Michael Hurt is the editor-in-chief of Yahae magazine. His opinions do not necessarily represent those of Groove Korea. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. — Ed.
In her ads for Smoothie King, figure skater Kim Yuna says: “Be White.” In Korea, that’s sage advice. Just like the smoothie — and Korean positive associations with things and people “white” — one should be “soft” and “innocent.” I even remember the 90’s music group called White, which sang saccharine love ballads that overflowed with affected expressions of innocence, youthful purity, and other positive emotions that reflected true love unadulterated by the vulgar passions.
Koreans love white people. And if you’re a brother with another color, well they just don’t like you as much.
Now, I’m not saying that every single person here doesn’t like colored folk, nor that individuals aren’t nice to us brown and black people — but in the aggregate, Korean society puts black and brown people on a different tier. If a Filipino is standing on the street looking lost, he isn’t going to get directions as fast — or at all. In fact, the darker he is, it’s much more likely that the police might ask him what he’s up to, and inquire on the status and validity of his visa.
In the 1990s, when I first came here, I’d take my friend Beth around for the “blue-eyed special,” as we called it, where Koreans would give us free food, drinks, and even tickets to stuff. “Welcome to Korea.”
I did an impromptu experiment at a CGV movie theatre once with a white friend in 2002. He went up to buy his movie ticket after me. I spoke in Korean, got my ticket, then came back. My friend, without prompting for any of it, not only got a free ticket, but also the ticket girl’s phone number, and even an extra free movie pass. I mean, I’m not asking for extras, but come on!
And to those white folks who continue to insist “Well, I never had any problems,” or love to pontificate on how it must all be in our (colored folks) imaginations (because they would know, right?), try to walk a day in a South Asian, Arab, or black man’s shoes. The trail is longer and harder.
That’s why I apply for jobs by sending in a resume first, following up with a phone call in Korean second, then hoping for a first date in an interview chair. Funny thing is, without exception, I walk in at the appointed time and am greeted with, “And you are?” or “How can I help you?” I then inform them that I am Michael Hurt and I’ve got an interview at this time, at which point the person at the door or desk is like “Oooooooh! YOU are Michael Hurt! Oh, come right in.”
When I was learning Korean in the 1990’s and I’d go around with Beth. Since there was no English at all where we were, people had to speak Korean. In doing so, they would have to pick between who they thought was more likely to speak it. I’d be in a camera or electronics shop doing pretty OK in Korean, asking questions about something I was looking for, and they’d answer back to Beth. The triangle would continue, even if I was the only one talking. That changed in the 2000’s, since there are a lot of brown and black folks here to work who now speak a lot of Korean. (And it’s funny that those folks are given next to no credit for learning the language.)
But as my former director, Dr. Horace Underwood III, liked to quip, “If a white man stumbles out an an-nyee-ong-ham-sheeeem-neeker, Koreans lose their minds. ‘Oh, you speak Korean so well!’”
EBS finally did the experiment I had always wanted to do. They put a tall, white man (“Lee”) against a man from Southeast Asia (“Ganawan”) to see how people on the street would react to their requests for directions. The result was predictable: Lee had no problems getting help, but Ganawan had a hard time getting anyone to slow down for him.
I propose more experiments!
How about a handsome, tall, black man and a lithe, attractive Korean woman walk hand-in-hand through a train on subway Line No. 1 — front to back? No fewer than hundreds of people would crank their necks as far as possible to get a glimpse.
Or sit an Indian man (or me!) on a crowded city bus and watch if the empty seat next to him is ever taken. Put a timer on the bottom of the screen! The first one who loses the bet that passengers will choose to stand for an hour rather than sit beside him buys lunch!
Oh, the fun we could have EBS.