Lately, identity politics – which I define as "politicized" thinking that is mostly a sign of a lack of experience in the politics of the "real world" and/or a pseudo-intellectual rationalization for good ole' bigotry – seems to trying its darndest to "interfere with my social agenda," as the Great Man – Bernie Mac – once so aptly put it.
In my life in Korea, most of my social interaction, both at home and at play, is spent with myriad Korean friendly colleagues and acquaintances, a few American closer friends, and as has been the case in the last few years, a Korean girlfriend.
Whoa. A foreigner dating a Korean woman? Is he a rice king? Does he have a fetish? Is she washing his socks and walking on his back? Must be. Must be important, too, since it even came up recently in The Korea Times. THAT must make it a social problem.
But wait! Look at that brown Samoan-looking dude! He's part Korean! In fact, "half" Korean! He's one of "us." He in da family. So it's ok. At least he's not a white guy.
But – hold the phone. Let me take a minute to break down the silly "logic" of identity politics-thinking for those of you who just didn't instantly get what the gist of my entire argument-to-come will be from the first line of this blog entry. And when I mean "break down the logic of identity politics," I mean just that – it should all come crashing down around you like the walls of the Matrix when Neo takes the red pill – this is not just a narrow defense of the right to bed Korean chicks.
The fun(ny) part is that my ability to even make this argument – and usually win, as I did with most of the undergraduates in the many classes I taught at Berkeley – comes from the logic of identity politics itself! I love it!
I'll also start it off strong, with enough of a seemingly harsh and insensitive opening to make people think that I am the simple-minded oaf they suspect I am, so it will be easier to dismiss my argument; but unfortunately, the opening line will seem offensive enough to warrant further reading. And then, I will have that unsuspecting reader in the palm of my grubby, brown, half-breed hands. Mu-ha-ha. Begin smug, self-satisfied blog entry NOW:
So. I'll say it – I generally do not want to hang around most of the ex-pat Korean Americans I meet. This is not to say I don't have Korean American friends, since I do, and as I live in Korea, a majority of the Americans I know are of Korean descent; but I meet many, many more who don't pass my social muster, so I tend to just smile and pretend like I think as they do.
What the heck do I mean by that? I mean that I get a sense of how developed one's thinking is on the subject of identity politics from being privy to listening to conversations about the horrors of interracial white men with Korean women. The reason I even get to hear this is because most Korean Ams who know me tend to think I'm an "insider" in this respect and generally don't self-censor around me when they point out a "gross white guy" with an overly-happy-to-be-there Korean girl over-enunciating her English "r's" and overdoing her dipthongs. Since I'm Korean-Girl-Approved™ by virtue of the fact that I "have a Korean mother" and am a "real person of color" by virtue of the fact that my "half-Korean" status comes from a Black man's sperm and not a white man's, I'm "down." Actually, in most states in the US, I'm still "down by law." MC Shan would improve.
Alternatively, my alarm bells go off when I see people react to my Korean language ability. Korean Americans I meet eventually make an inordinate amount of commentary and expend a ridiculous amount of mental energy – at some point in their interactions with me – on not just the subject of interracial liaisons, but my ability to speak the "mother" tongue. Since who one dates and the extent to which one speaks the language of the "homeland" are the largest determinants of "authenticity" in terms of identity back in the race-obsessed US of A – and this is not just limited to Korean Americans, dear reader – these are the sorest points for Korean Ams doing the inevitable "homeland tour" thing in Korea, when the politics of identity seem to be actually most relevant.
Hey, I did the homeland tour thing. I once stressed out about how much Korean I could or could not speak. I once fretted over who I dated and what that would seem to "mean." But as living in Korea became less and less some symbolic journey, and my ability to speak Korean grew as part of my coping with the real-world necessities of living in the Korean equivalent of semi-rural Kentucky, my trappings of "authentic" Koreanness were merely functional, evolved of practical concerns. When I returned to the United States after a couple years living in pre-Internet Korea (1994-1996), I entered graduate school in the epicenter of Korean American identity politicking - Cali!
