Going overboard – I have struggled with this entry for several days now. At first I had decided not to write about it, as my thoughts on the subject are rather negative concerning certain aspects of Korean society. But I realized a long time ago that criticizing Korean society does not mean I love Korea any less, just as disagreeing with U.S. actions—military actions, for example—does not mean I love my native land any less, and it certainly does not make me “un-American.” I realize that there are people who do not understand this, and there may be some who will read this entry and feel I am bashing Korea, but ultimately that is their problem and not mine.
Over the weekend, I read a brief article on the Internet about Wesley Snipes visiting Korea with his wife, who was a Korean exchange student in the U.S. when they met. It was a very brief article, so brief that I could not help but see the first few comments made on the article at the bottom of the page. I was taken aback to see a comment along these lines: “How dare a black man marry a Korean woman? Who does he think he is?” Someone else replied with: “I think they make a good couple. I don’t understand why you are making such racist comments.” And this was followed with: “So how much did the black man pay you to say that?”
I generally avoid posting on news sites that allow open commenting, since they are often inundated with ridiculous comments such as these. There is something about the anonymity of the Internet that seems to bring out the racist, bigot, misogynist, etc. in some people. These comments, however, hit me especially hard. As I posted in my message: “I am an American living in Korea who has been married to a Korean woman for the past six years. I love Korea, but it upsets me to read these sort of comments. I’m not sure whether I should be angry or if I should pity those who make them.”
A reply to my message was quick in coming: “As you know, whites in America are very exclusivist. It’s good that you love Korea, but don’t go overboard.” The poster was relatively polite and considerate—he or she used the word “exclusivist” (baetajeok) rather than “racist” (injong chabyeoljuuijeok), for example—but I was stopped dead in my tracks by the underlying reasoning. Had it been a regular forum, I may have replied, but all messages had to be one hundred words or less. How do you reply to something like that in only one hundred words?
Despite the non-aggressive wording in that post, what the poster was really saying was: 1) racism is everywhere, so let’s not make a big deal about it, and 2) you come from a country where racism is also a problem, so you have no right to criticize Korea. I disagree with the first part—just because everyone does something doesn’t make it right—but it’s the second part that really gets my goat. It is, however, a very common reaction when a foreigner criticizes your country. In the U.S., for example, I have often heard reactions along the lines of “if you don’t like it here, go back to (insert country)!” Same stuff, different country, that’s all.
Isolation breeds ignorance, and ignorance breeds racism. In my hometown, for example, there were maybe a handful of Asian families living in the area, and most people never had much contact with them. When I brought my Chinese girlfriend home from university, I thought nothing of it, but it apparently made an impression on some people from my church. I remember being at a church gathering later on, and the people I was with were discussing my girlfriend, and someone asked, “What was her name again?” Before I could answer, another woman said, “Oh, it was Ching Chong Ching!” I was appalled, but everyone else thought it was hysterical.
Neither that woman nor anyone else in that group meant anything by what they said. The simple fact is that they had never known any Chinese, and they never considered that such a statement might be offensive. Racism in Korea is very similar. There are very few foreigners in Korea, and most Koreans don’t have any contact with those foreigners that are here. But they hear in the news about how some U.S. soldier runs over and kills two girls, yet receives only a slap on the wrist from U.S. military authorities, or how blacks attack and kill Korean shopkeepers in L.A., or any number of other unfortunate incidents involving Koreans and non-Koreans. Thanks to the often one-sided reporting in the media, and the fact that there is no one around to speak for the other side, people form opinions that eventually become racism.
I’m not saying that this makes it OK, I’m just saying that I can understand how people might think this way—and I recognize that I am just as capable of racism and ignorance as anyone. However, to assume that the comments made about Wesley Snipes and his wife were merely fueled by this sort of racism would be to ignore a more important—and less excusable—undercurrent. Another comment was made that had nothing to do with racism: “Be careful of exchange student girls. They live with foreign men without a second thought, then they come back to Korea and get an arranged marriage. You need to be especially careful of girls who have studied in Japan—they are all bar girls.”
