Archives for posts with tag: racism

an edited version of this article was published on racialicious here


When I see articles like Jezebel‘s “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery,” which I only found after reading Feministing‘s awesome response, I am immediately reminded of my middle school self: a somewhat obnoxious, insecure Korean American girl who was eager to get a self-righteous thrill by observing how superficial and less enlightened people other than me could be.

Growing up in the Korean American community of LA, it was common to make fun of “fobs” (fresh off the boat), the more recently immigrated, less assimilated, Koreans of our generation, sometimes with love but more often not. Existing in our clearly divided groups but occupying similar spaces, we would make fun of their cutesy antics, superficial looks, plastic surgery craze, and love of k-pop. We may have considered it all in good humor, but ultimately it assured us we were morally superior, a higher art form, closer to the ultimate goal of assimilation. Perhaps we thought that by defining ourselves against the less assimilated, we could stamp out our own sense of foreignness.

When I finally grew up a bit and began challenging my own internalized racism, I began to realize my judgments of South Korean culture were more about my desire to define and raise myself above it rather than any real attempt to understand or better the world. And once I finally started paying attention, I began to be challenged by the depth and power of the Korean side of my bicultural divide, a complicated side of my identity that has the power to both alienate and embrace me.

I am now living in South Korea, the place I was never from but to which my life has always been bound. As I center this society and develop a deeper, more complex and humanizing view of “Korean Koreans,” I have begun to recognize and love our shared soul even more and make the connections between Korean society today and its incredible history of struggle and endurance, which echoes throughout the next generations and across diasporas.

Throughout a country where, not too long ago, there was vast stretches of farmland, there are now concrete jungles of rampant consumerism, endless rows of skyscraper apartments, overpriced chain cafes, and expensive Western and domestic clothing brands. It is the frenzied symptoms of a country, severed from its other half and rapidly swept up into the capitalist world without time to process or redefine after colonization, war, coups and dictatorships, political repression, and resistance, a place where the landscape was wholly transformed before the people could change with it.

Today in South Korea, Western brands are generally much more expensive, and western culture is portrayed as elite. It’s interesting to observe how companies in South Korea use the image of whiteness in their ads to sell capitalist culture to the people, a tactic that profits from the complicated relationship that Korea has with the western world. In the US, the little we are taught about the Korean War leaves us thinking that the US went over to liberate the Koreans. Rather, the US engaged in a proxy war using Korean bodies for their own interests, and twisted things so that they would be welcomed as saviors. There was incredible cruelty and massacre carried out against the Korean people, North and South, under the watch of the US military, and the US continues to maintain its military presence here today (in fact, it can use any of South Korea’s military bases “at will”) and regularly intervenes in South Korea’s economy and politics. I recently spent time with activists in Jeju, who have been protesting since 2007 against the construction of a military base on the small South Korean island. The base is being constructed illegally, without the required permission of Gangjeong village, whose land the base will devastate, according to the needs of the US military, during a time when the US is expanding its imperialistic arm throughout Asia. This problematic history and relationship continues to be a presence in South Korea and contributes to warping the society’s sense of self.

I have begun to understand that many older Korean people who now walk around armored in expensive brands can remember times when they were too poor to eat. I can empathize with their paralyzing fear of looking poor, feelings of shame over humble pasts still fresh. Rags to riches is the national story, a story that has been trumpeted left and right by forces that want to take credit, from Westernization/capitalism to nationalism to Christianity, and despite rising inequality, no one wants to admit they didn’t make it out okay. The obsession with brands and “uniformity” may be seen as a reason to reduce South Korea to a superficial society, but I see the human side of it all.

When you eat with other Koreans, they will always insist you eat more, heaping the best parts of the meal onto your plate instead of helping themselves. Everyone tells me that when the country was poor, people were shy about taking more since there was never enough, so it became built into the culture to insist again and again. It is a central part of social life to share the experience of food, to describe the exact textures and tastes and feelings of different foods while eating, and to make sure everyone around you is eating it in the best way possible. Dishes are still made to be medicinal and nurturing, and despite the entrance of multinational fast food chains and products, foods still center around natural and healthy traditions passed down generation after generation, in contrast to the US where healthy eating has become a highly commodified, classist mess. At the end of a meal, everyone will try to pay for everyone else, because gestures of extreme generosity and taking care of one another are important parts of our culture. I used to feel impatient when my mom would always call to ask about what exactly I had eaten that day, but now understand why our parents still ask us before all else, “Have you eaten?” and tell us that we are good for eating well.