Soon, I learned that a brown man who looks Samoan but speaks some Korean makes most Korean undergraduates uncomfortable and insecure. Soon, I learned that some people even thought I was purposefully doing something to make them feel bad about themselves, so I stopped doing Korean karaoke in public and kept my voice down when talking to occasional Korean friends I made while living in the international dorm. Actually, Korean exchange students never found me nearly as weird as Korean American undergraduates. Soon, I learned that it was near-downright rude to speak Korean unless absolutely necessary (even as I had to get used to Koream males on campus greeting each other with "what's up, nigga?!"). This included even 4th-year Korean language class, which was full – of course – with exclusively "heritage speakers." My crime? Speaking in response to questions in Korean. I just learned to keep my head down and save the questions for when they were absolutely necessary. In that situation, it wasn't even like my language skills were more advanced – most of the people were 1.5 (more like 1.2?) generation Korean language speakers there for the easy A. I was just plain weird in that situation.
And – back to the present. So most of the conversations I have with younger Korean Ams here in Korea tend to center around how "cool it is" that I can speak Korean conversationally (despite the fact that logically, I've logged around five years here in-country and working, so my Korean had damn well better be aiight), talking about the same old topics that seem to always get Koream goats – Korean men are so sexist, Korean women are too thin, Korean taxi drivers always yell at me, I wish my Korean was as good as X, or how I really want to do a documentary on either a) the comfort women, b) the sex industry, or c) plastic surgery. My prediction for the next topic for the intrepid Korean American researcher: the "Korean Wave" and it's meaning for Korea/Asian American identity. I don't know – I'm just making stuff up.
Anyway, dear reader, you might see that conversations with most Koreams, who, regardless of age, are united in perspective by the fact that most are no more than 6 months to a year in the country. Some few are here longer, perhaps a year or more. And I've found that the longer people are here, the more interesting conversations I tend to have. So the thing about Korean Americans is not that I categorically hate them. I don't have any wild, unfounded prejudices. In sum, since most Koream thinking is deeply American (identity politics and the constant conversation about me, me, me), and this common thought-set is informed by unfortunately limited and superficial experiences in Korea (language/cultural exchange programs often mediated to some extent by inevitably troubled relations with relatives with whom one is not used to spending long stretches of time, let alone living). So when all that is added up, and results in a population that is mostly wet-behind-the-ears in terms of not being able to get a deeper Korea experience than as a student, and not generally for longer than a year – you get – the same conversations in Shinchon/Hongdae/Apku bars and nightclubs.
Note: the same thing can be said for most other ex-pats here in Korea, for example English teachers. I'm not saying that I categorically don't like them, or think I'm better. But given the same entry conditions, mode of living, and relative experience in-country, conversations tend to revolve around the same plot points. It's just not my crowd, and I also tend to make those folks uncomfortable, as they do me. It's a structural thing, not personal. GI's are the same situation for me – even though my dad was retired Army, as was half of my family – it's just a matter of not having the same concerns.
But the difference is – I just can't avoid running into Korean Americans. Not that I want to, since this is the source of most of my close friends. But it's hard – for the purposes of my social agenda – to weed the wheat from the – ahem – people less interesting to me. And since most of the people doing research or university-level teaching in Korean Studies are Korean American, this is inevitably my crowd. Trust me - it's not by virtue of genetics.
That being said, in the last couple of weeks, I've been having such conversations with friends' friends and other random Korean American people I've randomly socialized with, and have had to endure again the oft-repeated lament about "another" Korean girl with a "lame" white dude.
Do I disagree that there are a lotta lame white (and other) dudes who snag some groovy Korean girl way above the level of their abilities back home? Nope. Don't I see a lotta more weirdos in the ex-pat population that at home? Yep – a lot! Don't I look when I see an international/interracial couple pass by? Oh, yeah – I always catch a furtive second look. But do I categorically disapprove? No way. Why would that be?
Because this "politically correct" fretting and "concern" that it's "problematic" is just intellectualized cover for racist hatred of "miscegenation." That's it. Nothing more. When I hear such talk, I get frustrated that they don't just call "a spade a spade." It is a superficial and flimsy cover that masks a simple racist revulsion and racialized paternalism felt when considering "white" cock entering "yellow" pussy, which is then compounded by and refracted through many Koream males' own gendered experience with racial otherization back in the US.
Hey – I understand it. It makes a certain kind of sense. I understand the sentiments, since I have them myself, buried deep down in my psyche. I lived in the same nearly psychotic obsession with race in American culture, an inevitable psycho-cultural pattern informed by hundreds of years of intense fear, loathing, tension, and guilt over the supposed "races" to which we all allegedly belong.
