Monday, November 2, 2009

NYT on South Korean struggles with race and ethnicity

Today's New York Times has a Choe Sang-hun piece on slowly shifting attitudes toward race in South Korea — and what may be a long road ahead toward lasting change. The article uses the now-famous (in the K-blogosphere) case of Professor Bonogit Hussain of India, who was riding the bus with a female friend only to be berated with racial and sexual slurs, and reportedly physically attacked at some point, by one Mr Park.

From the article:
What was different this time, however, was that, once it was reported in the South Korean media, prosecutors sprang into action, charging the man they have identified only as a 31-year-old Mr. Park with contempt, the first time such charges had been applied to an alleged racist offense. Spurred by the case, which is pending in court, rival political parties in Parliament have begun drafting legislation that for the first time would provide a detailed definition of discrimination by race and ethnicity and impose criminal penalties.
The recent enlightenment of prosecutors comes, as Mr Choe describes, at a time when South Korean citizens of Korean ancestry are just getting used to having more and more non-Koreans around them as a routine thing:
South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” and where the words “skin color” and “peach” are synonymous, is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate.

Many of the foreigners come here to toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. Southeast Asian women marry rural farmers who cannot find South Korean brides. People from English-speaking countries find jobs teaching English in a society obsessed with learning the language from native speakers.

For most South Koreans, globalization has largely meant increasing exports or going abroad to study. But now that it is also bringing an influx of foreigners into a society where 42 percent of respondents in a 2008 survey said they had never once spoken with a foreigner, South Koreans are learning to adjust — often uncomfortably.
After describing the serious problems faced by foreign nationals living in Korea today — detailed and publicized by groups like Amnesty International — it goes on to lay out how Korean xenophobia is tied up in notions of racial purity, particularly as it relates to women's sexuality:
Centuries ago, when Korean women who had been taken to China as war prizes and forced into sexual slavery managed to return home, their communities ostracized them as tainted. In the last century, Korean “comfort women,” who worked as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army, faced a similar stigma. Later, women who sold sex to American G.I.’s in the years following the 1950-53 Korean War were despised even more. Their children were shunned as “twigi,” a term once reserved for animal hybrids, said Bae Gee-cheol, 53, whose mother was expelled from her family after she gave birth to him following her rape by an American soldier.

Even today, the North Korean authorities often force abortion on women who return home pregnant after going to China to find food, according to defectors and human rights groups.
Mr Choe suggests that relief for the many hardships felt by non-Koreans in Korea may come as credibility-obsessed Korean citizens and policymakers see how poorly the ROK often stacks up on various issues, including the treatment of international residents.

In my decade-plus of living in Seoul, I have seen immigration policy become far more relaxed — particularly the dismantling of the foundational paradigm that foreign women who married Korean men belonged in Korea and therefore should receive legal support in staying and working, while foreign men who married Korean women did not deserve any special consideration that any other foreigner wouldn't get. Property ownership for foreign nationals (including kyopo who did not have a ROK passport) was eventually lifted, after being banned for decades in part because of ways foreign nationals (particularly the Japanese) had manipulated land ownership as a means of control and abuse of the local population before and during the colonial era.

Some of this sea change is attributable to careful analysis of what happens in other advanced countries, but I know from numerous in-depth conversations with Immigration officials (my company did some freelance consultation with people I knew personally) that there is a sincere and genuine desire among many Immigration workers and management for fairer treatment. They want to attract honest, hard-working, good people from all over the world and they want to make it easy for them to stay, and they themselves bang their head against the wall sometimes over archaic or arcane rules that block that.

I take issue with some of the points of Mr Choe's article, which to some extent cherrypicks bad stories to paint a desired picture. Some of his statements are misleading or exaggerated, if not flat out wrong:
A hugely popular television program is “Chit Chat of Beautiful Ladies” — a show where young, attractive, mostly Caucasian women who are fluent in Korean discuss South Korea. Yet, when South Koreans refer to Americans in private conversations, they nearly always attach the same suffix as when they talk about the Japanese and Chinese, their historical masters: “nom,” which means “bastards.”
First off, I have trouble with the idea that 놈 (nom) is "nearly always" attached to miguk (or even ilbon or chungguk). And even if it that inflammatory statement were true, I don't buy the equally incendiary notion that ~놈 packs the same cultural power or meaning of bastard. The word means boy and often carries with it a disparaging tone, the degree of which entirely depends on speaker and other context.

Depending on who is speaking, it often carries a nuance much like you, as in Ross Perot saying "You people" or a snooty Brit saying "You Americans," except that it is a third-person attack disparagement instead of one in the second person.

There is something inherently problematic about using a simplistic one-to-one correspondence when explaining in one language what someone said in another. I covered this in my "Do you know Ch'usŏk" piece, but I think a more relevant example comes in, say, the outrage about Koreans saying "Nigger."

