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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Culture Shock, White Privilege, Coping

If you have done any reading about life in South Korea for expats, then you have seen numerous bits and pieces about Culture Shock. For some people, the Korean culture is so foreign that they decide to pack it up and skip town. For others, the culture is just mildly irritating. Personally I don't really mind it too much and I have started to get an idea of the reasons.
Most expats who are teaching English in South Korea are of some sort of Caucasian decent. Whether they are from the US, Canada, South Africa, or the UK, they come from a life of being part of the majority culture. I don't give a lot of thought to race relations and interactions normally, but at a recent Pecha Kucha event in Charlotte, NC, a friend of mine gave a talk about the costs and obligations of what she calls White Privilege.
Most White people never have to give a moment's thought to white privilege because being in the majority means that you have the luxury of being accustomed to certain things. For example: not being stared at, not being ignored, not being given less rights, not being treated with disrespect, not being marginalized, etc. And since this lack of specific awkward behaviors cannot be accurately measured while you are in the majority, it is only when one moves to a very homogeneous country of Others when the transcendent layer of white privilege evaporates.
The resulting state of being in the minority can present itself as a form of culture shock. Don't get me wrong - the Korean culture is very different from what I knew back in the states. But it does not make it better or worse. It is just different. I mentioned before that I am having a great time here. Part of that is because I never had any illusions of privilege back home. Sure, I went to a good university and have worked for prestigious companies, but I have always been Black. And the coping skills I have learned as a Black man in the States is exactly the skill set one needs to survive in South Korea as an American.
Speaking of surviving, I want to give this piece of advice to my wonder expat friends who happen to be White. Get over it. You are not being lynched, burned, beaten, raped, or called derogatory names (well the last one might not be true, but since we don't generally speak Korean, how would we know what you are being called?) Things have a way of working out. Just realize that you are different and often times people equate different with bad. Once you understand that perspective, allow life to develop around you. Be true to who you are and let that speak for you. Given enough time you will find a comfort zone. Or at least a way to survive.
So, I have rambled on a bit. Note to readers: I am not a big fan of editing blog posts, so if you subscribe to my blog, you are mostly going to get stream of consciousness pieces. Occasionally I might have something really important to say and I will outline my thoughts, write cohesively, and pay attention to grammar and spelling. That is not today.


rabbit said...

Two things:
1. You're black? You never told me you were black!

2. In all seriousness, I think that what you describe can be attributed to many minorities. As a woman, especially a fat woman (I was 263 the when I finally stopped watching the scale), I felt marginalized, ignored, snubbed, whispered about ....

I never realized how different life had been until I lost a conisderable amount of weight. Suddenly, I became visible to people. I was, literally it felt, the elephant in the middle of the room.

I don't mean to take anything away from your post. I only mean to say that race is not the only minority status one can claim, although it's true -- you can never completely walk in someone else's shoes.

Your honesty and insight give me a vicarious window into a life I will never have the opportunity to experience.

Speaktruth2pwr said...

Thanks for the comment. I certainly agree that race is not the only minority to be considered. It is just that there is a particular set of norms here that seem to apply to White people.

There is also a strong cult of appearance mentality in Korea as well. Maybe that will be a post for another time.