Except that when these feelings come rising up, I filter them through some informed thinking on the subject, a little bit of logic, and some always useful thought experimentation that generally involves me stepping into someone else's shoes.
So when – as is sooo often the case when speaking with Korean American males who don't utilize some similar sort of filter to compensate for personal complexes and nasty prejudices before putting mouth in gear – I am at a restaurant having a perfectly pleasant-yet-insipid conversation about the new Star Wars movie, the fact that Xbox 360 is going to be high-def, or how much I hate certain of my bosses, when an interracial couple passes by coming back from the buffet counter and a Koream guy who I don't even know well starts going off about his emasculization and barely hides his disgust at even seeing such a couple sitting together...well – it just plain spoils my dinner.
Because – let's be real – people don't get all up in arms and hot under the collar about marriage demographics, outmarriage rates, or any other sociological minutiae. Well, maybe sociologists or other dedicated academics might, but not the Koream guy going on and on about it across the table from me in the Sizzler's. And hey, even academics spewing on about it really aren't that concerned for "the people" or the "minjok" or other notions of "racial purity." Waitaminnit - even if they were, they'd be racist, too!
Just say it, just like old school Southern white dudes do/did – "I don't want to imagine them fucking MY women!" I'd respect that more than the bullshit, pseudo-intellectualized rationalizations that are generally (and poorly) bandied about in public. They just barely keep the discourse seemingly respectable, even though to a well-trained and critical mind, the origins of such sentiments are as plain as day.
On and on I have to listen to Korean American men moan about how much the white man has taken away their masculinity, about how they've been maligned in the media, or "their" women are the object of the white man's common, heterosexual affection.
Man, I agree with ya. What you say is 100% true, dawg.
But fucking GET OVER YOURSELF, already.
As a fat brown man with curly hair and chicken legs, I'd love to for once be ASSUMED to be intelligent when I walk in a room. I'd love to have had the financial privelege to have even considered coming to Korea to explore my identity issues before graduating from college. I'd love to have money to burn in Kangnam bars, or hang out in Korean-exclusive joints. I've only been on a sogaeting a couple of times in my life, but most Korean women don't want to meet someone like me on purpose, and I don't blame them. I can't play basketball, don't rap, and my dick is not even near to being inordinately large.
That's right, I said it. I talked about penis size. The ultimate taboo! The politically correct and complex-assuaging conventional wisdom is that there is no variation in penis size across "racial" groups, even though there seems to be quite a bit of phenotypical variation in nearly every other conceivable aspect of appearance. Are African American men generally taller than east Asian men? Are white women generally taller than Asian women? Do Korean people tend to have straight hair and Black people curly? But everyone's penis size is exactly the same. Ha. Everyone knows, as Paul Mooney so aptly puts it, that Black men "are packing." I say this to make a point, and I DO have a point.
This racialized fear, envy, and loathing is like a bag of bricks – "you just gotta put it down," as Al Pacino so subtly put it in the film The Devil's Advocate.
I just shake my head when The Banana Man goes through such contortions in Koream Magazine to prove that Korean men's cocks are as big as white or black men's (in an article I remember from a few years back) instead of raising the level of discourse to say what needs to be said: why the hell does penis size play such a huge role in determining a man's self worth? Why are you buying into the white man's narrow definition of your own masculinity? Why do you let yourself be defined by such obviously white-oriented stereotypes and definitions (i.e. Asian male emasuculation, African American hypermasculinization)?
Please, fellow Koreams, GET OVER IT and stop passing off your unresolved and unexamined complexes off as something worthy of public discussion. I have issues and complexes, too, except that I filter out the unreasonable, don't broadcast my racist inclinations, and I certainly don't let it "interfere with my social agenda."
For us Koreams in general, imagine how liberating it will be to stop judging your personal identity in terms of how "good" your Korean ability is, how many taxi drivers are rude to you (news flash: Korean taxi drivers find a way to be rude to ALL people, not just YOU), or who you are dating. For Korean American men specifically, get over the white man, the penis complex, and leave the fretting about stereotypes where they belong – in the 80's and before. Man, we got MILF-lovin' John Cho and fatty-rollin' Kal Penn as role models now. Yes, they still form their masculinity around somewhat homophobic banter and heterosexist thinking, but that's another fish to fry.
I'm just saying, can't we all just get an identity that's not so Americano-selfish and ready-made-out-of-the-box?
And can't we just stop the racist playa-hatin'?