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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Sudden Minority

It could be said that the biggest culture shock for white westerners coming to Korea is the sudden loss of majority status. Is the transition easier for westerners of color going from minority to minority? Marcus Williams writes of culture shock, white privilege and new paradigms.

BUSAN, South Korea -- Most blogs penned by Expats in South Korea touch on Culture Shock at one time or another. For some, the Korean culture is so ‘foreign’ that they decide to pack it up and skip town during the first year, choosing not to adapt or cope with their new found surroundings. This departure can be with an approving nod from a willing employer or via the infamous ‘Midnight Run.’
Many of us expats in the ROK have found some way to cope.  I use the word ‘cope’ with specific intent.  Life as a western foreigner can be challenging.  We face a myriad of emotions and experiences that range from finding the culture mildly irritating to the other swing of the pendulum with the ‘I never want to leave,’ experience.
When I first arrived in the Land of the Morning Calm, I was truly overwhelmed with the vast contrasts in Busan with the slow, country charm of my home in North Carolina.
Perhaps the the greatest contrast was due simply to the color of my skin.  Being black in South Korea is a sure fire way to stand out, stick out, and quite frankly, be singled out.  
The fact is, every expat who is not Korean sticks out; and I find that a fair number of Koreans at times go out of their way to remind us of that at every turn.
One of the core aspects of the expat experience in Korea is created by this otherness.  Those westerners amongst us, by geographical apportion, suddenly share a common minority status.  We tend to have the same gripes, joys and pet peeves.  
Interestingly, soon after arriving on the peninsula, I noticed that how we deal with being a minority can take on different modes. I suppose this is a good time to define “we.”  
If you haven’t noticed, most of those  teaching English in South Korea trend towards some variation of Caucasian decent. Whether from the US, Australia, Canada, South Africa, or the UK, they come from a life where being part of the majority culture was the norm. In short, Caucasians are going from majority to minority.
As a black American it is markedly different. And it is from this perspective I seek to understand how being a minority, for the first time, can have a profoundly different effect than being a minority such as myself in the midst of a new Majority.
I don't give a lot of thought to race relations and interactions normally, but at a multimedia event in Charlotte, North Carolina a while back, a friend of mine gave a talk about the costs and obligations of what she calls “white privilege.” The merits of her presentation were intrinsically important. The audience was mostly White.  My friend who gave the lecture is White.  It was a conversation to White Americans, from a White American, about the unseen benefits of being a White American.  But more than that, it was a conversation about what it means to be afforded privilege because of where and what you were born.
For most white people it is unnecessary to give a moment's thought to white privilege --they are simply 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, and so on.
While in the majority it is difficult to accurately measure or much less comprehend such behavior while you are in the majority. It is only when you move to a homogeneous country of “others” that the transcendent layer of white privilege evaporates. There you are: an other.
As a result, 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 different does not mean better or worse. It’s just different.
Earlier I spoke of being happy here. In other words, some of the cultural barriers that drive other expats away, don’t really get to me. Part of this 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 are exactly the skills one needs to survive in any country where they are the minority.
On the word “surviving,” I want to give this piece of advice to my other expat friends who happen to be White:
Get over it.
You are not being lynched, burned, beaten or called derogatory names. Well, at least not names that most of us understand.
But wait. Is my solution too simple?  No one wants to be told to get over anything.  It reduces your feelings and emotions to something less than meaningful.  In fact, it might even be straight up offensive to the ear.  And as offensive as it might seem, it is the most prudent advice I can offer.  
And while I am taking a stark view at minority/majority perspectives, at the end of the day, nothing I say will be as real or as important as what you experience and what you feel.

Allow me to enumerate the privileges that exist back home that don’t exist here for much of the minority.
The List
  1. Media image
  2. Unreasonable expectations
    • Dating
    • Cultural contextual knowledge
    • Privacy
  3. Being a scapegoat for societal ills
  4. Separate but not equal
    • Cell phone contracts
    • Employment contracts
    • Equal access to banking and finance
    • Housing
This list is how I arrange some of the paradigm shifting life issues that one might face as a sudden minority.  It is by no means comprehensive or applicable for everyone.  Take a moment and look at my list.  Think about the problems you didn’t have before you moved to South Korea.  Think about the problems you do have now.  How many of them are a matter of perspective going from majority to minority?  Make your own list.
Things have a way of working out. The payoff for this exercise is not enlightenment.  But maybe, just maybe, a slight shift in perspective can lead to better understanding of how what other people do makes us feel.  And if we understand how and why we feel, we might actually change how we respond.
  • John Bocskay
    Could you define "get over it"? Are you saying "learn to cope", in which case some insight into the coping skills you mentioned but didn't elucidate would be useful, or are you just saying "quit whining; you don't have it half as bad", which, frankly, is kind of how it comes across.It's a thought provoking article, and I thank you for it.


