Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Western Ex-Pats Abuse Korean Woman...

... Asian Men At Fault.....

The 8Asians blog posted this commentary on some news out of Korea in which a couple of western (i.e.white) ex-pats in Seoul  take a video of themselves man-handling and abusing a Korean woman at a night club. The post links to a Washington Post report on the incident that, although ostensibly sympathetic to the Korean woman, turns out to be an apologetic, of sorts, for western racial attitudes towards Asians in general and for these abusive ex-pats in particular.

Let's look at the apparent facts of the incident first of all. According to the evidence of the video, a couple of western ex-pats have approached the girl, begin manhandling her in an extremely demeaning way, invading her personal space, touching her in disrespectful ways, mocking her, and eventually, when she decides to move away from them, they hurl verbal abuse after her.

The first few paragraphs of the WaPo article - written by a guy named Max Fisher - are extremely sympathetic to the girl, displaying some outrage at the treatment she has received. ......
what [the video] shows is so disturbing, so charged with deeply sensitive issues of gender and race....... it’s clear that the young Korean woman in the frame is in trouble.......They begin by describing her body, talking as if she weren’t there. One of the men pulls back her hair to show her chest to the camera. By 14 seconds in, it’s already clear she’s afraid, and she tries to wave them off as the first man puts his hand on her chin to push her face up.......as if bored with merely harassing her, they grow more sadistic. The first man sticks his finger up her nose. She pulls back to resist but he leans in and shouts, “I see a booger.” His friend eggs him on — “Dude, make her eat it,” he says — and the two burst into laughter when he shoves his finger, now smeared with snot, into the back of her throat. They tell her she’s disgusting. When one of them discovers some discoloration on her teeth, pulling her lips back to show to the camera, he starts shoving her, punishing her for displeasing him. He shouts at her to get plastic surgery, “like every other little Korean [girl].”....At first, when she tries to resist, he won’t let her go. But, after several thrashes, she’s able to pull herself away, clearly rattled, and walk off. They shout angrily after her, hurling insults, and the video ends.
My first thought was that these guys need to work on their game. My second thought was that the writer of the article seems to really capture the gender, cultural, and racial dynamic of the scene in his description. I will admit that I was looking forward to reading a non-Asian writer explore some of the issues of the race and gender issues of the Asian experience that are rarely mentioned in the mainstream. Instead, what I read seemed like a whitewash.

Starting at the sixth paragraph.....
[the video] had attracted over 24,000 views in its short life on YouTube, once the video was gone, discussion around it largely ended. One month later, on July 8, it was posted again, this time to Facebook. It is still up, having generated more than 800 comments, mostly in Korean, and it’s been shared 251 times. Outrage against the two Western men (it’s not quite clear where they’re from) has grown so fierce on the Korean Web that it’s been covered in several Korean outlets.
Thus begins the shift of focus away from the main issue of the video - ex-pats engaging in sexist and arguably racist behaviour towards a Korean woman - and onto the reaction of the Koreans (and ultimately Korean culture and attitudes) who are outraged by the video.

The next paragraph assures us that this is the right way to go.......
Western expats have been in Seoul for years. As in other Asian cities, these expat communities can have their bad apples, typically young men who misbehave, either because it’s in their nature, because they think they can get away with things in Asia that would never be tolerated at home, or both. I sent the video to several Westerners who have spent time in Korea among other expats; they all said that while this is an extreme and highly unusual case, it’s not so uncommon in Seoul to see young Western men drinking heavily and shouting after local women.
There you have it. The excessively abusive ex-pats are an unusual case - according to other ex-pats, so it must be true - which is convenient, because now the article can move move full-force into whitewashing the incident and complete the shifting of focus onto the sexist pathologies of Korean culture. Let's not even bother to explore the dynamic of race and sex that is evident in the video.
The stories about hard-partying disrespectful young Westerners surely don’t represent all expats in South Korea, but they do represent the fears of a foreign invasion. Keep in mind that the United States stations tens of thousands of troops on Korean soil .....The sense of national victimhood is real, even if the threat posed by 20-something English teachers from California or Australia is exaggerated...
Forget the sadistic ex-pats, the real problem is Korean xenophobia, driven by a sense of national victimhood - whatever underlying Western attitudes and cultural influences that promote "disrespectful" behaviour amongst ex-pats towards Asian people just isn't going to  be discussed.