Two insightful comments were made in reply to comments like these. The first comment took a stab at the double standard: “If a man sleeps with a lot of women, it shows his prowess, but if a woman sleeps with a lot of men, she’s a slut.” The second comment might have hit a little closer to home: “I just think you guys are jealous because Korean guys are not that popular overseas.”
Ultimately, all these comments revolve around the perception of women in Korea, and that perception is not very good. I believe much of this has to do with Korean society’s strong Confucian foundation—Confucianism in Asia has basically been used to give legitimacy to the beliefs held by the ruling class. This is, I am sure, not the way Confucius originally intended his teachings to be used, just as Christ’s teachings have been twisted to support causes He would have condemned. Nevertheless, this is the way Confucius’ teachings have been applied, and they have taken root deep in Korean society.
It would be difficult to go into depth on the Korean attitude toward women in the limited space I have here. A quick examination of some of the terms used for “wife,” though, should prove interesting. The term used for “husband” in Korean is nampyeon, which literally means “the male side (of a married couple).” There is a female equivalent to this, yeopyeon, which originally carried the same neutral meaning as nampyeon, but today it is used as a curse when referring to a married woman. The term manura was once a term of great honor, but now it has a slightly boorish nuance. It seems that terms for women tend to decrease in value until they are little more than vulgarities. I believe that this reflects a general disrespect for women—no matter what the language may have originally meant, it will come to reflect the attitudes toward the object it signifies.
It is also common to refer to one’s wife as ane (a term which originally meant, “inside person”) or jipsaram (literally, “house person”), emphasizing the woman’s role inside the house—and the fact that she should not be seen outside the house. Of course, roles for women in modern Korean society have changed significantly, but the underlying way of thinking can still be seen in the language, and in comments such as those made about Mr. Snipes and his wife.
Any foreigner who marries a Korean woman will invariably hear something along these lines, whether in jest or in seriousness: “You’ve stolen a Korean woman from us Korean men.” I was once talking with an older Korean man at the health club I frequent, and he asked me when I was returning to the States. I told him that I didn’t know, and he replied laughingly, “Well, when you do, you’re going to return your wife before you go, right?” It may have been a joke, but it was—in my opinion—in extremely poor taste. I think I may have managed a weak smile, but I was absolutely appalled. It is as if Korean men feel that Korean women are not only their property, but the property of the state.
And therein lies the third undercurrent in those comments: nationalism. Koreans tend to be extremely nationalistic, and they are very protective of “things Korean.” Nationalism is the only one of the three undercurrents that isn’t wholly negative, but when women become national property, any positive connotations have long since been left behind.
Of course, not all Koreans are so driven by racism, disrespect for women, and nationalism. I have met plenty of Koreans who are very open-minded. My father-in-law, in fact, is a man whom I admire very much for his views and his demeanor. And there are countless others who are pleased when they find out my wife is Korean—marrying a Korean woman, they say, is the best way to learn about Korean culture.
The truth of the matter, though, is that Korea has a monopoly on none of the things I’ve talked about here. I don’t think I need to elaborate on racism in the United States, for example. And the double standard concerning men and women having sex is the same in the U.S. as it is here—the U.S. has just had more time to develop a more liberal attitude toward it. And I think recent world events have shown that Americans are capable of the same blind, pointless nationalism as anyone else (freedom fries, anyone?).
But it’s not all Americans, just like it’s not all Koreans. Wherever you go you will find those that are intolerant of other people’s views, those who oppress people because they are different. And you will also find people who are open-minded, and who understand that ultimately we are all the same human beings, no matter what our nationality, language, or skin color may be. I guess maybe that’s what I really wanted to say in reply to the person who told me not to go overboard, but I just needed to work my way through everything to get to this answer: if we could only look past everything on the outside, we would see the same hopes and desires, the same fears and pain, the same human beings—and then we wouldn’t be seeing a black man and a Korean woman, but two people who hopefully have been able to find love in spite of it all.