Thursday, November 22, 2007

"You are Korean!"

Apparently this is a compliment. I've gotten it several times, usually when attempting to speak botched Korean or one of my students catches me studying for class at my desk or something. Or when a Korean person finds out I do taekwondo.

This is strange. I'm ok being American. I don't really want to be Korean. I like a lot of Koreans I've met, it's just not who I am. I guess its like when my students back home would tell me that I wasn't "really" white (the majority of them were black).

I would always turn this one back around on them and ask them how they would like it if I told them they weren't "really" black and meant it as a good thing. They'd say I was racist! It's like in Huck Finn when he has this big revelation that he shouldn't treat Jim like crap because Jim was "white inside." The whole notion of denying a person's race in order to be granted entrance/belonging into the dominant race is problematic, and evidence of Huck's ingrained racist attitudes. (I had a whole essay on this topic in my AP class--the kids often used that one as evidence of Huck not being racist which made me want to cry and throw things!).

Not that I'm "proud" of being white or American or anything--I have as much liberal guilt as the next privileged schmuck with an open mind. At times I've felt ashamed of it. But as I get older and mellow out a bit, I just figure it's part of what makes me who I am. And I don't think it will make anything better to pretend I'm not. I'm interested in learning about other people and their lives--all parts of it. I think it's helpful to accept people for who they are and acknowledge where they come from.

But I don't say any of these things.

I smile and say thank you (or the appropriate humble sounding protestations). Maybe I'm getting a very, very small insight into what it's like to be one of the "good" minorities the States--meaning you shut up about your real feelings a hell of a lot of the time because you know it won't get you what you want.


  1. I understand your viewpoint that they're being racist, but I don't think it's so much that as their group mentality (which has elements of racism when applied like this, sure). I really didn't understand the group mentality of Koreans till I'd been here 9 months or so, I think.

    If they're saying you're very Korean (which I get, too, and for the dumbest reasons), it IS a compliment. They're not trying to deny your Americanness; they're bringing you into the fold.

    As a related point, when I was training in TKD in the States, a chick named Melissa joined our studio. She had taught in Korea for one year as a Fulbright. The MOMENT he met her and found out she'd lived in Korea, my Kwanjangnim (an old Korean man who grew up under the Japanese) said, "Oh, you are Korean."

    As another point of interest, Good Man used to say that Koreans married to Chinese were interracial. I kept trying to explain race according to English, but it wasn't clicking. He kept calling them interracial marriages. Now, maybe this was just an error because we were speaking English.

    Koreans have words for black person, white person, yellow person. But remember, EVERYONE who is not Korean is "out land person." The Koreans I know tend to think of themselves as Korean, not Asian. Maybe that changes if they've lived abroad, I don't know.

    I think if you were taking classes with others, you'd learn more about the group mentality. Not trying to be patronizing when I say that. But breaking INTO my studio's circle and then FEELING it when we're out together is what got me to understand the Korean group mentality thing.

    There's a good (biased, but all are) history book about Korea, written in graphic format. KOREA UNMASKED. Check it out. It's biased pro-Korean on its spin of history, but reading that book gave me so much insight into how Koreans THINK.

  2. *sight* schools in the county where i grew up weren't allowed to teach Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as one of the local religious leaders managed to get it banned from all school libraries and curricula. (This was all on account of use of the N word, btw) My 11th grade AP English teacher got complaints from parents when she had us read Native Sun. The complaints weren't about the dude killing a chick, cutting off her head and then stuffing her body in a furnace... nope, the complaints were about the N word. And all the complainers in both cases were white...

  3. Jane, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was sort of banned from my high school. Why? A mother complained that she got molested, got pregnant, and briefly thought she might be gay. I think there was an N word complaint, too.

    When I was teaching 5th grade, I got called into the principal's office for teaching NUMBER THE STARS and WITNESS. Number the Stars mentioned cocaine mixed with rabbit's blood (the Nazi resistors put this powder on handkerchiefs and it numbed the dogs; senses). Witness alludes to a molestation or rape, uses mild curse words, and has a murder in it.