I have long felt, and The Marmot seems to agree with me, that 검둥이 (kŏm•dung•i) is better represented as "darkie." The word is still insensitive and inappropriate, but it by no means carry the historical baggage — and violence — of nigger. Koreans have not been lynchers of Blacks, they have not legally or physically barred Blacks from marrying Koreans (or anyone else), nor have they enslaved, segregated, red-lined, or systematically and institutionally tried to keep down Blacks. Nigger comes from that violently supremacist mentality, which is far different from the xenophobic race-infused mentality that produces words like 검둥이 (or 흰둥이 for "whiteys"), and that makes it terribly misleading to use them as equivalents when describing racism or attitudes about race.

[Of course, if you're on the receiving end of it, it may be seen as tah-MAY-toh/toh-MAH-toh, but I submit that the latter is far less damaging and much more amenable to change than the former. I also recognize that a WASP WASP-like entity German-Irish Catholic from Long Island (The Marmot) may be the last one to expound on the comparative hurtful usage of 검둥이 or Nigger being hurled at someone, but I'm straight out of Compton, so maybe I've got a little more cred. Just a little.]

And back to my point, ~놈 is simply not the same as "bastard." It might be used sometimes as a stand-in for bastard because in some instances it packs the same degree of punch, but in the cases Mr Choe describes (and I want to re-emphasize that I disagree that this is "nearly always" how Americans or Japanese or Chinese are described in private) its meanings vary widely.

So what if I'm right and there needs to be more nuance in describing these problems? The problems still exist, so what of it? Well, I think one reason I always find myself tilting at windmills on these issues is that I think "Oh, these Koreans are so fu¢king racist" not only distorts the problem ("those Americans" can also be so fu¢king racist such a statement drastically overstates the degree — all while stereotyping an entire group of people), but it also drastically diminishes any chance to understand the source of the problem and then do something that might be effective toward changing it. An American bigot against Black people is likely to have different motivations and reactions from a Korean bigot against Black people. The same with immigrants, other people of color, etc., etc.

In both America and Korea, I see things going in a positive direction when viewed in the aggregate. Korea has a long way to go, but I think America does, too — a lot more than most White Americans may realize (for starters, statistics say that Whites are 78.6% more racist than anyone else). But both are going in the right direction. At the same time, though, there is a fringe on the edges that becomes more and more obdurate and extreme about their racial views. Something to watch out for.

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14 comments:

  1. Is this the same Choe Sang-hun that co-wrote "Looking for a Mr. Kim in Seoul: A Guide to Korean Idioms"? Great book. I use it daily.

    Not a terrible article. Not terrible analysis either.

    I still can't believe that "Mr. Park" was actually prosecuted for what he did.

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  2. I think it might be the same Mr Choe. He's one of the NYT's primary sources for articles related to Korea.

    I'm not saying the article is terrible — it lays out some important stuff. But it's not a great article either. It sensationalizes, though, through the exaggerations I mentioned (and I see that some in The Marmot's Hole raised similar opinions, starting here), and thus presents a misleading picture.

    Moreover (and this is not the fault of Mr Choe), this kind of article has the tendency to freeze things in time, such that it will be cited again and again, even as time has marched on and the behaviors described are even less prevalent than they are now.

    Frankly, I'm not at all surprised about Mr Park's situation. That Professor Bonogit is a professor helped, but the physical assault (I think I read that at Korea Beat, and I would link back to it, but many comments have been lost there since the big move) also made it a compelling case.

    There has been a sea change in attitudes, though for someone who has been in Korea for one, two, three, or even five years, it might not be as apparent as someone whose experience in Korea predates the 1997-98 economic meltdown. I've lived in Korea off and on since I was a teenager, and the difference is night and day.

    But of course, in a land of 50 million people, there will always be stragglers and hold-outs, just as there are in the US (I'm floored at some of the racist and xenophobic things I hear occasionally back in California), and so there will always be stories to tell. In the big picture, though, it's obvious that things are moving in a much less xenophobic, less racist, and more open direction. Three years ago, we have half of Koreans saying they'd be open to marrying a non-Korean, yet that flies in the face of how many foreign nationals view Korea. I think, in part, that's because the (very real and no doubt serious) negative experiences are being allowed to define life in Korea for many people.

    Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now.

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  3. I also recognize that a WASP from Long Island (The Marmot)

    Uh, technically speaking, as a German-Irish Catholic, I'm not a WASP. Honkey, yes.

    And the NYT piece was rubbish. Sure, it contained some valid information, but in the end, it's still the NYT running a piece about a guy with "issues" getting harassed on a bus halfway across the world by a drunk racist. And even if --- and this is a big if --- most Koreans used the word 놈, so f*ing what? For that matter, I use it. All the time. To refer to all sorts of people, including my "own." What do people want, US college-style PC diversity training? And what do foreigners say about Koreans in their private conversations? Maybe the NYT would like to run a piece about that.

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  4. I can honestly say, I've never referred to Koreans as "bastards" in any context. I freely admit, I make fun of the pink shirts and man purses, but I'm only human.

    I can't imagine what "Mr. Park" must have done at that police station to get charged. Anything short of peeing on the desk is met with indifference. Maybe that's what happened.