The whitewash continues....
In 2012, the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, a South Korean state broadcaster somewhat akin to PBS or the BBC,released an expose-style report documenting the “shocking reality about relationships with foreigners.” Embedded below, it portrays Korean women as the victims of Western men who exploit their good-natured innocence, sleeping with them, disrespecting their culture, stealing from them and, in two cases the video makes much of, leaving them pregnant or with HIV. The subtext is loud and clear: Western men are a threat to our women.
The real underlying issue - again ignoring the very real sexist and racist behaviour of the ex-pats - is that Koreans are just plain racist! That is why they are so outraged - not because of any genuine sense of (justified) outrage at the specific incident in question.
More subtly, and not intentionally, it also shows the degree to which those Koreans see their country’s women in much the same way as do the misbehaving Western expats. Notice that they don’t have any agency in the report’s telling. At best, they’re too innocent to make responsible choices; at worst, too irresponsible to understand that they should avoid Western men.
The outrage is hypocritical because the Koreans are sexist too! Another excuse to avoid exploring in greater depth the sexist and racist behaviour of the ex-pats in the video - but not really true. If you take a few minutes to actually watch the video that the above comment refers to - it is embedded in the WaPo article - you will notice that aside from the obvious sensationalism, it does, in fact, reveal some behaviours amongst Korean women that we - even in the enlightened west - would find troublesome.

For example, one Korean woman allows herself to be picked up by a random white dude in the space of a few seconds as she waits for a cab, which is extremely irresponsible (for safety reasons alone) to say the least and a very poor choice. If a white woman were to do this in America, she would be called a slut and shamed on Facebook.

But the real problem with this point is that relationships between the races do have unique obstacles. If you add cultural differences, language issues, as well as gender issues, then being as casual as some of the Korean women in the video seem to be, can almost definitely be described as irresponsible, and even bordering on damagingly innocent. It has long been considered detrimental to any hopes of longevity in a relationship, if the relationship begins with a one-night stand, if you throw in the unique issues that often arise out inter-racial and inter-cultural relationships, then starting these relationships with casual sex is definitely a lousy idea if you are a Korean woman.

Innocence is a key word here. Let's remember that "pick-up" culture and the culture of casual sex are Western - and mostly American - cultural innovations, and it is interesting to note that this culture has often been taken overseas by the GI. Having lived in both the UK and Germany, I can say with some degree of certainty that the culture of casual sex has in the past met with some degree of hostility from the local population - that is, until the local dudes got into the game. Of course, the difference is that there was no equivalent American cultural phenomenon of racism towards the men of these countries that exists towards Koreans and other Asian men - so a culture exists that seeks to specifically exclude Asian men from the game.

But the point is, that the translation of culture from one society to another often loses some nuance. For women in America, casual sex reflects decades of feminist advocacy whereby women assert absolute control over their own bodies such that the choices that they make about  their bodies are not beholden to social restrictions or the sensibilities of men. It may be the case that this is what the culture of casual sex with western ex-pats represents for Korean women, but given that there doesn't seem to be an equally robust culture of woman driven female empowerment in areas outside of casual sex with westerners, it might be safe to assume that such a culture doesn't exist, and some Korean women may well have missed out on the nuance of female empowerment in relation to casual sex.

So, yes, there is good reason to be concerned that the behaviours exhibited by Korean women in the video are detrimental and irresponsible and good reason to wonder if they have an easily taken advantage of innocence about the casual-sex culture that some have bought into.

And finally.....
South Korea has the widest gender gap in the developed world, according to an annual study by the World Economic Forum, which found that women have less equality in South Korea than they do in India, Burkina Faso or the United Arab Emirates.........Some Korean women, frustrated by their country’s restrictive gender culture, can see Western men as a gateway to a world where they’re treated more equally.
There you have it. Yes, the Korean woman was getting abused by ex-pats, but the real issue here is the racist and sexist Korean culture which creates the environment that drives Korean women to pursue Western men regardless of how abusive they are.

The real issue is the ease with which the the WaPo article dismisses the idea of "disrespectful" Western ex-pats as uncommon - thanks to the testimony of other ex-pats! Of course, shouting at Korean women is more usual, but somehow not disrespectful. What is missing here is any awareness that western culture has assumed a default position of disrespect towards Asians and their cultures. Disrespect - at the best of times - defines the manner of the representation of Asian people in American (and other western ) culture. This is a fact as plain as the nose on your face.

