foreigners are stupid; they think foreigners are under their boots.” “Cambodians always want something from us, because we’re foreigners. They are always asking me for things.” (Yes, he would say “us”: me and him, versus the Others.) He said he’d left his expensive watch back in South Korea because so many people had tried to ask for it during his previous trip to Cambodia, and he had felt pressured to give it to them.

I explained to him that this was not my experience, that yes perhaps some Cambodians take advantage of foreign charity (but foreign charity is most assuredly taking advantage of them, so I call that mutual reciprocity), but in general I didn’t know what he was talking about. Cambodians had never asked me for anything of my own, as a general rule. Beggars, of course, have asked me for money and/or food and I have often given that to them, but “beggars” and “Cambodians” are not one and the same. In any case, I do the same thing in my own country. Once there was a rather coy ninth grade girl in my old village who asked me if I ever thought of selling my computer, and if I had how much would that be? But she never, ever asked me to give it to her.

Thinking my experience was just a fluke, I asked a couple of my American friends from the villages what their thoughts were. One was a man, and he said that yes, he’d been asked for things and it hadn’t been a joking-around situation. People had asked for things off his person, though not obviously expensive things. The other was a woman and she said that she had been asked for things as well, though rarely and never something on the rank of an expensive watch.

I wondered, why had our experiences been so different? I don’t look obviously less poor than they do; I’m white and by default that means I’m rich, oftentimes. I don’t think it has anything to do with appearances. Rather, once people know why you are here, I think that is more likely to determine if they seek to gain from you or not. Both of my friends are Volunteers, and my Korean pupil is a missionary, and everybody knows this about them. I imagine this plays a major factor in the “making gain off them” scheme. But that has just not been my experience.

To realign from that major tangent…

Said Korean student also expounded on his philosophy of Japanese and American culture– or rather, their lack thereof. I listened to all he said: “Japanese people hate Koreans because they have no culture of their own. Their culture, and their blood, came from Korean.” “Japan used to be part of Korea, and some day we will get it back.” “Americans are similar to the Japanese, because they have no original culture. Their culture comes from England.” I was sorely tempted to laugh at this last statement, because he, himself, had previously told me that “American culture and Korean culture are the same,” to explain why he felt so comfortable during a visit to the States. But in the end, I wasn’t left feeling sardonically amused, or academically challenged (what would be the use in suggesting my definition of culture to this person who believes “culture” is something some people have and others dont’?). I just felt depressed.

This one Korean student had recalled all my negative feelings about Korean socioculture as a whole. Now really, that’s just unacceptable; we can’t just leave it at that.

Recently I had an epiphany (late in coming, I’m sure) that if I want to see something with “unscaled eyes”, I may just have to go to that place and meet those people. The source of most racism is ignorance, which can be cured by learning.

There was a time where Cambodians were Other for me; that is no longer true. They’re not just illustrations in a storybook, alien and unknowable– they’re my friends, my neighbors, my students, my teachers, my sisters and my brothers. These people are my community. Though I often still feel like I am not their community. I am still barang to all but my closest friends.

The moral of the story, though, is that I may just have to go to South Korea. I hate basing everything I know of Korea off of a handful of people: I would never want Cambodians (or anyone else, for that matter) to base their opinion of Americans off a small number of encounters they have had with tourists. If that were the case, they may well think that it’s normal for Americans to yell belligerently at tuk tuk drivers who are only trying to offer them a ride, or to pick up prostitutes. And really, it can and does get lower than that.

In addition to South Korea, I may need to visit Australia, South Africa, and China. You don’t even want to hear the bigoted opinions I hold of those places.

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7 thoughts on “Confronting Racism

  1. Excellent writing as usual. I am so pleased that the piece took the turn that it did, as half way through I wanted to suggest if you had ever run into a crowd of Americans in a Dublin coffee shop. This phenomenon way be the same the world over. I only shudder to think what the Spanish think of the Scots and Irish holiday makers as they crowd out the bars on the costas. Here in Ireland we have many Korean neighbours, and as ‘racist’ as this also is, my experience of ‘them’ has always been very good. This is because I love Oriental food and — well — ‘they’ do it very well indeed. I would love to hear your take on the Ozzies! My own experience of the Australian is one in which the society has not branded racism and discrimination as a no-no. Some of the most brazen racist remarks I have ever heard have come from Australian men.

    I wonder if you have ever seen the show ‘Avenue Q,’ there are some gems in it especially for you.

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    • I often wonder how American tourists look the countries hosting them… I actually have not met a lot of openly racist Australians, but I think this is because they didn’t realize the things they were saying are racist. I’ve met a few South Africans, on the other hand, who nonchalantly told me “Black people are trash,” as if I would calmly nod my head and agree with them. This was when I was in middle school that a high school boy from S. Africa said that– verbatim– and I was just so astounded I found I had no reply. It took me several seconds to get my bearings, but I was so angry that he dismissed all I said. That he said that so openly still surprises me to this day. Would love to meet him now… “Hey, remember when you were fifteen and you said this…?” I wonder how he would respond…

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      • Yes, but then we must remember that this poor chap was inculturated within a systematically racist society. As a child he would have been as much a victim as the Black South Africans under the Apartheid régime. Having Australian family (and I jest) I can only agree that they don’t always know what they are saying.

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      • I have about as much sympathy for that “poor chap” as I do the rapist who does not “know” they are raping because they have been enculturated in a rape culture. In other words, ignorance isn’t innocence; we all need to be held accountable for our behavior. One of my friends said, “We always put ‘culture’ before human rights”; I think that’s what it comes down to. We can be “culturally sensitive” and violate human rights, or we can be serious about human rights and actively dismantle aspects of culture that violate them.

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      • Quite. Ignorance too is a poverty. While I agree wholeheartedly that this chap was responsible for his words, he was still a victim of influences and mechanisms over against him as a child.

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    • Oh, and I am somewhat familiar with Avenue Q (I had a college roommate who was fond of their musicals); “Everyone’s a little bit racist”, right? It’d be better if it was just, “Everyone’s racist”. Haha.

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      • Ahha ha ha! It sounds like you had one of ‘those’ experiences. As a teenager I travelled around Ireland with a friend who loved The Spice Girls’ single ‘If you wanna be my lover.’ He had it on repeat for days and I nearly lost my mind. Needless to say, I have never quite taken to the Spice Girls.

        I often imagine that our ‘natural racism’ is an evolutionary hangover. Yet there are some things which must separate us from our more hirsute cousins.

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