While reading through several different entries on your blog I noticed that while you seem to have frustration toward non-Asian people who don't know how to interact with Asian Americans, you also seem to have a disdain for people with "yellow fever" or who are caught up in the Korean wave. What do you consider a normal balance between having no clue about Asians and having a creepy obsession with them? Is there some sort of normal or appropriate level of interest in Asian culture?
The Korean likes your question so much that it jumped the line. The Korean likes it because it really goes to the heart of appreciating different cultures, of what to do and what not to do.
First, you have the Korean exactly pegged. He is very annoyed by people who do not know how to deal with Asian Americans. He also finds blatant yellow fever to be vile. The Korean's stance is not idiosyncratic to himself -- this is generally resonant with prevalent Asian American attitudes. These two stances appear to be opposite of each other, because one appears to be about knowing too little while the other appears to be about knowing too much. So maybe a middle ground is the way to go?
Actually, no. What appears to be two opposite things is actually two different manifestations of the same root cause, and it is that root cause that Asian Americans find annoying. The name of that root cause is "objectification."
Here, the Korean is using the term "objectification" to mean treating a person like a non-person or a half-person. This is the incessantly recurring reality for Asian Americans: instead of being treated as a whole person, they are treated as an abstract representation of their ethnicity. We may breathe, walk and talk like real persons, but we are not quite a real person like white Americans are real.
Let us start with the cluelessness with Asian Americans part. In one of the post popular posts in AAK! history, the Korean wrote:
Why is the question annoying? It is annoying because when a clueless person insists on asking "Where are your parents from?" to an Asian American, it becomes clear that the person is fixating on the ethnicity of the Asian American above all else. The many other possible interests -- the human interests -- of that Asian American are ignored and buried under the person's ethnicity. That Asian American might like Tupac, enjoy Russian literature and have a strong opinion on balancing the federal budget. No matter. She will be defined by her parents' country of origin, because the questioner cannot get past her looks. In the eyes of the questioner, she is no longer a person with real experience, real emotions -- she is an object, a representation of her ethnicity, a scale-model of "Asian-ness."Do not ask "Where are you from?" to an Asian person unless you are reasonably certain that s/he is outside of his/her American hometown. If the Asian answers, say, "Los Angeles", do not follow up with "where are you originally from?" or "where are your parents from?" Our precise ethnicity is none of your fucking business.
Here is another example that the Korean wrote:
Throwing out one or two pieces of meager Asian language vocabulary to an Asian American is doubly insulting. It signifies not only that the the verbiage-thrower sees the Asian American's ethnicity above and beyond all else, but also that the thrower thinks offering an ethnicity-specific magic word will somehow cause a friendly reaction.Do not say "gonnichiwa" to an Asian person in America ... On second thought, don't say any Asian phrase to any Asian person, unless you are at least conversational in the language. It's the 21st century, people. We are no longer impressed by your amazing ability to say "hello".
More after the jump.
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This point dovetails into the yellow fever part. The Korean is on the record saying that he considers the relationship questions to be annoying and stupid. The reason why they are annoying and stupid is because most of them are of the following sort:
(This is a real email that the Korean received.) The Korean's response is: How the fuck would I know? The Korean and William's girlfriend are total strangers. All we have in common is the fact that we are two people of the same ethnic group that has some 80 million members worldwide. That is enough to have some telephatic mindmeld under which all individual preferences are revealed?Dear Korean,
I am currently dating a 20 year old full Korean born in Korea but living in the United States. I would like to know, what is a word or phrase I could call her that is would have a special meaning to her, something cultural I could say that when she heard it, she would know how much she means to me?
- William C.
This is the same theme that appears over and over and over and OVER AND OVER again whenever a goddamn relationship question hits the Korean's inbox. The Korean has no way of knowing what your Korean classmate meant when he brushed your hand as he passed by. He doesn't know what that Korean guy would like to receive for his birthday. He does not know if your Korean boyfriend really meant his words when he said, "I want to break up." He does not know if the Korean guy you are interested in likes an innocent-girl-look or a slutty-girl-look. He does not know why your Korean girlfriend would not talk to you anymore.
