Monday, May 19, 2008

Saying Hello

When I lived in America, everyday people I didn't know would smile and say hello to me. I did the same. Sometimes it wasn't a hello, sometimes it was just a quick nod or wave or (when I lived in more rural areas) a tip of the hat. A cursory acknowledgement of our shared humanity--a recognition of personhood and general friendly goodwill. A greeting. Not an invitation to talk, but pleasant, comfortable, and familiar.

In Korea, everyday people also say, "Hello!" to me (yes, notice it's in quotes with an exclamation point this time). But here, it's jarring. It's a foreign language for the locals. It's often shouted at me from a block and a half away or accompanied by a fit of giggles and mutters in Korean about the "foreigner" until one of the middle school children decides she is "brave" enough to say it. Sometimes it's accompanied by other English words... "How are you?" "Beautiful!" and "Hey yo man!" seem to be popular choices. If I respond, they laugh or gape--sometimes they grab my hand and shake it vigorously saying "Nice to meet you!" without any invitation to do such or intention to get to know me. If I don't respond, they also laugh or gape. I generally get the best responses if I reply in Korean. But it grates.

Because here "Hello!" is not comfortable or polite. It's rarely accompanied by a warm smile (although if it is, I always try to respond as warmly as I can, even if I feel like shit). It dehumanizes where such a friendly greeting should radiate humanity. It is a label. It marks me foreign. As much as my wild hair and height and pale skin... It's a shout. Sometimes it sounds like a curse word.

Waking up this morning, I realized how much I miss the friendliness of Americans. There are lots of bad things to be said about my home country and its citizens (and certainly I've said and believe most of them), but there is a certain genuine openness and amiable atmosphere in most places that aren't downtown Manhattan I find comforting.

On Friday, a friend of a friend I met for the first time hugged me in greeting. On Saturday a white guy walking his dog smiled at me when I passed him.


Realization (from a few days ago): I point out the obvious and over explain things. I think this is part of my American-ness. Americans believe in being genuine above all else--to be called a hypocrite is one of the worst insults you can bestow. It seems to get worse when I am most homesick.

And I wonder (remembering now the curious, unfriendly glares I got when I was with my sister) that if I wasn't white, would I still feel like this...?


  1. Hi Diana!
    Love your blog. I like reading about Americans in Korea who have hobbies other than drinking and cursing locals! ;)

    To answer your question, it's both ‘yes’ and 'no'. One of the greatest effects (on a personal level) of 'white privilege' is being able to define yourself. For example: Enjoying sailing, skiing, foreign cultures and using $10-dollar words is the birthright of the white American--each of these interests are included in the mental paradigm for "white" but not in the paradigms for "black" or "latino" or to a lesser extent "asian". At the same time, if you don't like any of the things mentioned, it doesn't make you any less 'white' but Woe unto the black person who can't dance, etc.

    It is slightly amusing to me to read the experiences of white folks in Asia in the sense that most are experiencing what I call "paradigm bump" for the first time. (I happen to think you're handling it quite well!)

    You are well aware of yourself as an individual, of your interests, of the wide array of knowledge and talent you have to offer in a given situation but when people see you—-regardless of the fact that you speak their language ($10 words) —-they only see “_____ race” or even worse, DOES NOT COMPUTE! runs across the ticker tape of their minds. They either ignore you altogether or prod you with a litany of questions in order to asses why you don’t fit in the box they have for you because, Of course you fit. You just don’t realize it.
    That’s the ‘yes.’

    On the other hand, I decide where I live and what company I keep. There are places/situations I place myself in that I know will be very ‘bumpy.’ There are other parts of the country—-mostly major metros—-where I experience very little dissonance. Unfortunately, that means I forgo the friendly hellos but I think the tradeoff is worth it! Hmmm, just writing this has made me wonder why I'm planning to go to Korea this

  2. Very well put, Diana. My mother thinks the "hello!"s are friendly. It's not friendlier than if some dumb ass white person greeted every black person with "Yo whad up, fo' shizzle!"



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