Sometimes, who we are can take us down a long and murky path. Categorizing, ostracizing, snubbing and killing even though the only race that matters is the human race. Here are a few tales from Korea on how it can be troublesome to be so fixated on where any of us comes from.
It was the University’s Festival and it lasted for 3 days, Wednesday to Friday. The day before was a holiday- Teachers’ Day and the 98th anniversary of the university. The festival is all about drinking, eating, fellowship and more drinking. Little else goes on. I went for 2 days. It starts at about 5pm and goes on until dawn, as long as you have the liver for it. I left at about 2 o’clock am. While I walked with Jo-Anni, a White South African colleague, an interesting thing happened. I failed to see the irony of it immediately, but thinking about it later made me see that things are not as straightforward as you might think.
As we walked, we came across a Black guy. She went over and asked him where he was from because any Black person is a rare sight in Daegu. And foreigners tend to gravitate towards each other. But it was obvious he did not want to talk to us. The same time Jo-Anni started talking to him, my students appeared (we were near the Geography Department tent) so I didn’t take part in the conversation. Anyway, I found out later that he’s from California but his parents are originally from the Caribbean. Which Black person is originally from anywhere else but Africa? JJ I understood what he meant and I wasn’t taking offence but did he have to add “originally”? Anyway, since he was not from our university but a teacher in a High School, Jo-Anni wanted to introduce him to Rick (another bona fide African, albeit white-skinned) and the other folks, just to make a fellow foreigner feel more at home. So we started walking down the long line of tents to where the other foreign faculty was.
Then at a table, we saw a group of non-Koreans, mostly students and one teacher. There was a White American in the group- from Minnesota- and our new Californian friend, whatever his name is, started talking to him, as per, here was a fellow American. You know when someone is trying to tell you to buzz off? I don’t know why it took Jo-Anni so long to see this, but from the moment we met him, I knew this guy wasn’t interested in hanging out with us. Anyway, I suggested that we leave and he catch up with us later. So we left and it is what Jo-Anni said that made me start thinking about how twisted the whole identity thing can be.
She said that truth be told, she didn’t like Black Americans. Why not? Because Black Americans when in America claim they are African Americans and want by all means to connect with the continent. But when they go to Africa, they forget the “African” part of them and keep away from real Africans, preferring to interact with Whites. It disgusted her.
And I thought, yeah, how really sad and hypocritical. It also speaks to the fact that many of them struggle with identity. Now mind you, here is a White African (Jo-Anni is very White, but it’s only skin-deep) saying these things. The fact that I can put the words “white” and “African” together is a whole history lesson on its own. And there I was, the “real” African in all this, being the calm and rational one. A part of me wondered whether she had the right to be angry. After all, she is White, not African, so it cannot affect her that much. Then immediately, I repented, because she is actually African. There is no other continent she can go to in the world and claim she is from. Her people have lived in South Africa too long for her to be from anywhere else. So yes, she is White, but she is African. How did things get to be so confusing? So we’ve gone full circle. Who says a Black Californian with Caribbean parents cannot claim he is originally from the Caribbean? And that my White South African friend cannot say she’s also from Africa?
I had one odd weekend in Busan. I went to visit a friend who is from Ghana. I met her and her children at the subway station in Busan and became friends. Her daughter is fully Ghanaian but her son is half, the other half Korean. My friend, even though from Ghana, is now a naturalized Korean who needs a visa to go to Ghana and somehow manages to hate and love Korea at the same time. Actually, that is not very hard to do. So I went to visit her and we had a dinner of fufu with light soup. And then three other young ladies joined us; two sisters and a friend. And they are Ghanaian-Korean. So now here comes the interesting part: watching four people switch effortlessly from English to impeccable Twi and flawless Korean. She also speaks Ewe. Nothing short of weird. And you could feel the energy of the strange dynamics going on. Many times, you see they wish they were not Korean. But then, they cannot be who they are without being half Korean. And the question they hate most? “Where do you come from?” Interesting how for many of us, that question is a done deal but for them, it opens up this whole bag of tangles.
And her son? He wants nothing to do with his Ghanaian heritage. So he does not understand or speak English, just hello and hi. Normally, when you see a person of mixed race in Korea, you automatically assume they speak some foreign language in addition to Korean, probably English. But not this handsome 11 year old. So his mother doesn’t like to take him among her friends because he can’t speak in English to any of us.