(The Korean did not come up with these examples of stupidity -- these are all from the real questions that the Korean received.)
Please, stop with these idiotic questions! We are not some anthromorphosized Ali Baba's cave where if you just yell, "Open, Sesame!", we will suddenly fall in love with you. We -- Koreans, Korean Americans, Asian Americans -- are people. The males of our people like the same things that males of all people like -- we like some combination of hot looks, big boobs, nice ass, intelligent mind, vibrant energy, scintillating charm and the like. The females of our people like the same things that females of all people like -- they like some combination of hot looks, ripped muscles, tight ass, sharp wit, sensitive heart, listening ears and the like. We are not some kind of an unholy cross between a jack-in-the-box and a pinata such that if you turn the crank just right, the box pops open and candies fall out.
The annoyance advances to creepiness when the objectification does not merely come from ignorance or poor rhetorical skills, but arises out of a deliberately considered choice expressed in carefully thought-out words. Here is, bar none, the creepiest yellow fever email that the Korean has ever received in the four years of AAK! history.
Ugh. Just copy/pasting that email was retch-inducing.Hello,
Before I ask my very vague and general question, I thought I may write briefly about myself so as to give you a lit of bit of context.
I am a male in my early 20s living in Vancouver, Canada. I am a second-generation Canadian of Italian/German descent. Yes, my grandparents did some terrible things during WWII. I am currently a student of political science and philosophy. I am soon to begin my graduate studies. My masters thesis is a treatise on how much a liberal democratic society should concede to ethnocultural minority groups. I am a strong supporter of Canada’s official multiculturalism, and a passionate theoretical defender of liberal pluralism. This stuff is my area of expertise. After finishing my MA, I plan on attending law school and enjoying a long and lucrative career as a criminal defense lawyer.
Despite my own liberalism, I am increasingly disillusioned and skeptical with and of Western culture and individualism. I am attracted to a more traditional value system and a more communitarian outlook on life.
This brings me to my other little obsession, besides obscure political philosophy: East Asian culture, particularly Korean culture. I am fascinated by Korean culture and customs. Most of all, I really like Korean women.
At this point, I only date East Asian women. I would rank my national preference in the order of Korean, Japanese and then Chinese.
My ex-girlfriend was a Korean woman who was born in Canada. I would describe her enculturation as torn between Western and Korean. We were together for a long time, but eventually parted ways. I then went on the market for a more “pure” Korean girlfriend experience.
Recently, I have started dating an entirely adorable Korean woman. She is living in Vancouver on a temporary work visa and has only been here four months. Her English is limited – her sentence structure and choice of vocabulary too cute to handle at most times. She is two years my senior. Prior to coming to Canada, she lived in Japan for a year and learned Japanese. She “loves” Japanese culture and considers herself “half Korean, half Japanese" even though she is 100% Korean.
I am constantly trying to learn new Korean phrases, we watch Korean dramas together, I call her “chagiya,” she is impressed at my knowledge of Korean culture and politics, and my parents love her. I constantly stress my profound respect of Korean traditions to her. Perhaps most importantly, I buy her lots of cute presents.
I’ve gone on and on, so what’s the point? My point is that I would sooner rather than later like to settle down with a Korean girl who was not born in Canada. So I would like your input on 1) my chances, 2) general attitudes toward white dude/Korean girls.
My good friend shares my “Yellow Fever,” also has a Korean girlfriend. Him and I regularly bring our girlfriends out to the Korean pubs in downtown Vancouver. We are very well treated in them. ... [TK: Rest of the email is some meaningless additional questions, and is omitted.]
