You’r black so that makes you a monkey
A note to the reader
This article is not meant to defame or bad mouth anyone or any country. It is meant only to report experiences of a fellow traveler. What you make of it is up to you and your comments are gladly welcomed.
The other day we visited the hermitage and I have to say it was quite beautiful. It was relaxing, there was some chanting by some monks and Koreans and foreigners alike were there to see what the place had to offer.
This is my second trip in Korea and this was one of the many beautiful places to explore and enjoy the picturesque view. It is a Buddhist hermitage that was used by soldiers during the Japanese invasions in 1592-98. Although the temple was renamed several times, today it is known as the Hyangiram temple here in Yeosu. We spent the day exploring about and going to different parts of the large area. We had had our adventure and set out to leave.
We got in the car and approached the money collector for the parking lot. I rolled my window down for a friendly smile and chatter. To which he responded by calling me a monkey.
For a second or so I thought I heard him wrong but by looking at the stunned expressions on everyone’s face, it was so. And it just reminded me again about one of the things I hate most about Korea: the blunt racism that is portrayed as if it was a normal conversation and ignorance that has yet to change.
I say has yet to change because from what I have experienced most parents make no effort in educating their children about the many different ethnicities around the world. Or that your appearance, not meeting the norm of the usual light skin, is classified as less than. Calling anyone a monkey is classifying them as less than human.
Perhaps I should elaborate as to the origin of the “less than” mentality. Korea was an agrarian society not too many decades ago. As the “industrial revolution” for lack of a better word came, farming became more of a chore and less of a necessity but of course not for everyone. As a result, those that did not move with the change right away and a lot still haven’t, are/were seen as less than. Why?
Because they spent more time in the sun.
I know it sounds stupid but as my experience here comes into play, it doesn’t surprise me. They were the farmers. They spent/d more time in the sun because farming is their way of feeding the family but because they have/had dark skin, they are made fun of. Evidence?
In a few of my classes I have a few students that are darker than the average Korean and in every one of these classes, the student is an outcast. Does this excuse the ignorance? I think not. The world is changing and the doors are opening to the Koreans as it has been for many parts of the world but for some reason, you find little change in the expression of a Korean when faced with a foreigner in the outskirts of the major cities. The expression is still a long stare, sometimes open mouth or noticeable sound and occasionally an annoying “hello” after such expressions. More Evidence?
In 09 when I first came to Korea my boss told another Teacher that he had a hard time finding a white Teacher so he had to settle for hiring a black one, me. I find this silly and I think you might too. However I didn’t find that interesting or even offensive just ignorance at its best. But the next story is what I found even more fascinating because it shed a light on just how ignorant and how the embracing of foreigners in terms of looks will take longer than in hospitality in Korea.
A gentleman I met in Seoul while teaching in a nearby city in 09 told me this story. He had been in Korea for 3 years and spoke and understood Korean well. He was taking the bus to another city one day and his seat was next to a father and son.
The son was a young boy curious about the gentleman’s hairy arms. He said when he passed by them, the son even reached and touch him just to feel his arm hairs. And when he asked the father why his arms were so hairy, the father responded that he was just a foreign monkey.
Offended by this, the gentleman responded in Korean that that is not a proper thing to teach his son. The man’s face went red. And a few minutes later he grabbed his son and walked off the bus.
I am not not sure if this story is true but I have no reason to doubt the gentleman.
A more comical incident (comical because it was children who know no better) was when I first arrived at my school in 09. It was literally chaos at the school because students were running around screaming “kumpa” (Korean for gorilla) although I look nothing like a gorilla I like to think lol. I found this highly hilarious yet someone else would have been offended perhaps. What was more hilarious to me was the few children who were not running around like headless chickens running into each other.
One of them walked up to me, stared me in the eyes, grabbed my hand and tried to rub the darkness off my skin. She then looked at her hand to see if the supposed paint that covered my brown skin had rubbed off then walked back to where her friends where sitting. So, being the jester that moments like this trigger in me and perhaps to learn her the stupidity of her actions, I walked back to were she had returned and whispering to her friends, grabbed her hand while gazing at the surprised look on her face, rubbed it like she did mine, looked at my hand and walked back to where I stood by the Director of the school.
The student could not stop laughing. Her English name was Sally and in the year I worked there, was one of my favorite students.
My Director too was quite amused.
Because of moments like the ones I have mentioned above. Does it mean that we as a people are deevolving and becoming more ignorant in an information age. Or, that we are simply failing to let go of our prejudices because after all, the world reinforces them in so many ways? I cannot answer these questions. They are outside the scope of this article but I can say this.
Koreans are some of the most hospitable, loving and giving people you will come in contact with. Take cultural differences into consideration and come with an open mind. You will meet some that will test you in ways you have not been tested before. You will go through emotions.
You will hate the country and the taxi drivers that run over red lights, you will love it and the people that go out of their way to give you directions, invite you to share a meal with them, drive you to beautiful places just so you can feel welcomed and happy in their country. Through out these emotions however, don’t forget who you truly are, the loved, kind, and beautiful soul that you are.
You are in a foreign land and many others here with you that with time become family, seek them out in hard times and share your strife. It helps in adjusting in Korea or any other country for that matter.
Open your mind and embrace the good and the perceived bad.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please leave a comment below. In fact if you are in Korea teaching abroad and want to share your experience, join and post your article here.