Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Writing about 'prejudice against intermarriage'... in 1988 and 1998

One wonders what sparked off the writing of this April 1, 1988 column in the Korea Times (click to enlarge):

There are some fun arguments there, such as saying that marriage to foreigners shows that Korea is "becoming an international, advanced nation," and that marrying a westerner will lead Korean women to get "the best one can out of life." It's also good to know about the possibility of "healthy, tan colored, highly intelligent offspring." My, how sensitivities when it comes to writing about race have changed in 26 years.

Reading his description of the qualities Korean women possess reminded me a little of the way they were written about in this book from 1950, though he doesn't go quite as far as to describe them as "the earthly reflection of heavenly feminine beauty."

His description of such attitudes being due to "unproductive relationships between U.N. soldiers and Korean women" in the 1950s gets close to truth, but it was, in fact, such relationships which had occurred constantly ever since that time which tended to raise the ire of Koreans. As Bruce Cumings described it in this book, "the social construction [by American men] of every Korean female as a potential object of pleasure for Americans" as "the most important aspect of the whole relationship and the primary memory of Korea for generations of young American men who have served there." For those who were witness to that aspect of the relationship, the memory remained as well.

This New York Times article from 1998 describes attitudes as being quite similar:
Interracial relationships are a sensitive issue in many countries, but particularly so in South Korea. Such romances offer a window into the society, for they touch some of the most sensitive nerves in the Korean psyche -- relating to national identity, to attitudes toward foreigners and to ideals about the purity of women.

"I'd like to settle down with my girlfriend, and I wonder if her family would ever accept me," mused Frank A. Dressler, a 36-year-old American who has been going out with a Korean woman in Seoul for two years. "Her family still doesn't know I exist."

To be sure, the family did once get an inkling, and the reaction was not promising. The parents locked the girlfriend in the home for 10 days, telling her to call in sick at her job. Then they alternated interrogations with lectures.

"They said, 'There will be no mixing blood in our family,'" recalled the woman, who insisted that she not be identified. They warned her that any romance with a foreigner would not only ruin her own marriage prospects but would also make it more difficult for her brother and sister to marry. [...]

The sensitivities have become more visible in part because South Korea has the American troops and in part because thousands of other young Westerners have come here, often working as English teachers. Most of them are young, single and male, unfamiliar with South Korean customs and thrilled to be surrounded by what they perceive as throngs of gorgeous and eligible young women.
It's interesting to see that English teachers got a mention, but then even a year earlier they had been written about in the Kukmin Ilbo by current Democratic Party leader Kim Han-gil, who said that "the reason white men really like Korea is to chase after Korean women," and argued that "[t]he seriousness of the problem with unqualified white English instructors, however, is that they are personally penetrating each home of our society's middle class under the pretext of English conversation study."

Mind you, even in 1998, it's stated that things are improving:
"It used to be pretty bad -- I'd get things thrown at me if I were dancing with a Korean girl," said Peter Keusgen, a 29-year-old Australian stock analyst who has spent most of the last six years in South Korea. "Coming from that low base, Korea's come a long way. People are much more accepting now."
No doubt there have been far more changes in attitudes in the 16 years since that article was written as compared to the ten years between it and the Korea Times column.


daeguowl said...

I wonder what happened to Steve and Frank. Did they end up marrying Korean ladies? Are they still in Korea?

daeguowl said...

Also wondering how the Bongo truck got its name... ;)

matt said...

Ha! A post that should be written... Let me get on that before too long.