  4. Amanda,

    I think this post came off more negative sounding than I intended. Especially because even though I recognize the statement in English with the racial implications as coming from people raised in the most homogenous of environments trying to explain concepts about community and belonging in a language that is not their own (thus it sounds a little "ignorant" on the spectrum of racial understanding), it does make me a little happy when people say it. I know it is there way of accepting me a little more and I think that's nice.

    I just wanted to get in touch with myself a little and analyze/contextualize my thoughts on race in this country. I love so many things about the group mentality (which I get more from my interactions with Se Jin's family and some other Korean friends than from taekwondo because almost all the other kids at the studio are under 14... we're in a tiny area), but I also don't want to lose who I am over here. So I check myself now and then.

    Race is an interesting concept to think about in almost any context; especially coming from an interracial family, as I do.

    Jane (and Amanda again),

    Book banning in classrooms is ridiculous. It all depends on how it is taught. A teacher passionate about a book and sensitive to the potential harm of a piece with disturbing material will only do good. Any American teacher these days willing to risk the shit (and believe you me, there would be bloody fucking shit) they'd get for choosing a controversial piece has my vote for "awesome."

    I once had a student get through all of Black Boy (which has some of the most anti-Christian messages in any piece of literature I've read) and then object to Greek Mythology because it "wasn't Christian." I asked her what she wanted to do in college--get this, she wanted to study medicine at Johns Hopkins.

    I cried that night.

  5. I've thought about this more. I tell Good Man he is very Westernized, and my friends Jennifer and Sung Hyun say that, too. It's not denying his Koreanness; it's a comment on how he thinks and acts WHEN HE IS WITH ME. (I have no idea how he acts in private.) It's a compliment on flexibility and behaving one way in a situation.

    Perhaps there's some of that, too. It's damn obvious you're not Korean, so when you "act Korean" in the appropriate circumstance, place, etc, it's a good thing. It means you're working to fit in, you're flexible.

    When I taught in Atlanta, I had students who didn't want to learn to speak English correctly. They spoke one way at home and what was the problem? I taught them "code switching." I showed them how I talk at home, in Minnesota, with looooooong o's and "you betcha, dontchaknow." I demonstrated how I speak when I talk to them. I demonstrated how I spoke with my friends. I tried to get them to understand that you can speak more than one way correctly.

    Maybe saying "you are very Korean" is a way of saying you can code switch.

    Of course, I can't imagine many people in the States saying someone who speaks English as my low level is "very American," but that's another issue altogether.

  6. Amanda,

    That's awesome! I knew about code switching, but I hadn't thought too much about applying it to cultural norms, since it's mostly a language theory. You're right though--blending in with the dominant culture (and culture can be anything from a country to the classroom) and fluency with code switching is what this is all about. I just struggle a little with wondering if it makes me somehow less genuine, but I don't think it does.

    I think a lot about some of your experiences here and maybe the ability to take in and understand behavioral norms and then act on them to your advantage is something I've always done without really thinking about it. My adaptability to make others feel more comfortable is part of who I am, not a way of denying it.

    I kind of realized this about myself this week (sadly, in an expat bar at around 5am because it was yet another culture I adapt to over here, but still maintain my sense of self, participating only as much as I feel like--it's just easier to remember it there because a lot more of the "expat scene" is familiar stuff I don't like than Korean culture because I like a lot of it and it's newer).

    Thanks for putting it in a way that makes me think.

    I hope that made sense!

  7. To be honest, I hadn't thought of it as code switching either until I was writing the comment. But really, why can't it be applied to intercultural behavior?

    Hey, I am very clever... ;) ㅋㅋ

    And yes, in a way it DOES make you "less genuine" as an American simply because most Americans never live abroad. (Or even travel abroad, especially if you except Canada and Mexico...) But that's OK.



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