As I've stated many times previously, American kids are brought up acting as though mocking Asian racial characteristics and ways of speech are normal - all against a background of cultural depictions that suggests an appropriateness to casual violence against Asians. This hints at a pretty strong indication of how normalized and ingrained is the culture of disrespect for Asians. Disrespect towards Asian people and cultures is as ingrained into American culture as deeply as love of the flag, as the commonality of childhood expressions of anti-Asian prejudice reveals.

That may help to explain the WaPo's article's inability to maintain a train of reasoning that faults western people who abuse Asians. My guess is that there is such strong conditioning in America to deflect issues of anti-Asian prejudice back onto Asians themselves that the article could be a sophisticated gut reaction. Or it could be that the awareness is just not there, and most likely a combination of both.  Even the fact that violence against women occurs at a higher incidence in America than it does in Korea - a fact that could help to explain the behaviour of these ex-pats - goes unexplored.

Most disappointingly, for me, is that the 8Asians post doesn't raise these questions either - it seems obvious to me, at least, as someone who has experienced the pervasive culture of disrespect towards Asians, that a video showing Westerners harassing a Korean woman in a manner that has racial undertones, that the actions of the ex-pats in the video warrants some exploration in the context of western attitudes towards Asians? Perhaps it is just easier - even for Asians - to avoid criticism of anti-Asian attitudes and deflect criticism back on our own cultures.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Social Capital

Asian-American Cultural Poverty.

I think that few people are surprised by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the trial over his shooting of Trayvon Martin. Although the story is probably well-known, I'll summarize it briefly. Zimmerman, who was part of a neighbourhood watch group, observed Martin walking through his neighbourhood and presumed that he was up to no good. In his own words, Zimmerman describes how he thought that Martin looked suspicious, and seemed like he was on "drugs or something". Having alerted the police, Zimmerman was told by them to not approach the "suspect", advice he ignored. Armed, he approached Martin, who apparently (and reasonably), according to reports, felt threatened by Zimmerman's approach. What happened next will never be truly known, but what is accepted is that a fight ensued, that was ended when Zimmerman shot Martin dead.

What has interested me is the way that race politics has played out during the case and in its aftermath. Initially, it seemed like an open and shut case of white on black violence until it was realized that Zimmerman is - according to commonly held standards of description - Hispanic. Yet, it has seemed to me that this nuance has been downplayed, seemingly by both the black and Hispanic communities and their leaders. Granted, I live on a different continent, so I may have missed some nuanced reporting, but it has definitely seemed to me that the mainstream and community leaders have downplayed Zimmerman's "Hispanic-ness".

This may be in keeping with the general tendency to downplay what some believe to be rapidly deteriorating black/Hispanic relations. But, it also highlights the way that the influence of America's various ethnicities is beginning to emerge.

As I wrote about here, there are some who believe that new racial demarcation lines are being drawn, that elevate Asians and Hispanics to a social level closer to America's whites, but leaving blacks rooted firmly at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I pointed out how simplistic that idea was - particularly regarding the Asian community, where there is a distinct disparity in cultural, social, and perhaps even political integration between the genders. Furthermore, one of the main factors used by that study to suggest a blurring of lines between whites and Asians was high outmarriage rates of Asian women, which I discount as a reasonable thesis based on the contradictory evidence of culturally normalized anti-Asian racism, disparate experiences based on gender (which the study did acknowledge), and pervasive racist attitudes and behaviours exhibited towards Asians by non-Asian children. The point here, is that a more holistic approach might paint a more accurate picture of how attitudes towards race might, or might not, be changing.

For example, it could be argued that blacks are almost fully integrated and accepted as participants in the political arena, and as cultural leaders. Anti-black racism - although rampant - is largely accepted as a moral infringement that is detrimental to society. Asians by contrast are largely culturally invisible, and have only recently begun to emerge as viable political leaders in any numbers. Furthermore, anti-Asian racism is normalized, and Americans conditioned to accept anti-Asian racism as normal, by America's culture, such that it considered appropriate to mock Asian victims of a plane crash - some of whom died in the incident. Clearly, if race lines are being re-drawn, then there it is more sensible to take into account several factors beyond high out-marriage rates, and perhaps even income levels.

