Well after all those happy posts about Karl in Korea I feel maybe it's about time we got back to reality. You know, life isn't all just vacations, parties, and holidays (even though I wish it was) there are some real issues too. Last night, on a regular Saturday I was hit by one of those issues. An issue I didn't see coming, maybe due to ignorance, maybe due to denial, or maybe just because I didn't know it could happen to me, but it did.
I grew up in a white, upper-middle class family, in a white town, with predominantly white friends. That isn't exactly the recipe for racial discrimination in America, it's quite the opposite actually. To be honest my background might be the anti-discrimination profile. So obviously I didn't know too much about the issue personally. You read about it, see it in movies, magazines, news papers, but nothing really rings the reality bell as loud as personal experience.
This past weekend I went out with my best and closest Korean friend, who also happens to be a woman. She took me out to Apgujeong, which is another hot spot in Seoul with a good nightlife scene. It's a nicer area than where I normally go out; places like Iteawon, Hongdae, or Sinchon. We had a meal and drinks surrounded by what seemed to be Seoul's exclusive swanky youth. Now while I'm used to being the only white person around my neighborhood, when I'm out on the town there are usually other foreigners around, but in Apgujeong I didn't see any other people who weren't Asian. It was just me, yet I didn't feel out of place. I was with a friend, out to dinner, just like I had been many times before, and it was really nice. But that wasn't where the night ended. We decided to go to Iteawon to meet up with some of our other friends.
We went to the only Irish pub I know in Seoul, Wolfhounds. I've been to Wolfhounds plenty of times but right as we sat down, meeting up with Jeff, Alex, Kyeonghe and Jinjew, it was impossible not to notice the drunk women sitting at the table next to us. They were just being obnoxious. You know when drunk people butt into other tables conversations, sing too loud, and dance in their seats? Yeah, you know what I'm talking about, That's what we were dealing with. But then they started taking pictures of us. Two drunk women were taking pictures of me and my friends and I found it quiet offensive for a flash to be going off every couple of moments, from a few feet away, during our conversations. When I asked her to stop she very maturely replied "No, who cares?". Obviously she had communication difficulties because she couldn't put together that someone who asks you to stop obviously cares about what you're doing. Either way, I hoped that would be the end of it but it wasn't.
She said she wanted the pictures for her blog (ironic huh?) to show how messed up it is to see white guys with Korean girls. Those words were my first actual taste of discrimination. I realize it doesn't sound like much now but it's such a hard feeling to describe how I felt when I heard it. I knew that those words hurt my friends, made us all feel uncomfortable, like we shouldn't be talking together, out together, seen together, or even friends just because our skin color was different. It instantly made my heart beat race. There wasn't a logical response that came to mind because it was clouded by anger, so I wanted to think of something witty to say, but nothing I could think of saying would change the color of our skin. It was a helpless feeling.
The only thing I was able to get out while I stared at this woman was "How old are you?" Her response made me wince on so many different levels. She paused, looked me square in the eye and said "I'm thirty" (My face: ohhhhhh :/ ). It just seemed unfortunate for so many reasons:
1 - because she didn't look a day under 40, and I felt bad that she felt she needed to lie about her age.
2 - then again, maybe she wasn't lying and she just looks horrifyingly old for her age.
3 - either way, a "thirty" year old woman out at a bar, drunk, with only a female friend as company on a Saturday night, in SOUTH KOREA no less, must have a ton of relationship issues.
4 - I also winced for myself. How could a woman who had expressed no signs of intellect thus far make me feel bad about myself?
I think I should be stronger than that, I thought I was, but I felt bad none the less. I couldn't take her words back, lord knows I tried to take her camera (but I can't really do much to a "thirty" year old woman when it all comes down to it, now can I). I had to give back her camera, I had to try and be amicable with her, and I had to endure her drunken justifications of her prejudiced point of view, in childlike English, and aided by body language because she thought our Korean friends, who speak English, couldn't understand her without it (which only angered me more).
By the end of it I felt bad for her because she was so ignorant, but she repeatedly protested how she was "not judgmental" through it all. Then again maybe I don't know what judgmental means (definition: having or displaying an excessively critical point of view). If sitting next to people you don't know and telling them they don't belong together while making them feel extremely uncomfortable isn't judgmental then maybe I should call it what it really is, racist.
I have some closing thoughts on this experience:
- I am well aware that what I went through is nothing, I repeat NOTHING, compared to what other people have endured, but maybe we all can learn a little something about tolerance, I did, and I feel it's a lesson always worth sharing.
- Her closing line to me was, "In 'the South' you couldn't get a woman." This statement made me wince once again (I was praying that she was Canadian). No, all jokes aside, I am worried for America when a person from "the South" can come all the way to South Korea and still carry such ingrained prejudices with them.
- Even when I did stand out as the only foreigner in an entire restaurant, on this night, I didn't feel out of place. It took an American to make me feel like I didn't belong.
- I'm sorry my friends had to go through that. I wish I could have done more.