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.
- Media image
- Cultural contextual knowledge
- Being a scapegoat for societal ills
Separate but not equal
- Cell phone contracts
- Employment contracts
- Equal access to banking and finance
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.
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