Thursday, June 26, 2014

Yes, I can use chopsticks... And ride the bus... And eat spicy food.

This article has been doing the rounds, often tagged with "Substitute "Korea" and it's the same".

So I went through it and did that. Here you go:

Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday ‘microaggressions’ that grind us down
·         MAY 1, 2012
Have you ever noticed how many interpersonal interactions in Korea are like “speed dates” of set questions?
For example, the taxi drivers who have the odd fascination about where you’re from, whether you’re married, how much you like Korea, and how hard you think the Korean language is?
The barkeeps and clientele who try to slot you into their hackneyed preconceptions of some country and nationality, what you can and cannot eat, and (as things get drunker) how much you eNKoy having physical liaisons with Koreans?
The neighbors who have a white-hot curiosity about how differently you raise your kids, what you fight with your spouse about, and how much you like Korea — regardless of how many years you’ve been interacting?
In the beginning, these were dismissible as just acts of awkward friendliness by people who didn’t know how else to approach you. It at least made you really good in certain areas of Korean conversation.
But after years of repeat games, boredom sets in, and you begin to realize two things: 1) that you can sleepwalk through most conversations, and 2) that, if you stay awake, you see there is a larger issue at play here: social control — something increasingly recognized by social psychologists as “microaggressions.”
Microagressions, particularly those of a racialized nature, are, according to Dr. Derald Wing Sue in Psychology Today (Oct. 5, 2010), “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to (visible minorities) by well-intentioned (members of an ethnic majority in a society) who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”
They include, in Korea’s case, verbal cues (such as “You speak such good Korean!” — after saying only a sentence or two — or “How long will you be in Korea?” regardless of whether a non-Korean (NK) might have lived the preponderance of their life here), nonverbal cues (people espying NK and clutching their purse more tightly, or leaving the only empty train seat next to them), or environmental cues (media caricatures of NK with exaggerated noses or excessive skin coloration, McDonald’s “Mr. James” mascot (JBC, Sept. 1, 2009)).
Usually these are unconscious acts grounded in established discourses of interactions. Nobody “means” to make you feel alienated, different, out of place, or stereotyped.
But microaggressions are also subtle societal self-enforcement mechanisms to put people “in their place.” For NK, that “place” is usually the submissive status of “visitor” or “guest,” with the Korean questioner assuming the dominant position of “host” or “cultural representative of all Korea.”
It’s a powerful analytical tool. Now we have a word to describe why it gets discomfiting when people keep asking if you can use chopsticks (the assumption being that manual dexterity is linked to phenotype), or if you can eat kimchi (same with taste buds), or if you’ll be going “home” soon (meaning Korea is just a temporary stop in your life and you don’t belong here). It can even help you realize why it’s so difficult for the NK long-termer to become a seonbae in the workplace (since NK subordination is so constant and renewed in daily interaction that it becomes normalized).
Now let’s consider microaggression’s effects. Dr. Sue’s research suggests that subtle “microinsults and microinvalidations are potentially more harmful (than overt, conscious acts of racism) because of their invisibility, which puts (visible minorities) in a psychological bind.”
For example, indicate that you dislike being treated this way and the aggressor will be confused; after all, the latter meant no harm, so therefore the NK must just be overly “sensitive” — and therefore also “troublesome” to deal with. Resistance is not futile; it is in fact counterproductive.
Yet do nothing and research suggests that “aggressees” become psychologically drained over time by having to constantly question the validity of their position and devote energy to dealing with this normalized (and after a while, predictable) “othering” that nobody else (except — shudder — the alienated NK barflies) seems to understand.
So in come the coping strategies. Some long-termers cultivate a circle of close friends (hopefully Korean, but rarely so: JBC, Aug. 2, 2011), others just become hermits and keep to themselves. But those are temporary solutions. Sooner or later you have to take a taxi, deal with a restaurateur, have words with your neighbors.
And then, like it does for the wangttas  (who are also victims of other strains of microaggression), you begin to dread interacting with the outside world.
Therein lies the rub: Microaggressions have such power because they are invisible, the result of hegemonic social shorthand that sees people only at face value. But your being unable to protest them without coming off as paranoid means that the aggressor will never see that what they say might be taken as prejudiced or discriminatory.
The power of microaggression is perhaps a reason why activists like me occasion such venomous and obsessive criticism, even online stalkers.
I happen to fight the “big fights” (such as “Korean Only” signs and rules, official propaganda about foreign crime). But I also fight microaggressions (the racist word “waygookin,” the oddly destructive platitude of “fighting!,” the effects of NK being addressed by name without a “ssi” attached), because after decades of experience I know where they lead to: perpetual subordinate status.
Alas, my actions to stem or deter this just make me look alarmist, reactionary and paranoid in the eyes of the critics (especially the NK ones, who seem to think I’m somehow “spoiling” Korea for them), either because they haven’t experienced these microaggressions for themselves, or because they live in denial.
“Know how to pick your battles,” some decry. Fortunately, the battle is partially won, because now this dynamic of low-level aggression and “othering” is less invisible. We finally have a word in the English language (hopefully someday in Korean too) to identify it, and social scientists endeavoring to quantify it.
Someday we just might be able to empower ourselves away from our own microaggressive self-policing of preconception and prejudice. And we will gain the appropriate respect for those brave enough to stand up to it. And at least the daily questions might become less boring!

