After some months of deliberation I finally decided to make a post on the local foreigner’s Facebook group to try to find other Asian Americans in Daejeon.
It went a little like this:
A few white men decided that my desire to meet people like myself was distasteful. Which was really unfortunate, and a bit difficult for me to get past. I did, however, get good feedback following the trolls that commented first and was able to make some friends from the experience (Note: I have not been exclusively meeting with Asian Americans.) It’s been overall wonderful to meet people like me in Korea.
A young mother I met from this (Asian Australian) asked me today why I wanted to meet Asian Americans. What was my motivation? I had to think for a little while, aside from having been called a, “pathological extrovert” I realize I did have a deep longing to connect with people who related to the experiences I’ve had in Korea as an Asian American. While I’m certainly not lonely, there was something to hanging around with Koreans and white Americans every day for the past 8 months and almost no one who lived in that in between space with me. There is a need for a lot of explanation of my experience for those who don’t live it. I am the invisible foreigner – being able to pass as Korean until I open my mouth. Korean people look and speak to me in Korean before my white counter-parts which is a double-edged sword. I’m told that it’s easier to talk to me because I seem more familiar, and I’m not singled out for my foreignness. That means it’s nearly impossible to find people like me, or have them find me. It is its own experience to be visibly foreign in a country (one I’m familiar with at home) but it is certainly not the same as being foreign and white. And one that I am reminded of so eagerly by the people who troll my posts when I ask to meet people like me.
It’s been nice to have people who related to my day to day experiences, but my friend’s inquiry into my motivations made me realize that it was much more than that. With this year grappling with colonialization and privilege my experience is a lot less straight forward than people coming from the dominant culture. I carry with me American privilege and native English speaking privilege, but not white privilege. I carry with me Christianity and English, both of which have been used as tools of oppression on people who look like me.
In the context of Korea, English in particular has a special position as a language of success. It’s nothing like learning any other language when you are in the US. Speaking English is your ticket to success in life – your key to a good job and a good life. Christianity is widespread and very common. There are churches everywhere, and while not everyone in Korea is Christian it is mainstream and normal to identify as Christian. In Korea, depictions of Jesus are also almost always white men, even though the historical Jesus would not have been white at all. The US has been a huge part of both of those trends in Korea. It is pervasive, and has set up unequal relationships between Americans and Koreans.
Coming from the US gives me privilege, but having lived in the US as an Asian American comes with its own kind of experience. Being Asian and female also brings its own “special experiences.” Asian women are very often objectified and seen as exotic and submissive. Take for example okcupid data on race: While it may seem like a good thing that Asian women get more messages and more messages back to their messages and are generally very popular in the dating scene, it mostly means (in my experience) that Asian women are seen as sex objects more than anything else. Google “Exotification of Asians” and you’ll find plenty of people writing about the same sort of experience. While at the same time I’m told that my stories aren’t relatable. Someone with my face can’t act in a movie about people who look like me. Scarlett Johansson is playing a character in a live action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell,” a Japanese story, that’s named Motoko Kusanagi. Asian Americans are one of the most underrepresented minorities in American media. It’s hardly a new thing to happen as well.
So when it comes to big questions of responsibility and privilege I’m a mixed bag. There are privileges I have and clearly privileges I don’t have. A big question I’ve been wrestling with this year is about my responsibility as a person of color in a Christian organization abroad. Am I contributing to colonialization? What is my responsibility as a person of color in a Christian program abroad? These are big questions especially in regard to what I’ll be doing next after my program is done. While I currently don’t have clean pre-packaged answers to my questions it is comforting to feel that I’m not alone. Reaching out and finding people who live in this in between space means that I could talk with someone if I wanted to without having to explain my experience because they would be living it with me too. It doesn’t mean that they know any better than me, but at least we are living in this reality together.