I’ve always been frustrated by the impossibility of translating the Korean language into English. The casual speech of my relatives spills over with such intense feeling and raw authenticity that shatters me, and the playful humor and wit that color everyday interactions are rendered lifeless in translation. Korean language is an indescribably beautiful, deeply idiomatic world, honed over time and lives to capture such an elaborate scope of experiences and interactions that eludes the literal, and so evokes poetry. It is a language meant to be used as a community, to ease and lather at times, and perform ceremony at others. Between friends and family, it expresses things strongly, bluntly, to poke and play, and feign exasperation as a sign of closeness. When used formally, it is graceful and rich in ways of respecting different situations, nuanced in a way that traditional English is always wanting.

As South Korea dives into rapid urbanization and corporatization, it is a place full of contradiction. The language has undergone rapid change as well, now rife with haphazardly adopted English loanwords, to capture the existence of a sudden, new world. Consequently, the changes due to Western influence are almost delineated by the trails of English burned onto the native tongue.

But despite all the change, Korean society holds onto its roots of humanness. It is a place where people’s hearts still bleed with a powerful sense of empathy, a culture that still highly values integrity and respect towards others. Since I arrived, my relatives have shown me how to love big, humbling me daily with their incredible generosity, overworked and hard-pressed as they may be. My aunt told me very matter-of-fact that it’s like my mom is in her body, making sure that I’m okay. It’s the kind of love mixed with pain, a love they cultivated as 9 children of poor farmers, where food and opportunity were spread thin between them, and love was sacrifice and survival.

Looking back, I remember the creases of my silent grandfather’s forehead, his unchanging, solemn expression revealing a life without time for casual smiles and wasted words. I remember how he would surprise us with his warm light and humor for a moment, before returning to his distant world. When I think about him, the Korean immigrant experience in the US, my Korean American friends and our intimate sisterhood, my family and their stories of childhood and the painful history their lives have traversed, my heart splits with a raw sadness for all the truths that are regularly erased by the constant flood of negative representation that would convince us that the Korean story were a superficial and ugly one.

I suspect that my musings on Korea and my Korean American identity may all start to sound sappy in an American context. But what could appropriate emotional expression possibly mean across cultural contexts, in a world where all things “appropriate” have been decided by the dominant segment of the world, which happens to be the part of the world whose identities are not closely tied to loss. Using their framework, surely the rest of the world would look like melodramatic fools. Korean society, including its diasporas, has gone through many different traumas, which we were not given time to understand before quickly being ushered into the role of a lucrative Asian market for global capitalist needs, with the country’s military at the service of American imperialism.

I don’t write to romanticize this country or hide its problems. I know many of its problems very personally, as my identity does not fit into its expectations. I write to speak my truths based on my bicultural lifetime in the Korean American diaspora, and my experience living here now. I write because, as a Korean American, learning to love my Koreanness in an environment so devoid of truths about our experiences has been a revolutionary act.

I am still overwhelmed by the endless dualities of this country and culture and have more questions than answers. But as South Korea rises in international significance, the western world becomes increasingly concerned with representing and defining this country and its people according to its needs, picking apart our “bizarre” or problematic habits, using Orientalist assumptions rather than any real understanding of the context to make their points. That’s why I find it so enraging when the white teacher is featured on NPR’s This American Life as the expert witness on South Korean self-image issues, and Jezebel’s troupe of pseudo-feminists puts South Korea’s “superficiality” on the dissecting table, without ever understanding the depth and complexity of the issues they try to tackle with their limited, Western-centric frameworks.

As Korean society comes up against the dissonance between its lived history and the demands of its present situation, flails through unpredictable world forces bigger than us all, makes its way across broken structures and traditions and through a maze of changing demands, I think it becomes increasingly necessary that Koreans remember the things we love about ourselves. The beautiful parts of our culture and the strength and love of our communities are most often the things that aren’t useful to capitalism or white supremacy, and therefore they are the most quickly erased and forgotten.


