The trials of an African-Korean

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The trials of an African-Korean


Emanuel Pastreich

My colleague at Kyung Hee University Ed Reed related to me a scene he witnessed at Incheon International Airport recently. A man of African descent was waiting at immigration in the line clearly marked as “for Koreans.” Three people came up to him in turn and told him to please move to the line for “aliens” to the right. The man was clearly upset by the constant attention, but stood his ground. And then, when he actually reached the immigration officer he revealed that he was in fact a Korean citizen.

Cases like this in Korea are frequent. The number of non-ethnic Koreans with Korean citizenship is increasing rapidly, more rapidly than the thinking of most Koreans can evolve to imagine a multiethnic country.

For that reason it is hard for Koreans to come up with an inspiring long-term vision for what a multicultural Korea would be like - but that is exactly what we need to do right now.

The term “multicultural” (damunhwa) has been misunderstood in Korea to apply exclusively to the families formed by Korean men who marry non-Korean women from Southeast Asia and China. Although such families must be integrated as part of a future Korean culture, they do not represent true multiculturalism.

The challenge of multiculturalism is one of creating an overarching culture for Korea that can then absorb and integrate other cultures. The base culture for a multicultural Korea must be broad enough and tolerant enough to embrace (and transform) not only foreigners but also Koreans, such as overseas Koreans, adoptees and North Koreans.

One mistake we see frequently is that Koreans assume that a multicultural, modern Korea should be Western, bland and universal, without any distinctly Korean features - that Korea must somehow leave behind its past to become international. But a cosmopolitan and global Korea that lacks any basis in a deeper Korean value system, any basis in the philosophy and literature of Korea, is a terrible idea. If Korean culture is no different than Singapore or Hong Kong, why should multi-cultural Koreans feel loyal to Korea?

Rather, the Korean tradition must be entirely reinvented so as to be large enough to incorporate all foreigners who make Korea their home. The primary culture that will serve to bring together all the people living in Korea as a community with common values has to be the Korean culture. We have a much better chance of making Korean culture universal than we have of trying to import cultures from foreign nations and expect them to flourish in Korea.

A multicultural society is like a symphony. There can be different cultural traditions that blend together as music, but there must be a distinct harmony that holds the symphony together. Korean culture itself, starting from the great classical tradition, must be transformed into a powerful global culture that has room in it for all peoples.

Fortunately, Korea has a strong tradition of all-embracing thinking that can traced back to its neo-Confucian tradition, which put great stress on universality, rather than specificity, in human experience. So also the Korean tradition of “hongik ingan,” a compassion for all of humanity, has the potential to serve as the skeleton for a new Korean civilization that invites the participation of multiple ethnic traditions.

We need look only at the United States for examples of how a universal culture can be created out of a specific one. The dinner of the pilgrims at Plymouth was originally an event of white Puritan settlers from England, but today the Thanksgiving festival based on it has become part of the American tradition - a tradition that Chinese-Americans and African-Americans celebrate as if it were their own. Thomas Jefferson was an elitist slave-owning white man, but his arguments for why civil rights should be guaranteed ended up in the Constitution. He was thinking only about white men when he wrote his famous essays, but today the essence of Jefferson’s philosophy is looked up to by Americans of every background.

Although many Koreans may find the idea odd, we can imagine a future in which there are African-Koreans, Vietnamese-Koreans, Italian-Koreans and Chinese-Koreans who are both aware of their cultures abroad but also deeply committed to the humanistic tradition of Korea that they feel is also theirs. Historical figures like King Sejong or the monk Wonhyo can become heroes not only for Korean boys, but also for Korean girls, and for African-Koreans and Chinese-Koreans. Korea can become a multicultural society without losing its guiding culture and its direction as a nation.

Finally, a critical task for us in creating a multicultural society is to create a culture that can accept North Koreans and create a cultural renaissance that will sweep the entire peninsula. Of course North Koreans share the same language and culture as South Koreans - but this fact makes cultural issues more difficult because their habits and assumptions are oddly dissonant.

In that case, the most serious question will not be military or economic, but rather expanding Korean culture so that all people can feel a part of it. That will be a matter not just of absorbing North Korean culture into South Korean culture, but of creating something new that will inspire the world.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

By Emanuel Pastreich

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