 Why did I do this? Well, lately I've been particularly feeling the pressure of being different, and being judged according to my race and nationality (when they can remember that I'm not South American). It's making me miserable, and it's turned a job I once loved into one I dread going to and struggle to get out of bed for. It's made me less inclined to explore the country I moved to, choosing instead to hide in my apartment, ordering food through yogiyo and praying that I won't get a phone call from the restaurant. 

I spent months learning Korean and used to be excited about it, but these days I hardly even try because, quite frankly, I don't want to talk to you. I made a pact to stop being negative about Korea, and it's a struggle, and I'm probably breaking it now with this post. I loved this country. I was so excited to be here. But now I'm at the point where I'd rather move to grease-eatin', gun-shootin', gay-bashin' America than live another year earning good money at a relatively easy and fulfilling job in Korea. 

I'm tired of being tarred with the same brush as people who made mistakes. I'm tired of people being surprised that I was able to use public transport... even though I'd been living here, and using it, for over a year. I'm tired of having 20-minute lectures over and over again about work ethic based on the mistakes made by other foreigners, when I've worked as hard as I can, gone beyond what they've asked me to do, and haven't taken a single sick day this year. I'm tired of being warned that something labelled "mepke" on the menu is spicy - that's why I chose it! I'm even tired of adorable little children shouting "Waygookin!" when they see me, even though they don't know the effect it has. 

Meat carefully separated on a barbecue grill to avoid sauce-tainted stuff touching the celiac's portion gets suddenly mixed by "helpful" waiters who leap in to cook your food for you. And every single meal becomes a "How do you like Korean food?" conversation, and "Oh, she eats well" or "You can use chopsticks." 

Despite all the kindness that people have shown me - the stranger who took me to a doctor on my first weekend in Daegu, my jjimdalk guy who gave me corn just because, the student who told me she wanted me to come to class early so she could have more time to practice English, the ajummas who showed me the ropes at the jjimjilbang and shared their tea with me, and the many other small acts of generosity and kindness shown to me almost every day, this feeling of otherness and inferiority has worn me down to breaking point. 

Coming from SA, where we spend a lot of time talking about race and othering, this hit home. Here in Korea my white social privelege has been stripped away and I can understand the effect of these kinds of micro-aggressive terms used on people of other races in other countries. "Oh, you speak such good English..." "What kind of Asian are you?" and "Your people..." I've come to experience first-hand the psychological toll that it takes to be told you're not as good as everyone else (or to have people react with surprise when you are). And I have huge respect for people who manage to stick it out and get through day after day of living like this. 

But I'm not as strong as them. I don't think I can do it for another year. I'm sorry, Korea. I think we need to break up.