[Viewpoint]Look deeper than skin color, raceOne evening when I was working as the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo about 10 years ago, I was watching a TV talk show at home after dinner, relaxing after a hard day at work. It was the usual chatting and laughing on petty topics among singers, television talents, a man in a woman’s clothing and foreigners residing in Japan.
One of the participants was a student from an African country. A Japanese actress asked him, “You must have seen lions at home. Weren’t you afraid of them?”
The African student smiled and said, “I saw a lion for the first time in my life at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoological Park.” The participants on the show were surprised to hear that and asked, “Really?” Then the student continued, “In my country, there is no one who has seen a lion because whoever has seen one was eaten by a lion.” There was a burst of laugher from the gallery.
I also laughed at first, but then realized that it was not something that should be laughed at. The student from Africa had delivered a blow to the prejudice and ignorance of the Japanese on Africa. His answer may have shattered their simple and naive idea that men in Africa wear only loincloths and dance while beating the ground with their spears, and that women wear nothing to hide their breasts. His response may have blown up a stereotype of Africa being only a savage animal kingdom, where order is not maintained unless Tarzan and Jane are there.
It was only a century ago that Westerners who had the rare chance to visit the Joseon dynasty thought that Koreans were uncivilized when they saw old Korean women exposing their chests in public places. But the exposed breasts of our grannies at that time were the proud indication that they had given birth to offspring who would succeed their family. Otherwise, a glance at the bosom of a young woman was like catching a star in the sky. The Joseon dynasty was a strict Confucian society.
In the past 100 years, however, our society has also been instilled with Western Orientalism. In Korea today we have many foreign workers, and some darker-skinned people here experience discrimination. Sadly, I have witnessed Koreans who turn out to be perpetrators, rather than victims, of racial prejudice.
There is even a television advertisement that misleads people to have the wrong idea of Africa. It said, “A tribe in Mozambique has a legend that a man without the courage to cut the hair of a lion had never got bold.”
AIDS is another issue that gives Africa a negative image. An English teacher from Ghana, where English is the official language, was rejected from being employed as an English instructor at a private language institute in Korea. It was because parents do not like to send their children to an institute if they hear that an African teaches English there.
Han Geon-su, a professor of anthropology at Kangwon University, said in his thesis on foreign workers in Korea that Koreans get angry if an African in Korea has a Korean girlfriend. (“Making Alien Workers Strangers: Korean Society and Foreign Workers,” 2003).
Therefore, there are Africans in Korea who prefer to say, “I am an American,” if they speak English fluently. By pretending to be American, those Africans said the attitude of the Koreans toward them changed significantly.
Mr. Han visited Nigeria for a survey of the southwestern region of the country for his doctoral dissertation in 1996.
For the smooth progress of his survey, Mr. Han had to obtain permission from the chiefs of the region after giving a presentation on the purpose of the survey at a meeting where all the tribal heads attended. The tribal heads welcomed the stranger and gave permission to conduct a survey on the region. But the atmosphere of the meeting changed when the participants learned that the visitor was from Korea.
A senior chief said, “Our chiefs’ assembly is different from Korea’s National Assembly. We sometimes have hot debates or quarrel, but we never scuffle with each other.” The chief than imitated the scuffling at the Korean Assembly, which he had watched on CNN news. The other chiefs laughed loudly watching the chief imitate Korean lawmakers.
Our society will gradually become a nation where different races mix and mingle. There is strength in diversity. For example, the San Francisco Bay Area is a vibrant ethnic mix, like a mini United Nations. The Bay Area has a booming economy, some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and two world-class research universities, Stanford and Cal-Berkeley.
We must learn how to respect each other and live together. After all, the assertion that the Koreans belong to a homogeneous race is nothing but a myth.
I don’t mean to say that immigrants from African or Southeast Asian countries should be objects of sympathy or special assistance. That would be an insult to them. I mean to say that we should practice the golden rule.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun