Unpacking White Privilege in Korea
I just got back from going to the doctor for the first time in Korea. I don’t know if I feel better or worse after that strange, strange experience. I won’t go into the details of my visit, I’ll just leave you with this: it took (no joke) 40 minutes for them to figure out that I have a first, middle, and last name. And this was a problem, for 40 minutes. I guess I just need a Korean name..duh
I don’t know Marisa. From the looks of her Tumblr blog she’s enjoying her time in Korea. Marisa, if this post upsets you, I welcome your comments. I’ll try not to disrespect you, but I’m going to use your doctor’s visit to unpack a little white privilege. I don’t know you personally, don’t know what you’ve studied, how you live, what your personal values are. I’m going to talk about privilege because that’s something I’m interested in, studied, written about. While living in Korea, I’ve had a chance to re-think how I see white privilege in particular. And I don’t need to know you to see privilege, even your privilege, whether or not you agree that you are.
If you’d like to know about me and/or take me to task, or just talk, I’m letting you know now, that’s cool. I love conversation about these things that I’m sure you’ll agree are actual problems. I’m not going to make assumptions about you.
________________________I use the second person pronoun freely below because it’s rather easy to write about these ideas as if in conversation with YOU. It’s not necessarily aimed at Marisa, even though I address her once or twice. I like to draft as if in conversation and then return to revise after I’ve had a little distance from the text. So, allow me the inartful use of the word for now. Thanks!_____________________________
I’ve lived here for three years. Some things take time, take patience, to learn about Korean culture. Coming to terms with Korean history and how that shaped the geography and communities on the peninsula is a complex task. But not all things are difficult. Food culture, for example. That’s easy to understand and easy to join.
One thing a smart, independent traveler learns right away is that Koreans don’t rely on customer service to help consumers purchase necessary services. We may receive something we’d call customer service at home, but it’s not typical. This may make venturing out to something like a doctor’s office a little intimidating. You know it will be difficult. After all, how will you communicate? On the other hand, since Koreans tend to do things the same way, each time, for every customer, no matter who the customer is, any customer can figure out what to expect and what information to have prior to purchasing any services. No matter where you go, you’ll be confronted with a strikingly similar routine, from use of space to form of conversation.
My first three months in Korea were lonely. I lived in an area without foreigners. I lived in a poor neighborhood. In Korea, that means little English. I still figured shit out. Though, there were nights I’d leave my high school late, two or three hours after my last class, walk home, lie in bed, and read until I fell asleep. I watched a lot of movies on my laptop. I just didn’t want to make the effort to address other people.
I’ll tell you what I do know now that I’ve been here long enough to know what’s up with foreigners who are here temporarily. Koreans are impatient and tend to be recalcitrant to change a routine for one person who insists on special treatment. In other words, you have to be willing to do as a Korean would do in any given situation where you run into a Korean who should want to help you but isn’t quite doing what is necessary, and likely isn’t capable anyway because of a fierce language barrier.
I use “fierce” because English is often a burden here. Where I live, the ability to speak English is one possible ticket out of generations of poverty. I couldn’t achieve fluency in hangukmal in 8 years while holding down a fulltime job or studying several other subjects. If you’re not willing to consider this, you’re not willing to consider one important privilege you have while living here. You speak English and you do so freely. And when people don’t understand your mixture of gestures, hangukmal and English in public, you can freely complain about it. If one of my students were to complain about not speaking English well, he’d get 잔소리 in response. He’d be scolded by friends, teachers and parents.
Anyway, our language is a sign of privilege here. Get used to it. Moreover, it’s a visible sign. One look at you and they know you’re here and will get on just fine without having to participate in Korean culture much at all. And you’ll be treated well before going home. Your presence and language are accurate symbols of your privilege. You’ll experience much resentment from Koreans who don’t even want to hear you speaking English to your friends. It’s not nice, but it’s at least something we can understand. (Look some Koreans are haters, but haters come in all ethnicities and nationalities.)
I’m not going to pretend I have the right to explain how certain characteristics developed in the people here, but it’s true that generally speaking Koreans seem publicly resistant to change and difference. Sure, it is. Americans are impatient, too, and hate having to change their routines for foreigners, especially, but for their neighbors as well. In Korea, we’re not confronted with problems in English and we’re not addressed in a familiar, comfortable manner, even when being rudely addressed. The asshole at an American Quizno’s counter is infinitely more tolerable than a cranky ajjuma at Kimbap Chunguk, or a nurse who can’t figure out how to think about your names and how to input them into a record. It’s not because the ajjuma is a bitch; it’s not because the nurse is an idiot. It’s because we are foreign. It’s not necessarily because she hates me. It’s because I don’t understand how she has decided to react to me and our misunderstanding because I don’t know anything about her standard public discourse. I can’t even fathom a guess about how to react to what she needs.
