[Viewpoint]Darker-skinned people get treated worseThe relationship of Koreans to foreigners is complex. They seem to experience a host of mixed and contradictory emotions: fear and fascination, suspicion and curiosity, feelings of superiority and plain envy. Because of the homogeneity of Korean society, a non-Korean, except perhaps a Chinese or Japanese person, stands out like a sandbank at low tide.
Even in a more or less internationalized city such as Seoul, the entrance of a white or black person into a subway car still elicits stares from passengers. People are clearly interested in the strange phenomenon that has entered their field of vision, but at the same time they are afraid to strike up a conversation.
Of course, the language barrier aggravates the problem. Elderly Koreans may be different.
Because of their personal experiences with American G.I.s during the Korean War, some speak fairly good English and are eager to communicate with English-speaking foreign visitors.
What matters much, though, is what kind of foreigner Koreans meet. Physical appearance is crucially important. A tall, Caucasian male or female is generally welcomed with interest and a measure of respect. If the person in question has blond hair and blue eyes and, better still, is handsome or pretty, popularity is guaranteed. British Crown Prince William would most certainly become the object of intense female admiration were he to enroll at a Korean college. People of color are treated differently.
Dark-skinned Indians or Bangladeshis, Africans or Filipinos are generally treated less politely than white people and are sometimes met with indifference or plain condescension. Some foreigners assert Koreans are racist. I do not believe this is true.
They certainly are not racist in the sense of American white supremacists or German neo-Nazis. They are, understandably, more self-conscious in the presence of racial differences than people who come from countries with ethnically mixed societies. However, besides resulting from a plain lack of exposure to diversity, these attitudes also have more complex cultural origins.
There are two main reasons for the Korean attraction toward the Caucasian appearance. First, Koreans themselves traditionally have preferred fair skin to a tanned appearance. Skin color is precisely defined in the Korean vocabulary by the word salsaek, meaning a peach-ivory-beige type of color. This preference is indirectly related to the Korean emphasis on education.
Members of the governing yangban class of the Joseon era spent most of their time indoors fulfilling administrative, educational or political duties. Hence, fair skin was a sign of erudition and a significant social position. Conversely, sun-burned skin indicated a person lacked education and spent most of his time outdoors doing menial labor.
Though some younger Koreans nowadays like a slight fashionable tan in the summer, almost none share the passion of some Caucasians for frequenting tanning salons in pursuit of the perfect bronze tone.
Even today, one can see women, especially in their middle ages, protecting themselves from bright sunlight with parasols to preserve a fair complexion.
Another reason is that Koreans, in keeping with their class-consciousness, admire success and, by contrast, do not respect the underdog.
The nations of Europe, North America and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) are considered successful because of their political, economic and military clout.
Most of the countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa cannot compete in terms of international influence.
As a result, people hailing from these areas, who generally have a darker skin color, do not receive the same regard that whites do. Of course, a large percentage of the U.S., British and French populations is of African, Latino or Asian origin. But this escapes the attention of many Koreans, probably because of their lack of direct, personal experience with people from these countries.
With respect to Americans, for example, their conclusions are based either on Hollywood movies (where, alas, the hero is often still white), or that great instrument of Korean knowledge gathering, hearsay. Hines Ward has done a good PR job for African/Asian Americans; nevertheless, many Koreans still believe all “real” Americans are tall and white. For that matter, tall and white people are often automatically referred to as miguk saram, Americans, who, of course, are fluent in English, regardless of the fact that there are millions of white Germans, French and Russians who feel little kinship with Americans and don’t speak a word of English.
Meanwhile, American blacks report that they are often not greeted when entering stores and are asked silly questions about “their” hip-hop or rap culture, as if no African-American appreciates Beethoven or opera.
In the 21st century, Korea will undoubtedly be a rising global star. How fast the Korean ascent will be and how much of its fruits can be evenly shared with other members of the international community will in part depend on how soon Koreans can become comfortable and confident in the company of people of varied national and ethnic backgrounds.
*The writer is a teacher at Cheongshim International Academy.
by Maarten Meijer