    @Robert - I think what it comes down to is that the face that Korea has tried to present on CNN's "Eye on Korea" event is very different from the actual face. Attitudes are changing, but its hardly the globalized hub of investment and opportunity that Korea claims it is.

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  5. Robert (The Marmot) wrote:
    Uh, technically speaking, as a German-Irish Catholic, I'm not a WASP. Honkey, yes.

    Whoops. My bad. To be fair, out west, where terms like "WASP" don't carry the same cultural baggage, the term is often used (incorrectly, I suppose) to anyone of Northern European descent, almost as if its interchangeable with "Anglo."

    And "Anglo" itself is a weird term, since it is used in California to refer to non-Hispanic Whites, whether they be English or not. (Oh, and "English" is another one, since that's what the Amish use to refer to non-Amish).

    Ah, if only we could stop pigeonholing others, then we wouldn't need such terms.

    And the NYT piece was rubbish. Sure, it contained some valid information, but in the end, it's still the NYT running a piece about a guy with "issues" getting harassed on a bus halfway across the world by a drunk racist.

    I don't know if I would judge it that harshly, but I see your point. I think I'm also less harsh about the good professor. Like the unimpeachable Rosa Parks, he had the stature (a professor! and not of English!) needed for his case to be as clear-cut as possible, as far as the press was concerned. It wouldn't work if he was, say, an English teacher with a shaved head and a big 'ole arm tattoo.

    And even if --- and this is a big if --- most Koreans used the word 놈, so f*ing what? For that matter, I use it. All the time. To refer to all sorts of people, including my "own."

    You do? My ex-fiancée's brother used it so much and sounded so obnoxious when he did so that it cured me of the habit... not that I was ever in the habit of using that word much. Oh, and once when I was 19 or 20 playing go-stop with someone I accidentally called him a 개새끼 and he nearly beat the sh¡t out of me, so that cured me of that habit as well... not that that was ever a common thing for me to say, either.

    What do people want, US college-style PC diversity training?

    Well, I think some awareness of the hurtfulness of such conduct and its proliferation is a good thing for the Korean public.

    Since I'm also a strong believer in the idea that the vocal fringe is able to run roughshod over a more moderate majority that is afraid of being the sole voice speaking up against something they disagree with, I think it also emboldens those who see the behavior of a Mr Park to speak up and say something on behalf of people like the good professor, some dark-skinned 3D worker, or an English teacher just out enjoying the weekend with his girlfriend.

    And what do foreigners say about Koreans in their private conversations? Maybe the NYT would like to run a piece about that.

    True that. It's really not all that different from what a lot of foreigners say about Korea. But of course you would know that, since you run that blog with the infamous commentary section.

    I'd also add that it's not all that different from what a lot of Americans of certain ethnicities/races say about ethnicities/races different from their own. In fact, it's a disturbing trend I see where bigoted stereotypical remarks are made out-of-hand by people as if the whole country thinks that same vile thing about Blacks, Hispanics, or whatever group (including Whites), unchallenged.

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  6. WASP = White Anglo Saxon Person

    Personally, I object to the term gook. It's the same as Inca. It doesn't describe a people but it's just the word that the natives kept repeating and the ignorant name givers got confused... :P

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  7. I've never heard anyone say miguk-nom. I've only lived in Korea for a year and my Korean is at best at an intermediate level, but "nearly always" is simply not true.

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  8. Edward wrote:
    Personally, I object to the term gook. It's the same as Inca. It doesn't describe a people but it's just the word that the natives kept repeating and the ignorant name givers got confused... :P

    Do you have a link for what you're talking about, vis-à-vis the Incas?

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  9. Kushibo,

    You praised Matt's "killer handprints" as an "excellent post" in which he wrote "Unrecognized world record holder speaks through mudang, says 'Why doesn't anyone have choirs for me? I killed 58 times as many people.'"  Isn't this mocking of Ahn?

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  10. Peter Kim, who has been banned from this site, wrote:
    You praised Matt's "killer handprints" as an "excellent post" in which he wrote "Unrecognized world record holder speaks through mudang, says 'Why doesn't anyone have choirs for me? I killed 58 times as many people.'" Isn't this mocking of Ahn?

    Well, it's not me mocking anybody, since I did not write it. Secondly, I would say it's more mocking the idea that killing unarmed people is a meritorious act worthy of hero worship.

    You said:
    Your historicism of ignoring independence of Korea is in line with Japanese right wing's view. Ahn was no less than a terrorist in their eyes. That's why you and Matt made fun of Ahn and other Korean assassins. Their action might not be the best way to do for the independence of Korea, I do not believe they should be mocked by being compared with Cho Seunghui or Woo. That triggered my involvement in this blog.

    I never made any mention of Cho Seunghui or Woo, nor did I make fun of An or any Korean assassin. Someone else did, but you have this word-shifting problem, which is one reason you are banned from this site. I'm going to leave this comment here, but it is your last.

    From now on, I will automatically delete anything you post, regardless of any valuable content it may contain. Good-bye.

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  12. Peter Kim has been banned from this site.

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  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

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