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Cultural Exchange: A confrontation exposes racial attitudes

A young African American teacher and an older Korean man are involved in a dispute on a bus. The reaction is a reminder of how foreigners are viewed in South Korea.

September 11, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • A cellphone camera caught a confrontation on a Seoul bus between an African American and a Korean.
A cellphone camera caught a confrontation on a Seoul bus between an African… (YouTube.com, YouTube.com )

Reporting from Seoul — — There it was in the papers and online, being debated and second-guessed: an ugly public faceoff exposing the fragile social fault line that lurks just beneath the surface in South Korea — a society that is slowly, almost painfully, becoming more multicultural.

In an incident caught on videotape, a young African American schoolteacher threatened and then shoved an older Korean man he thought had insulted his race. The unsettling footage, recorded with a cellphone camera, shows the clearly agitated American leaning into the face of a 61-year-old.

"Shut up," he yells in a profane outburst. "You see these rocks?" he says, showing his fists, before starting a brief shoving melee aboard a public bus.

Versions vary over what started the fight last month. One bystander reported that the 24-year-old teacher had been talking to a Korean female companion when confronted by the elderly man, who demanded to know why the woman was with a black man. Others say the American was speaking too loudly.

"I felt offended when the man in the seat said 'Shut up,'" the teacher later told police. "And while I couldn't understand the Korean that followed, I felt he was disparaging black people."

The American, who faces assault charges, has admitted he was wrong to shove him and said he wants to apologize. And this week, another African-American teacher here told the Korean press that he was ordered off a public bus without cause by a driver – as passengers snickered – an insult he thinks is related to the earlier fracas.

The fight was widely covered here, with one English-language paper carrying the headline "Foreigner's ruckus on bus causes online uproar." The article described the teacher with language that might be viewed as playing on racial stereotypes, terming him a "dreadlocked man, wearing a baggy blue shirt and a backwards baseball cap."

On Korean-language Internet sites, many called for swift punishment. Though there are few guns in South Korea and the incident lacked the bloodshed that might have played out in other places, for many it was still unsettling.

"Why are these people acting in such way in a foreign country?" asked one. Others reserved judgment. "I've seen many cases where Koreans act rudely to foreigners, staring at them as if they were some amusement," one commented. "Let's look at ourselves and think of the foreigner, a black man living in Korean society. He probably has to endure a lot of stress."

The incident was also debated among Westerners here, where some have called for the teacher to be deported. "There's no place like home: Some people never should have left," wrote one blog reader. Another added: "Fine him for assault; then kick him out. Simple."

But blogger Michael Hurt, who is a mix of Korean and African American ancestry — suggests that the criticism of the teacher in "the court of popular opinion" was based on his race.

"Well, there we saw it — an angry black man, yelling and scaring … everybody. Surely he just got up and started attacking people for no apparent reason, because that's what scary black men do, right?" Hurt wrote. "Never has there been a discussion — in general — of the fact that black folks like myself get harassed DAILY on subways and buses and trains, but THAT never becomes an issue; no Korean thinks to flip on their cell phone to start making YouTube videos. I don't condone this young man's type of behavior. BUT I UNDERSTAND IT."

Many foreigners understand it. They don't have to be black, just something that routinely brings uninvited scrutiny: being a "foreigner," the dreaded f-word used here to lump everyone here who's not Korean.

Newspapers trumpet the fact that South Korea is becoming more multicultural. Their evidence: The nation of 50 million now includes 1.2 million outsiders — mostly Westerners recruited to teach English in Korean schools.

But tensions and misunderstandings persist. Some Koreans rightly criticize the influx of Western teachers who snap up jobs at higher salaries than natives merely because of their non-Korean face — one that apparently exudes English competency — rather than superior teaching skills.

One baffled African American teacher wrote in a newspaper about the Korean store owner who — apparently coming into close contact with a black person for the first time — innocently took the teacher's arm and tried to rub the blackness off her skin.

In 2009, a foreign professor of Indian descent, while traveling on a bus with a Korean woman, was accosted by a middle-aged Korean man who hurled racist slurs and was charged in the case.

Spurred by the 2009 incident, lawmakers are considering legislation that will provide a detailed definition of discrimination by race and ethnicity and impose criminal penalties.

For many foreigners, Seoul's notoriously abrupt public spaces remain a minefield, a realm of often too-few smiles where pedestrians rarely apologize for or even acknowledge accidental brushes or outright collisions. Speaking in English, my Chinese-born wife and a Korean friend were once scolded on a bus by a woman who insisted that they were in Korea and "by law" should be speaking Korean.

Who knows what set off the recent bus fracas? Maybe the teacher and his Korean friend were talking too loudly in English. An Australian here believes that in crowded places, conversations in foreign languages often seem louder than they are.

Maybe so — but as Americans know all too well, the potholed road to multiculturalism is lined by kangaroo courts of popular opinion.

john.glionna@latimes.com

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