It’s a mistake to claim she’s a hater for getting in my face, or clicking at me. She’s being rude sure, but not a bigot.
Marisa doesn’t refer to anybody as a bigot in the post I’m reblogging, but I understand her frustration: “I guess I just need a Korean name..duh”. There’s a tone in her post, however, that I hear all the time from angry foreigners. Here and there, I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself. Ask my wife. Sometimes she gets so mad at how I react to young women who refuse to move out of the way on the subways even though they’ve decided to stand in front of the door, so they can use the window as a mirror in which to stare at themselves trying out various grins and poses, shaping their bangs. I can be a dick after being shoved on the subway platforms, too. But you know, that shoving is expected here. It’s copasetic behavior. Me getting mad is a waste of effort and makes everyone around me uncomfortable. Me insisting that nobody shove me is a sign of privilege. It’s not wrong to not want to be pushed. Nobody wants to be pushed. It’s a my privilege that instructs me to insist nobody push me.
I want to point out I’m not addressing Marisa, necessarily, but the tone in her post. The tone I’m comfortable with using myself. It’s a white tone. The tone I hear while reading the blurb about a doctor’s office visit above is the same tone that white people use when addressing an Other and that other’s prejudice(s). THEY or THEM are words that often accompany that tone. That may not be Marisa’s intention, but it’s the same tone. And you’ll notice that I’ve had to use the words myself in this post. Of course, we are foreigners here. Something about being different is difficult to come to terms with, but then that’s the point of attempting to unpack privilege. (And I’m not saying Koreans are not privileged in some ways. I’m focused on white privilege in Korea.)
White people love to claim other people are bigots. It’s a fact. My white friends are always talking about racists and racism. They see it everywhere. It’s part of our privilege. Our pointing it out in others cultivates a guilt-free, privileged identity from which we address others about our own experiences in everyday society. White means If I see it, I’m not guilty of it. It’s a basic form a misrecognition that white folks love to use. We see others and say, Hey that’s not me at all, which really means, Hey I’m better than that.
When I first read the post above, I was furious. I wanted to write “Stupid Things White People Do In Korea: Bitch and moan about Koreans not understanding English. As if they should because the visiting foreigner can’t speak Hangukmal.” Something like that was my first response, my knee-jerk. Sound harsh? Actually, I don’t think it is. Not at all.
There are clinics and doctors all over Seoul easily accessible to foreigners, without appointment, funded by the government, offering top-notch healthcare, with assistants who are assigned to insure that you will be walked from station to station, from office to office, and not ever once be asked to speak Korean. And these services are often offered in offices within hospitals that segregate the foreign patients from Korean patients in spaces that look more western. Find something like that for Spanish-speaking people in the United States, or Africans in Europe. Fat chance.
Some of the major hospitals can be expensive, like Yonsei’s Severance Hospital, which has a horribly over-priced International Clinic. On the other hand, Severance is often criticized by Koreans for their high-priced, medicine-is-for-profits, fancy hospitals. Everybody is equally taken advantage of by Severance. And that’s an important thing to understand about the Korean economy. It’s a social organizing force that works best when it’s taken advantage of. The loudest customer will be taken care of first, the richest customer will get the best service, the most knowledgeable customer will receive the best deal, and everyone else will be milked for all they’re worth.
If you go to a doctor’s office that is not set-up for foreign customers, without a person who is fluent in both Korean and English, you’ll leave feeling worse than when you went in. That’s your fault, not the office’s fault.
The name thing you described has often been a problem for me, too. It’s the most common problem all English-language foreigners have upon arrival to Korea. You can’t be blamed for wondering why Koreans haven’t figured out how to address foreign names. But then that’s a question privileged people ask who’re passively making demands about knowledge people should have in order to better cater to them whenever and wherever they choose to be catered to, and that is not part of Korean culture.
Koreans do not make this demand, yet white folks are always claiming Koreans do make it. See my claims about about what it means to see in others what you refuse to find in yourself. Koreans suffer all sorts of indignity and frustration without a peep. Sometimes I think they’re masochists. I can promise you, not one Korean wants conflict and discomfort. I can say, without offense I’m sure, that Americans love conflict. When we’re pissed, people pay a price. Not so here. I don’t want to get into an Americans do this, Koreans do this mode. But Americans and Koreans are distinctly different in this way. And of all the things Koreans hate about us, it’s our desire to impose ourselves on everyone else and strut our privilege that gets us into the most trouble while living here.