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Two faces of Koreans

   
 
   
 
On January 21st in Atlanta, USA, Mr. A, a Korean, went to a Starbucks in a shopping mall with his friend. After a few minutes he received a coffee from a staff member and he was shocked and felt humiliated by marks drawn on the surface of his coffee cup. On the surface, there were marks which portrayed the small and narrow eyes of Asians. In American Starbucks, a staff member writes the name of the customer on the surface of a cup when the beverage is ordered. However, the staff member of Starbucks in Atlanta drew narrow eyes which demean Asians including Koreans. Mr. A demanded an apology from the staff member and the manager but they refused. Furious by their attitude, he called the head office of Starbucks and complained but they replied, "We can give you gift certificates if you want."
Mr. B is a professor of a university in Seoul. He is from India and he has been teaching in Korea for about a year. One day he took a bus with one of his Korean friends and they talked very quietly because he knew the 'eyes' of Koreans looking at him strangely. Then suddenly Mr. B clearly heard someone in the back saying in Korean "You’re such a dirty b****!" There were about ten people on the bus. Embarrassed, B looked back. The man in suit pointing fingers to B shouted at him, "You are dirty, where are you from? Such a stinky b****!" The man in the suit must have thought B could not understand him, so he shouted in English, "Where are you from? You Arab! Arab!" At last, the Korean guy showed his middle finger to B.


Perhaps, most Koreans might know about the first anecdote because it has become famous after the victim posted the story with the picture on Facebook. Almost every Korean was outraged and criticized the staff. However, most Koreans are unaware of the second anecdote. Properly speaking, we are indifferent to the second story. Though the first and the second stories are the same kind of racial discrimination, we have to ask ourselves why we are more prone to criticize only the staff of the first story?


When we think of racial discrimination, the first thing that comes to mind is people with darker skin or ‘black people’ as they have been labeled.  However, Koreans are one of the races who were racially discriminated against in the past. In the past, Korea was one of the poorest countries not dissimilar to today's Ethiopia. Koreans needed to earn money as soon as possible to survive and they went out to the rich western countries to earn money such as Germany and America. Because we were people from an impoverished Asian country, we were completely ignored and discriminated against by western people. Still today, regardless of Korea's economic status, Koreans are sometimes discriminated by westerners owing to appearance. For example, Korean soccer players who play games on western playing fields are racially discriminated by spectators who make monkey sounds during games. The first anecdote above, and another similar anecdote about a staff member of Papa John's in Manhattan who wrote “Lady Chinky Eyes” on the receipt and gave it to a Korean customer are other examples of racial discrimination against Koreans these days.


Though Koreans have many experiences of being racially discriminated against, Koreans ironically discriminate against other races in the same way as they have been. We unconsciously, or consciously, are likely to ignore people from impoverished countries or whose skin is darker than ours. Today Korea emphasizes multiculturalism and as a result, Koreans tend to open their minds to foreigners more than compared to the past. On the surface, it seems we are friendly to all foreigners and think of them as the same way we think of ourselves. However, peering into the reality, our mind is not equally opened toward every foreigner. We are just open to those with lighter skin .


Where does this discrimination come from? First, it is from a deeply rooted stereotype that Korea is a single-race nation. We are proud of it and it is not necessarily a negative fact. However, the problem is that we are very generous to the 'same' race but we are overly exclusive to other races. Do you remember the L.A. Spectacular in 1992?
This was an incident when black people attacked L.A. Korea town. There were various reasons for the riot, but one of the reasons was that Koreans were discriminating against black people. There must have been both black and white customers but Koreans clearly reacted differently towards those with darker skin.


Also, we can clearly see our stereotype from a documentary made by EBS. In the program, the producers did an experiment by making two foreigners, one from America, another from the Philippines, stand in the middle of Kangnam station and ask questions about the way to the COEX mall. Before the experiment, most citizens expected that people would answer them regardless of their race. However, the results were completely different according to their races. Almost everyone answered the white person but almost every person ignored the questions from the Southeastern person.


The reason why we are kind to western people is because of the pop culture from western countries. In American dramas and movies, Asians are depicted as laborers, criminals, penny pinchers or greasy grinds. On the other hand, Americans themselves are depicted as heroes, handsome and cool guys, beautiful and sexy women and the list goes on. We, as Koreans, may have been strongly influenced by good images of white people in American culture.


Another reason for discrimination is that the majority of crime by foreigners in Korea is by Southeastern people who came to Korea to work as laborers. It is often reported by the media. However, we cannot generalize every Southeastern person in Korea as a person who commits crimes. It is true that we have to be careful but it does not mean that we should avoid or ignore them.


In Korea, there is no certain law to punish racial discrimination. The United Nations already has advised Korea to make a policy for this but Korea has delayed it. Considering the rapidly increasing population of foreigners, the need for a racial discrimination policy will increase. Before that, we as Koreans should modify our mindset first. Although we outwardly say, “We do not discriminate against races and we are fair to every race." The reality is we are not. Before being outraged by being racially discriminated against in western countries, why don't we look back on our own prejudice and behavior first?

Park Sung-yoon  tjddbs1104@dongguk.edu

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