"TF" holds himself out to be an intelligent person, and his writing and his attitude seem to be carefully considered -- which takes the creepiness quotient through the roof. The vileness of TF's email comes from the way in which he reduces his (ex and current) girlfriends to a series of concepts. To TF, his girlfriends are not humans. They are not wooed for their humanity -- they are pursued for what they represent, the "traditional value system" and "communitarian outlook of life" (which apparently are better representated by Korean women than Chinese and Japanese ones, because hey, all Korean women are exactly the same, right?) If a woman is not a faithful representation of such concepts, she is discarded because of her "impurity." TF's preferred choice of companionship is not a fully grown adult woman, but a doll representing an abstract concept who -- which -- speaks in broken, infantile English that does not allow the full expression of her true intelligence and emotions. And to keep her happy, all it takes is to feed her with occasional chagiya ("honey") and "cute presents."
Needless to say, this is creepy as shit. Having a blow-up doll as a girlfriend would be less creepy. At least boyfriend of a blow-up doll cannot hide from the world the fact that his girlfriend is no more than a latex shell filled with ambient air and wishful projections. But boyfriend of an objectified Asian woman can go around pretending (or worse, like TF seems to be, actually believing,) that he is a champion of racial harmony and cross-cultural understanding.
Having said all this...
What, then, is the appropriate way of dealing with culture? Strenuously avoiding any discussion of culture for fear of offending others is not the answer. Cultural differences are real, and such differences are far too important and far too fascinating not to discuss. In fact, any intellectually curious mind would likely gravitate toward the question of culture in some form or another. Then how should that curious mind approach the question of culture with people of a different culture?
She can do so by keeping this fundamental principle in mind: Culture is no more than people's responses to the reality, accumulated over time. Culture is not something that fell from the sky. Culture is not something that dictates people's every move. Instead, culture is a dynamic, rational set of reactions to the reality that a group of people has faced and is facing. This necessarily means that at the center of culture, there are people -- humans. And if you are also a human, you can understand the culture of a certain group of people by understanding the reality faced by that group.
Some reality is universal. The sun and the moon rise everywhere in the world, so all human cultures assign a high level of significance to the sun and the moon. A person is born from another person everywhere in the world, so all human cultures assign a high level of significance to the parent-child kinship. But then, some reality is quite particular. In a reality in which starvation has been frequent, people greet each other with "Did you eat?" to mean "Hello" like Koreans do. In a reality in which a diverse group of people cannot agree upon a single code of ethics, people will increasingly rely on a vast, technical set of laws as the exclusive source of right and wrong -- like Americans do. And for those people who do not perceive the particular reality, such cultural difference may appear beyond comprehension.
In this sense, understanding a different culture means understanding a different reality, and understanding how humans -- rational, normal humans just like you and I -- react to that reality. It is an exercise that requires imagination, with which one can step into the middle of a different reality and imagine how you and your family might respond to that reality, how such responses would look like when accumulated over a long period of time. Truly, this is the only way to understand any culture. Any other way can only lead to no more than superficial understanding -- in fact, it only leads to culturalism.
If you wish to know how that kind of deep, internal understanding would look like, the Korean would highly recommend visiting I'm No Picasso, one of the finest expat blogs in Korea. The blog has been gradually gaining recognition, because of (among other reasons) its proprietor's ability to see and describe Koreans as humans, not as human-like phantoms whose actions are dictated by mysterious and incomprehensible culture. (For example, one salient feature of INP is that her students are referred to by their names -- Korean names, not the made-up English ones -- and are painstakingly given individual descriptions.) Instead of stopping at outward looks of Korean men and write them off with the blithe, "Oh that's their culture," INP notes: "Remember -- I work at an all boys' middle school. My daily life is a veritable meditation in Korean masculinity, in its blossoming (and possibly most potent) stages." That Korean men have the same hormones that makes them masculine just like any other men should not be a huge revelation. But somehow such common-sense idea often gets lost in a discussion about "culture" that does not feature the people underlying the culture, and it takes an insightful and empathetic person like INP to remind people of that.
Let us finally answer the question: Is there a normal level of interest in Asian culture? Hell no! Asian culture is as fascinating as any culture, and you can spend your entire life analyzing it. You just have to remember that the carriers of Asian culture are people also.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.