I’ll be traveling in Southeast Asia in a few weeks, and a lot of questions have been on my mind regarding my own position within the dynamics of world travel. In my search for resources to plan my trip, I came across a lot of travel guides and websites, including lonely planet, that were really hard to swallow. Travel literature seems to be so dominated by language that really dehumanizes and exoticizes (literally, the word “exotic” seems to pop up in every description) the people who live in these countries and describes their cultures as commodities to be freely consumed, curiosities to be feasted upon. While I won’t be joining any orientalist fantasies, conscious of how my identity and the identities of all people of color are constantly exploited by representations of the foreign, I know I still fall into problematic tendencies of romanticizing the idea of world travel in a world where it is an extreme privilege, and largely a one-way street.

Also, while I have had great backpacking experiences in the past, it seems to be, in many ways, a more self-aggrandizing form of tourism, in the way that backpackers often set themselves above the rest of the tourist crowd because they think they’re “roughing it” and really immersing themselves in cultures, when they are really just following paths beaten by other western travelers and staying at westernized hostels, and consuming and twisting the countries they travel to their needs in the same way.

I hope that this trip will help me to decolonize my mind, rather than further emphasize, the racist, imperialist tendencies of western society, whose depictions of the foreign have only ever been for the purpose of highlighting western/white supremacy and universality. The first step for me will be to deal with the travel culture that so clearly echoes this mindset. (Dear lonely planet, histories of colonization are not cute.)

While googling to see what kind of consciousness has been raised about these questions already, I came across an interesting article on tourism, which I am posting below:

‘Tourism consumes the places on which it alights,’ says Jeremy Seabrook in taking issue with its exaggerated claims of benefits for the host country.

THAT tourism has become an industry should not surprise us, since almost every human activity seems to have been industrialised. Animal husbandry has become a dairy industry, celebration in song has become a music industry, rites of mourning have been turned into a funeral industry, maintenance of health is a health care industry. Travelling, transformed into tourism, is now the most lucrative industry in the world, said to employ more than 200 million people.

People have always travelled and explored. Great migrations have occurred, transfers of humanity from one continent to another, often under outside pressure – conquest, depletion of resources or a ruined habitat. Humanity has always longed to know what is on the other side of the mountain range, what lies beyond the ocean, what are the customs of the people across the river.

The irrepressible curiosity of looking beyond boundaries and limits is one thing. It was quite another when it became institutionalised in European voyages of ‘discovery’, which then laid claim to territories in which indigenous people had subsisted for millennia; for this led to slavery, imperialism, annexation of lands and subjection of peoples.

How far have we have moved from those crude journeyings of dominance? This is not an idle question. The same sensibility lives on in those who regard the whole world as a ‘playground’, an amenity to be enjoyed and consumed by people of privilege. The result is a tourist industry which in 1971 saw 170 million people generate $216 billion. By 2000, 698 million recorded ‘arrivals’ spent $478 billion. It is forecast that by 2020, 1.5 billion tourists will spend $2 trillion.

Eighty percent of the world’s countries number tourism as among their top five foreign exchange earners, while for 38% it is the main source of income. It counts as an ‘export’ in economic accounting systems. It is also an extractive industry.

Tourism, promoted as an engine of development, exaggerates the benefits to the host country. Even a destination as sophisticated as Thailand sees 70% of its earnings lost in ‘leakages’: the majority of money spent by tourists goes on airlines, international hotels and companies which supply the foreign luxury goods and services rich travellers expect. In addition to this, the receiving country incurs heavy costs in the creation of infrastructure – airports, luxury villas, golf courses and highways (usually planted with palms, oleanders or advertising panels to conceal the slums of the capital city). Tourists pre-empt the best local produce, which not only robs local people of the most nourishing fish, fruit or vegetables, but also raises the prices of basic necessities for them. Employment is more and more dependent upon the whim of tourists: in the Maldives, 80% of labour is owed to tourism; in Jamaica it is 34%, in the Gambia 30% and in the Seychelles 21%.

