Are the times a-changing?For those of us who are Eurasian - half Asian, half Caucasian - there has been a visible change in the receptivity of us mixed-heritage Koreans. What other Asian countries like Thailand and Japan have embraced and even envied for many years, Korea is finally coming around to. The country is not only beginning to put behind the racist thinking that discriminates against people based on bloodlines, but is trying to celebrate diversity one person at a time. You can see us on television, in movies, commercials and the print media, on sports teams, and hear us on the radio. The changes can be seen in all sectors of society.
In order to not repeat history and celebrate how far we’ve all come, forgive me as I use my own personal example as a barometer of change for increased acceptance of mixed-race people. But I also refer to my story as a reminder that discrimination has not been eradicated, and efforts must still be made to embrace everyone, regardless of ethnicity.
Back in the late 1970s, I was a child model and in a commercial for Haitai Date Ice Cream. As a cute little 4-year-old with pigtails, that commercial was so popular that I remember seeing it into the early 1990s on my visits back to Korea during the summer. At the time the commercial was made, my mixed-marriage parents - an engineer father who was in charge of helping build the ports in Busan and a former Andre Kim model mother - were made aware that apparently, there were no other mixed-race children or adults allowed to be on TV or in the print media, with certain rare exceptions like entertainer Insooni, who was then a part of the Hee sisters.
And despite her obvious talent, discrimination was almost inherently part of the package of being a recognized mixed-heritage person. My Scottish-American heritage had to take a silent backseat publicly on the advice of Haitai executives, and the cute 4-year-old who was garnering so much attention just “happened” to have facial features that looked mixed.
In the mid-90s, when I came as an exchange student to SNU for the summer and worked as an intern for the Asiana Airlines public relations department, I was approached by a major broadcasting station to be the “star” of a documentary on mixed-heritage people. They asked me several questions: How difficult was it being mixed? Did I ever get upset at my parents for getting married due to the discrimination? Did I wish I weren’t born rather than be mixed?
These questions implied inequality, injustice, racism, dissatisfaction, depression and more. The producers of the show seemed to imply that being a successful, non-dysfunctional Eurasian was somehow an anomaly. They just had to pry behind the curtain to uncover the deep-seated torment that I “surely must have” for being mixed. While no one’s life is perfect, I was nonetheless a happy, confident person who really never experienced overt discrimination during my upbringing in Busan nor in the United States.
I had always been proud of my double cultural and linguistic advantage. Perhaps I was privileged. Perhaps I was naive. Maybe - just maybe - I actually had a great experience as a Eurasian. And while no two people’s experiences as a Eurasian are alike, the producers wanted to prove that my experience was not true. As a young adult, I found these assumptions offensive, racist and ignorant; I chose to take the high road and kindly backed out of the documentary.
How times have changed. And I’d like to think for the better. Always proud of being bi-cultural, I grew up being an unofficial ambassador for both countries, whether in school, on the playground, at church and work, etc., naturally bridging the wide gap between the two cultures. From childhood, like so many Eurasians and overseas Koreans, I navigated between the two with ease and wove through the linguistic differences without much fuss.
Perhaps it is no surprise that I have become a communications professional. My emphasis is on cross-cultural understanding, research and giving special lectures on the topic. I started over a decade ago on the air and in major corporations’ training centers, universities and non-profit organizations before it was a hot topic. Even now with my new show on Arirang TV, I am just one of many people helping people worldwide find out about how amazing Koreans are and Korea itself. And in order to go truly global, we must be able to reflect on the past without digressing.
I realize that some Koreans may still live under the mistaken illusion of racial purity and homogeneity, despite having been mixed with the Chinese, Mongolians, Russians and even Norwegians who came to Korea so many centuries ago. Such a tender topic, I know, since this is a reminder of Korea having been vulnerable to attacks from outside the country.
And I imagine some may still take offense to the mere mention of this despite recent DNA analyses of Koreans from all corners of the nation, proving how an overwhelming majority of Koreans are mixed. Mixing of DNA strengthens the nation and creating a stronger genetic pool is the key to longevity. Haven’t we all heard enough stories of how destructive inbreeding is to the future of any family line or civilization? With efforts of globalization in which Korea is dominating the world circuit, isn’t it time to put behind xenophobia once and for all?
Even as I write this, I find myself concerned about whether arrows will be flung in my direction from critics because the assumption that not being genetically 100 percent Korean would automatically disqualify me from understanding the intricacies of such a debate. Perhaps understanding critical thinking and analytical skills from the world’s best educational institutions like Columbia, SNU and Harvard is not enough?
Should one even need an academic pedigree to participate in this discourse? As a new columnist for the Joongang Ilbo, perhaps I should not show any inkling of criticism towards Korea and play it safe.
But perhaps times have really changed. Perhaps things have changed enough that a Eurasian like myself can both criticize and celebrate things in our great nation. And perhaps Haitai will make a comeback with my favorite ice cream? One can hope.
* The author is host of Arirang TV’s talk show “The INNERview” and executive director of The Padma Institute, LLC (USA).
by Susan Lee MacDonald