     I'm looking at your list; some of those problems I would put down to being a member of a minority, though lots of others I put down to simply being a resident alien (as opposed to a citizen). I know there are people who moan, but I think more of us also recognize the rationale for not entering into long contracts with a group of what are for the most part transients who may (and have) leave at any moment. I get that. I think many of us get that.If I may speak for my fellow fair-skinned expats for a moment, I think we also recognize the "minority privileges" - to coin a phrase? - that we enjoy here too. Two days ago, for perhaps the 20th time in the last ten years, my waygookin ass was waved through a DWI checkpoint without a test. I appreciate that. Had my wife been driving, it would have been a problem (We'd actually had a glass of wine about ten minutes before). Things like that don't go unnoticed, unremarked, or unappreciated by most white folks I know in Korea.
  • Marcus Williams
    John Bocskay , "get over it," and "learn to cope" are intrinsically the same thing in this case.  But the reason I wrote the article is more about recognition.  I find that when I examine WHY I feel something, I can often make better choices in my attempts to respond to those emotions.  You make a great point that I should elucidate on coping skills.  Fair.  Yet, I find that the very act of coping is so personal that what works for me may not work for you.  They are the result of a lifetime of trial and error.

    That being said, the best method I have in my quiver is the Smile.  In all interactions if you are the first to smile, you have minimized the need to cope.  I like to call this the Plus One. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt in all initial interactions.  If they are negative towards you, you have the right to be negative back.  However, the interaction started with you being positive.  You are at a "plus one" state.

    Finally, as a minority, there are certain privileges.  This is especially true when you are a sought after minority-expat-alien.  In that case, we don't have that bad at all.
  • Joe Long
    Guessing none of the people you met live in the LA area. White people are the minority. People like yourself from hick towns or those from white majority countries shouldn't be given a voice. The question is, why are you the voice of the minority you are criticizing?

    I think we are all minorities here. Regardless of color.
  • Marcus Williams
    Joe, thanks for the comment.  I almost started to write a well thought out response to you, but I figured you probably wouldn't bother to read it.  Instead, I'll offer this:
    1.  Where do you find that I criticize rather than offer my observations?2.  Charlotte, NC is not LA, but it is not quite a "hick town."3.  The idea that ANYONE should be denied a voice borders on ridiculous.  You may disagree with my assesment of the world, but I think I will hold on to my right to have an opinion and to express it.4.   I think you missed the point of what I am saying, but thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Finally, you are right, we are all minorities here.  For some of us expats, this is a new experience.  For others, this is only a slight paradigm shift.
  • Not_Korean
    Thanks for the article. It seems to carry a bit of defeatism in it though. Because you weren't raised with "white privilege" it seems that you sort of take being treated as less what you should expect and you suggest that whites should do that as well. I disagree. While it's true that as an expat you are a "guest" in another culture, all cultures need to learn equality among races and genders. The simple fact that as an expat you are called  "waygukin" should be enough to indicate how heavily entrenched many Koreans are in regard to racist attitudes. Why is the word "foreigner?" Why isn't it "friend" or "sister" or "brother?" The word "waygukin" in itself indicates separate and different. Korea has a long way to go. Don't be afraid to remind the Koreans you meet that the world does not bow to them. They need to know.
  • Miss S
    Thanks for the article.  I think this is defiantly a point of tension for many who arrive in Korea.
    Although, I would like to point out that white South Africans are the minority in South Africa and coming to South Korea, at least for myself, hasn't been as much of a jarring adjustment as I have seen in fellow expats from other countries.
    I have never lived in a country where I was part of the majority and therefore wouldn't know what I'm missing.
  • Marcus Williams
    Miss S,

    Your experiences are congruous with one of the points I make about the loss of privilege.  Although, pre-apartheid South Africa did afford certain innate privilege to the Caucasian Minority, I suspect a natural erosion has occurred over time.
  • I love you so much, Marcus. SO MUCH! I've been thinking about my experience as a strange woman in a strange land (Iowa- which is no means Korea) and reconciling my privilege with my foreign status. I don't have the problem of legal status also complicating it, but it is just more of my privilege. I'm glad you put these thoughts down for others to help self-reflect on.
  • Chris Davies
    Great article Marcus, spoken like a true gentleman with honesty, wisdom and truth. Bravo sir :)
  • Jim Batcho
    This is an article that has needed to be written for a long time. Of course it ultimately comes down to the personality and temperament of the individual. But your perspective brings a whole new weight to it. Nicely done Marcus.

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