Many of these countries have fragile ecosystems. They are liable to damage from storms, cyclones and tidal surges. The social injustice which sets rich foreigners cheek-by-jowl with impoverished residents may lead to unrest or riots which destroy the industry overnight. Secondly, excessive construction on certain sites of unique beauty spoils the very raison d’etre for people to visit them; and hitherto undiscovered beaches and scenery must be found further afield. Whole islands, over-developed resorts, urban agglomerations and polluted beaches lie neglected and abandoned.

Tourism is often cited as promoting mutual understanding between peoples. This is rarely the case. Rich foreigners admire the self-effacement and eagerness to please of those who serve them, sometimes mistaking this for exotic cultural features. (How unspoilt they are!) Tourism consumes the places on which it alights, predatory, omnivorous and yet protected from any contact with disagreeable realities like poverty, squalor, crime and violence. It sanitises and cleanses, offering people an experience prepackaged in the great factory of illusion, sensations crafted by an industry which masks real relationships in the world.

Types of tourism

In response to some of these well-rehearsed criticisms, different forms of tourism evolve. Medical tourism is offered to the global rich by Thailand or India, where operations may be had at a fraction of the price at home, and with lovely scenery, as well as attentive nurses who cannot do enough for them, unlike the surly functionaries of home. Whole new enterprises dedicate themselves to ‘ethical’ tourism, whereby conscience-stricken travellers may pay to have some trees planted in Tamil Nadu to efface their carbon footprint, which nevertheless leaves its deep traces upon the lined faces of servitude. Adventure tourism scatters debris and waste in formerly inaccessible places on the earth; pristine mountain slopes, ice-floes and high plateaux receive their quota of mementos from the unquiet visitations of people avid for sensation and novelty. New concepts – disaster tourism, poverty tourism, development tourism – bring charitable individuals to repair, heal and commiserate with the damage they have helped to inflict with their incontinent lifestyles. I once ran into a party of visitors in Dharavi in Mumbai gazing at what was advertised as the biggest slum in the world; they looked on with the same lugubrious indifference with which parties of visitors regard Balliol College or the Eiffel Tower.

The lure of sex tourism is now worth several billion dollars a year. Consuming the youth and beauty of the poor is one of the least attractive forms of plunder on earth. When I was researching in Thailand, I was struck by the mismatch between the expectations of the sex-tourist and the purposes of the provider of tenderness: he was looking for love, she was earning for an extended family. When he became aware of the difference in their objective, he became angry and accused her of being dishonest, of cheating him. He was seeking a relationship; she was looking for survival.

The tourist has her or his mirror-image in the migrant. The former possesses the golden key to all the magical places of the earth, since the secret password can be spoken only in the language of money. Yet when it is a question of traffic in the other direction – the starveling and the refugee seeking to gain admittance to the citadels of wealth which have also been the agents of his or her dispossession – they find a fortress, implacable custodians debarring entry into the forbidden cities of privilege.

The emergence of an extensive middle class in Asia and elsewhere now sends streams of tourists in the opposite direction. Europe is now a favoured destination for parties of south Asians, who can now travel across the world to enjoy the delights of Indian and Chinese cuisine in London or Toronto. Tourism encloses people in an invisible protective bubble, so they are never compelled to reflect upon the relative nature of their values, or be exposed to any disturbing questioning of their culture. The smiling waiter, the pleasant hustler, the eager cleaner and agreeable driver convince them that their presence is a blessing; they must do so, since their livelihood depends upon the decorative servitude in which they present themselves.

The British government has just announced the construction of a third runway for Heathrow, the busiest international airport in the world. This will double its capacity. It is occurring simultaneously with the anguish over green growth, reducing carbon emissions, sustainable development and all the other fairy-tales we tell ourselves to make believe we are doing something to halt the ruinous consequences of our brief time on earth. Between 1978 and 1998, the real cost of air travel had fallen by 35%. One thousand miles of air travel requires 61 fewer hours of work than it did 25 years ago.

Purposeless mobility has now become a basic need for well-to-do people; a busy hither and thither which distracts from the most disagreeable question of all – what is wrong with home, that it can no longer furnish us with delight or satisfaction? It seems the realm of the imagination, the internal landscapes have been even more used up than the sites of fantasy to which we flee. It is a paradox, as yet unaddressed by politicians, economists, experts and all the self-appointed saviours of humanity, that we lay waste both the inner and outer worlds in an attempt to escape from the most escapist societies ever known.

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK.