An article in the NYT yesterday reminded me of a story:
My first day in Korea in 2005, I was riding the subway, watching an old wrinkled Korean lady bouncing a really cute baby on her knee. The kid’s eyes were locked on mine as he garbled and cooed and his grandma smiled shyly at me in my amusement. Then the subway stopped and a young couple, a businessman and an old man came into the car. I kept making stupid faces at the child when I started hearing a loud Korean voice over the normal din of a midday train ride. At first I ignored it but then it became louder and more vicious sounding. I finally looked to see the old man sitting down and he was litterally spitting as he cursed foreign slurs directly at me. I was shocked and looked back at him. He stood up, assisted by a cane, and kept yelling at me. I moved back slightly, a little frightened when the grandma with the child said something to him in a stern voice and he sat back down. He kept muttering curses at me though until finally the young woman said something to him. She said it politely but with an edge and he finally shut up. She then turned to me and apologized. Her boyfriend did the same. I got off at the next stop. His eyes followed me out the door, as did the chubby cheeked Korean child.
I didn’t know what that was about until later, it was explained to me that Koreans, especially the older generation, are pretty racist. It comes from living on an island. It comes from conservative education that tries to instill a strong sense of nationalistic and ethnic pride. It comes from Japanese invasions and drawn out wars. It comes from being stuck between some very distinct societies. It’s kind of normal there. That’s one of the reasons why it is a really big deal for me to be marrying Rory.
Long after I left Korea and travelled the rest of Asia, I looked back at my time and the people I met in Seoul. There was a serious shift happening and my generation in that country were torn between two very distinct cultures; that belonging to the old and traditional, conservative values of their parents and their own free-spirited, confused and artistically hungry sense of selves.
That train ride now reminds me very much of an elevator ride I took with my dad and great grandmother in her building when I was young and she was alive. A stubborn, Irish mother of 14 in rural Quebec, Great Grandma D’Arcy was a live, fallen power cable, full of spark and energy, often seen dancing a jig with a grin on her face. However, when two large black guys entered the car, her smile distorted as she began dropping N-bombs and cursing the most foul obscenities I think I’ve ever heard. Even as a young child I was shocked. I understood though that it was just her ignorance, her life in ethnic isolation. Not so different from the old Korean man on the train. I think Korea is one generation away from being awesome.
Going back to the NYT article, it is good to see that the government and laws in Korea are starting to reflect the new realities. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million and younger people are starting to marry non Koreans. People might read the article and think, ‘wow, what took them so long’ but consider that an interracial couple was denied a marriage license recently in the US.
I don’t often tell her but I am supremely proud of my fiance for choosing to stand up against the traditions of her family and her country in order to marry me. Women like Rory have started challenging the norms. They are Korea’s version of Richard Loving. I’m hopeful that our children will be the ones who set Korea free.