Archive for November 15th, 2007

Being a Minority Person

[Sorry, no pictures this week.  I have had some great experiences recently, but I have also had a cold.  Learning how to say “Where can I buy cold medicine?” was NOT on my to do list! Hopefully there will be pictures by next week.]

Being a minority person means being stared at.  Everywhere I go in Korea, people notice me and stare openly or covertly, briefly or until I return their gaze.  Each look says, “That’s odd” or “What is she doing here?”  So far almost everyone has seemed curious, noticing me the way one would notice a bright red bus.  I am merely something unusual, almost always the only non-Asian in a crowd.

But being a minority person means I have to try and understand the stares to separate friendly curiosity from potentially threatening situations.    My experience here has been so positive that I generally assume the stares are friendly.  I attribute the rare, apparently unfriendly stare to causes other than me, like gas pains or a bad day.  Had my experience been negative, I probably would feel singled out by the stares.  The question, “What is she doing here?” would not feel like curiosity, but rather a denial of my right to be present. 

I have the advantage here that I am a welcome minority person.  I am white, which means racism works in my favor.  A few Koreans are anti-American (and that number is growing).  However, most have accepted the advertising culture which associates whiter skin, wider eyes, English-speaking, and relative wealth with success.  Therefore I to some extent represent what Koreans want to be or have, rather than a threat to their culture and society.  Immigrants and visitors from the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam would likely have a very different minority experience.  I know African American service members and African immigrants are still pretty baffling -and often less welcome - to most Koreans.

The respect for English speaking means my limited Korean does not make me look like a four year old as often as I had thought.  In this way my experience is far different from that of visitors to the United States, who often are often met with frustration and anger when they cannot speak the local language.  There is also great respect for professors and teachers here, so when I manage to say that I am a professor, most people immediately grant me some level of respect.  A few people have even switched from the polite verb endings to the honorific verb endings (a major problem for me since I am less competent [more incompetent?] with the honorific endings).

Because it has been remarkably positive, I cannot compare my experience here to that of most minority persons in America.  Yet there are two shared parts of the experience.  First there is the shared sense of feeling different, separated, an object of curiosity, always defined as other due to the color of my skin, even by people who are trying to be nice.  It gets very tiring to always be noticed and different. 

Second, perhaps I can also understand what it means to “represent” my culture.  In America, a bad action by a white person is an individual act.  A bad action by a minority person is assumed to be due to their race and thus taints an entire group of people.  Here I feel distinctly American in a way I rarely do at home.  I feel like my successes (and my failures) will reflect on the next thousand Americans coming to Korea, giving them a little more or a little less respect in Korean eyes.  Usually I try to forget this or it makes it hard to do much of anything!  But it lurks in the background, the reminder that because I stand out, I am easily identified and easily judged.  I wonder if that is the central aspect of being a minority person.

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