I knew that during my study abroad, it would not all be roses and rainbows. Even in the United States, I know that the Asian American community is divided by their own ethnic communities. Nor am I surprised by how often I am mistaken for another ethnic group—in fact, it has become a fun conversation that I have with people as well as a pop quiz for them if they are aware of Hmong people or not. Often times, when I experience or witness discrimination, I chuckle to myself and am amused at the blatant discrimination and prejudices I’ve seen during my stay.
My best friend’s boyfriend currently works in Korea. He lives about an hour and a half away from Seoul. Most weekends, my friend and I sight-see Seoul. He does not speak any Korean and although I don’t either, I am taking an intensive Korean language class. Whenever we venture out together I’ve noticed that, whether it be the taxi driver or the waiter or whomever is helping us, they talk directly to him. They make eye contact with him. They give him directions to where we need to go in order to reach our final destination. They overlook me and sometimes stare at me with an annoyed look, like I am a child who is interrupting a conversation between two adults. I have asked my friend if he has noticed this, and I was not surprised to learn that he is unaware of it.
Sometimes, I hang out with my friends and coworkers. One of the coworkers who identifies as black, we’ll call him “Bob”, was sharing a story about a time where he and his friend were on the subway. Bob’s friend, who is not black, was playing loud music on the subway without headphones. An older Korean man who was sitting next to them on the subway, first stares at Bob, looks away and then stares back at Bob. After realizing that it was Bob’s friend who was playing loud music, the older Korean man hushes them both.
Now, Bob has been in Japan for about two years and one thing that really struck me was Bob’s statement after his story: “People will always judge me wherever I go.”
Even in Korea, people of African descent are viewed as thieves, loud, lazy, thugs and all the negative stereotypes. But what I find so interesting about Korea is that, although they may not like black people, they like and identify with black culture—very similar to how it is in the United States.
Part of being a Counsil on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) participant includes the privilege of having the Director of the International Health Department in Yonsei come in and talk to us about any health concerns we had about Korea when we first landed. Now this doctor, who’s American, gave us great information about possible health concerns that ranged from communicable to non-communicable diseases as well as possible injuries that we may face during our stay.
However, he also shared with us a story that struck a chord in me. The story was about consent and that consent is different in Korea than how it is in America. If a woman walks into the hotel room with her own two legs, that is consent. I’ve had this conversation and shared the same story with some of my Korean female classmates. Some found the story to be quite shocking while others found the story to be common and an issue that current Korean feminists are working on.
At the same time, I understand why Korea has xenophobic (dislike of people from other countries) and ethnocentric (judging others’ cultures based on one’s own) traits. Korea is a country with tragic history. It has been invaded by China and Japan several times and although it is not in active war, there is still tension between the North and South. Korea also has a huge diasporic population abroad. Koreans are spread out around the world and, there are TV shows where families are reunited.
Korea is also a country with fast development, but with a huge generation gap. There are people who lived before the Korean War, during the Korean War, after the Korean War, during the Vietnam War, during the Japanese Occupation, and how it is now. There are people who are still alive and have seen the changes of Korea and how it was once so poor and is now so rich. This is a country with advanced technology, and with great usage of space that holds over 50 million people in a land about the size of Louisiana. They should be proud of their accomplishments that they have been able to make since their independence.
One thing that I remind myself every time I experience discrimination is that I am in another country. That I should not impose ethnocentric American values onto other cultures, and I should learn how to advocate for myself in ways that they would, but to also challenge them and learn how to rock the boat with the conversations that I have with locals.
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