I love travelling abroad because it allows me to experience new ideas, cultures, people, and more. It’s awesome. Except for when it’s not. Like, for example, when we experience racism.
As a white woman I’ve experienced sexism at home and abroad, and I’ve also experienced a bit of racism overseas. Sometimes it comes in this really obvious and uncomfortable form of white privilege (“You are white! You get the best seats in the restaurant!” or “Look! The white person thinks this shop is better than the others. Let’s go see what she’s doing”).
Sometimes it comes in ambiguous form of a shopping attendant stalking me around the grocery store, watching every move I make (Does she think I’m going to steal from the store because I’m white? Does she think because I’m white/foreign I will need help reading labels? Is she trying to provide superior customer service to the white girl? Leave me alone!)
And sometimes it’s the abrupt, ugly, faceless side of racism usually experienced through institutions and systems. No one’s spewing racial epithets in my face, no one’s flashing obscene gestures because of my skin tone, but I still get the short end of the stick because I’m an immigrant/expat.
**Quick aside: I haven’t experienced a bad, racist situation in Korea. Koreans as a whole are extremely polite, formal, and kind people. I’m also white, which most Koreans view as an “okay ethnicity.” My fellow immigrants/expats who are of African or Arab descent are more likely to have hurtful experiences because of their ethnic origins.**
Still, there are definite issues with systemic racism in Korean government and culture. For example, if I have a problem with my employer and need legal advice, there is a government agency set up with English teachers in mind for me. However, there are plenty of stories of grievances and concerns being brushed aside. Or if they are taken seriously, the judge might set a court date beyond my visa expiration so I can’t attend my own case in court.
As a foreigner new to Korea, I am immediately at a disadvantage in Korean society. I know their alphabet, but I don’t know their language. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of political games. I don’t have a neighbor who knows a lawyer who could help me. I lived a somewhat insular and isolated life, often surrounded by other people who are just as disconnected as I am. It’s no one’s fault–that’s just life. It happened to me when I moved to Florida, where I didn’t know a single soul and my car broke down. Jordan and I had to rely on the kindness of strangers and a decent towing company the same weekend we showed up in Tallahassee (yes, it was stressful). And that was in our own country! So you can imagine how much more difficult being in a foreign culture/country is.
Now, it would be very easy for me to look at the problems in Korea and complain. “These awful Koreans!” I could sneer. “They treat foreigners terribly. How dare they do that to fellow human beings! I deserve better treatment!” I could huff and complain about their faults (and they do have faults) and swear, “America is better! I’m going home as soon as I can.”
That would be easy. That would be the emotionally “safe” approach. It would also be the wrong one.
Because the truth is: the only reason America treats me better is because I’m an American citizen. I’m also not an ethnic minority in my country. If I were an immigrant/expat in the United States I would be receiving the same (if not worse) treatment at the hands of the American government.
The honest truth is that being an immigrant anywhere is hard. And I’ve got one of the easier experiences for reasons I’ve already listed.
So I have a choice. When faced with systemic racism, when watching a really negative, wrong experience unfold, I could harden my heart. I could hold onto my anger and seethe, pointing fingers at all the things the Koreans do I disagree with.
Or, instead, I could keep my heart soft. I could funnel the anger I feel at injustice into something productive and helpful. Stoking anger at the Korean government whenever I see a slight (and to be clear, I haven’t seen very many) might give me energy, but it won’t help me fix Korea’s problems. What it can do, however, is grant me empathy toward others in similar (or worse) situations than I am in.
Hardening my heart means walking away from Korea with frustration taking up more space than it should. Softening my heart means processing my hurt and accepting that injustice occurred, but I don’t have the power to do anything about that particular instance. Hardening my heart means focusing on my own pain. Softening my heart means looking for opportunities to feel others’ pain with them because I know exactly how it feels. Hardening my heart means condemning Korea for their problems and ignoring my own country’s problems. Softening my heart means acknowledging that racism and xenophobia are a worldwide, human problem. Hardening my heart means comforting myself with indignation. Softening my heart means using my experience to ease the path of immigrants in the US.
Keeping my heart soft is difficult. It makes it vulnerable, open to more hurt in the future. So this is definitely a work in progress for me. You’re welcome to encourage me in my path or point out missed opportunities as we go along.
My time in Korea overall is positive. I don’t want people to read this post and end with the thought, “Wow, Adrianne sounds miserable over there.” Because I’m not. I’m loving the chance to actually live abroad and explore a culture vastly different from my own. Overall I have had wonderful, positive, and friendly encounters with Korean people and I haven’t personally experienced much discrimination by institutions.
Still, living in an isolated rural village without access to a car is hard at times. Not knowing the language is rough, though I’m trying to bridge some of the gap there. So when we return to the States, where everything is easy for us (we know the language, we know the customs, we own a car, we have social networks to keep us from disaster, etc), I’m definitely going to try to offer kindness and social support for immigrants in the United States.
We all need a kind smile and a helping hand some days, especially us immigrants.