Hispanics are an interesting case. My personal observation is that Hispanics are more readily accepted by white America than either blacks or Asians. In fact, my sense is that Hispanics are more readily accepted by Asians and blacks than Asians and blacks accept each other. This may sound like a strange thing to say but, again, if we look at culture, it seems as though there is more room for maneuver for Hispanics. To begin, I cannot imagine large swathes of white Americans supporting legislation that offers amnesty to eleven million undocumented Asian immigrants. Given that white parents can't stand the thought of their kids being around sizeable numbers of Americans of Asian descent in America's schools, it is reasonable to accept that Asians would not be welcomed in the numbers that Hispanics have been relatively accepted.

Of course, the cultural clues support this idea of white America's relative comfort with Hispanic people and "Latin" cultures. Hispanics have a strong political presence and, culturally, there are myriad numbers of Hispanic cultural figures - Hispanic males can and do take leading roles in film and television, in ways that blacks can do in limited ways, and Asians are excluded from doing. For example, Hispanic male leads are regularly cast as the love interest of white women, but black men are not, even though there have been several black male actors with huge box-office appeal - I'm reminded of the movie "Hancock", in which the superhero Will Smith, was portrayed as the soul-mate of Charlize Theron, but the nerdy white guy still ended up with her.

But what is the point here, and what does it have to do with the Zimmerman case? Well, first of all, the way that the black/Hispanic dynamic has been downplayed shows a political will, on both sides perhaps, to de-escalate conflict. Compare, for example, how in black/Asian relations, Asian racism is highlighted, and often exaggerated by both community leaders and the media. This is where the level of cultural inclusion speaks volumes about social status. Both Hispanics and blacks have an influential political, social, and cultural, voice, and, thus, any accusations leveled at their groups can be swiftly and effectively responded to by a number of voices from a number of outlets. Asians, by contrast, have no such luxury - because Asians are marginalized in culture, our "voice" is effectively whatever anyone wants our voice to be. Naturally, because anti-Asian prejudice is normalized, much of the defining of who and what Asian-Americans are about, emerges as the natural outcome of this hostile culture and is, thus, uncompromising, confrontational, and is absent suggestions of conciliation.

And this, to me, characterizes how America interacts with its Asian minority - uncompromising and confrontational, but with the understanding that reconciliation isn't necessary because reconciliation implies inclusion. Because Asians have little social and political capital - so to speak - there is no obligation to de-escalate tensions between Asians and other groups. That is why, for instance, the pogrom against Koreans during the LA riots were justified based almost solely on accusations of racism against the Koreans (even by Asians themselves), and both community leaders and the media stoked the flames of America's racial antagonism towards Asians, but there is no equivalent stoking - by any group - of Hispanic/black tensions in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal. I don't think we will be seeing many people attempting to pillage and burn Hispanic enclaves in America's cities - and if it does happen, Hispanics won't be castigated for defending themselves as the Koreans were castigated for defending themselves.

I suppose one could see this equilibrium as a positive sign, yet, I cannot help but be disappointed to once again realize that moral obligation isn't always the fundamental driving force in the interaction between peoples. What drives it, is the careful balance between any given  group's ability to hurt or help you. It is a testament to poor social status of the Asian minority that conciliatory positions seem to be rarely promoted when conflict arises with other groups. Instead, we see an attitude of brow-beating and score-settling, which is easy to do because Asians have little or no control over how their community represented in culture.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that a black child was profiled, followed, and ultimately shot, by a gung-ho, wannabe hero, who in my view, provoked an incident that should have been avoided. To me, that makes Zimmerman as guilty as any of the hundreds of offenders who have been convicted of manslaughter after causing death while driving drunk.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Another Update

I just wanted to update on what is going on and why I haven't posted anything substantial for a couple of months. Disruptions caused by the protests have made both concentration and desire for writing to dissipate. I have started several posts but because circumstances have affected concentration I have been slow to finish them. Now that the situation has calmed down, I hope to get back into the rhythm of posting again!

At the same time, there is another reason for my lack of posting that is less dramatic than a popular uprising. I have started work on a novel that I hope to have finished by the end of the year, and much of my writing energy has been taken up by it. I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that it is a novel based on the experiences of the early Asian immigrants to the US. It is something of a historical narrative framed and told through fictional characters. So far, I have completed the first six chapters and I am hoping to self-publish the work before 2014. In┼čallah!