Are you Korean or American?

Deciding to come to live in South Korea for  year, I never really considered the downfalls of being an American that happens to be Korean as well. I have never thought about being Korean or American or having the option to be one or the other, really. And while growing up, as most people of many diverse cultures do, you have a tendency to identify with one or more cultures over the other. I have never had to think about it or have to chose one or the other in my thirty years of life, until tonight. It’s like the standardized testing we all take in elementary school that asks for us to identify which race we belong to.

I went out to dinner with a coworker who happens to fit the mold of what many Koreans believe an American should look like: Caucasian, blue eyes, standing 6ft tall. However, if you were to speak to him, you would find out that he is like a melting pot: he has a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a lot more of that, than you might think. He also speaks the Korean language better than I do and probably ever will considering, he has been living in this country for well over three years and has studied properly about the history, people and culture of South Korea extensively. Of course to anyone passing by, they would probably assume that I was a Korean woman having a meal with a Caucasian man who was teaching me how to speak English (It’s happen too many times to keep count).

During dinner, my coworker and I both noticed three men sitting behind us having dinner and causing a riot with the consumption of large amounts of alcohol with their meal. Quickly, the banter started to become louder and soon the entire restaurant was able to eavesdrop on their conversation which was not pleasant. One thing the reader should know about this culture and with my experience here in Korea, restaurant owners or hosts do not ask paying customer who continue to splurge their money on alcohol or food to simmer down and be quiet. I assume it has something to do with the cultural norm of respect: that one should never raise their voice or try to properly or respectfully ask one to leave the premise unless it is a severe situation which I have only witnessed once. (It was man who fell over and was breaking bottles due to his inebriated state of mind)

That being said. Man A who probably started the drinking before he got to the restaurant recalls a situation he had with a foreigner the other weekend (foreigner was white) and continues to tell a very violent story of being confronted and cursing at this foreigner which escalated to calling the police and leaving in handcuffs (the foreigner, not Man A). Men B and C were captivated in the story and pleading with Man A to continue what had happened. Between my limited Korean and my coworker who was doing everything in his power but yell at these people, gathered that there was an altercation between to two men, of what, we don’t know. But man A, “won”. He got high fives from both men B and C and then they continued their parade for “beating a white man at his game” which resulted in the use of a lot of profanity and hard liquor being ordered.

At some point I feel Man B tap me on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, are you Korean or American?” Without hesitation or thought, I replied “American” He said “Okay” and went back to his conversation. What he didn’t realize was that I was having dinner with a Man who could pretty much make sense of all that was being said. Man A and men B and C made a bet: their bet, to find out “what” the girl who was sitting with the white man was and why she would be sitting there. Man B continued to tell the remaining group, “See, she is American, she speaks English well and she has no apparent accent that would prove she was Korean, when she said Ammmerica, it was perfect..She must be on a date.”

Now at any point I normally would have interrupted their meal and make some smart remark that probably would be completely offensive especially to the Korean culture as well as the American culture, however my coworker and I started to have a debate about it instead. This group of men who were clearly rude and drunk, had no idea what they were saying and were taking the time to make such ignorant remarks where the entire restaurant could hear and no one even tried to usher them out or stop them. My coworker uttered “Leave them be, it’s the culture and it would cause more problems for you if you stood up for yourself and said something.”

That really bothered me. Why, were people being treated this way because they were slightly different and didn’t speak Korean? Is it not a basic rule? Of course I am not naive to think the world we live in is perfect and respect is given to every individual, however, this, I wasn’t expecting. Somewhere along those blurry lines, the owner of the restaurant came over (after these men finally decided to leave) and told us that our meal was paid for. Could it have been the death stares my coworker gave them? Or perhaps me turning around and frowning every time a curse word would be thrown out?

And then it hit me, what would have happened if I had said I was Korean. Would the sequence of events as well as context have been significantly different? would I have been looked down on (which I have also experienced here because I wasn’t “Korean” enough) or would they have praised me for being able to speak English so well.

Either way, I didn’t feel good when I left. It leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. And no more than ever, when I look at South Korea as a whole, I understand more and more how important diversity truly is and necessary for society to function. This homogeneous world particularly in a country where foreign people travel to and from every day and teach every year, have a lot to learn. Both socially and politically they have a lot to learn about how the world runs.

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